A highly controversial article in The Atlantic has issued a call for a “pandemic amnesty,” in which the public is presumably supposed to forget about the lives destroyed, the fortunes lost, and the freedoms smashed due to the excesses of emergency governance.
The article’s concluding point sums up the surprising ask:
“The standard saying is that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. But dwelling on the mistakes of history can lead to a repetitive doom loop as well. Let’s acknowledge that we made complicated choices in the face of deep uncertainty, and then try to work together to build back and move forward.”
On a purely emotional level, this is a difficult proposition to even entertain. It reeks of authoritarian excuse-making and proposes to do away with good government altogether. People are not so apt to forget the scale of abuse that occurred. And they deeply desire accountability.
Setting passions aside though, Texans would not be well-served from a policy perspective either if they simply moved on without learning from the mistakes of the past. And from those lessons should come meaningful reform so that such abuse does not so easily reoccur.
In a report published last month—Checking and Balancing Emergency Powers in Texas—Caroline Welton and I identify some of those specific instances of abuse. Here’s a brief excerpt:
“During the height of the pandemic, sweeping emergency powers gave rise to misgovernment on a grand scale, particularly at the local level. In one small but illustrative example, city officials in Cleburne, Texas, prevented a man and his wife from shopping together at an area Walmart, permitting only one to enter the store while forcing the other ‘to wait in the car.’ In another instance, Harris County officials sought to criminalize noncompliance with their authoritarian diktats by levying ‘a fine not to exceed $1,000’ on certain minor infractions. County officials even considered penalizing violators with jail time. Fortunately, a mix of preemption and public outrage prompted officials to abandon course early on; however, the county’s mere entertainment of such a harsh penalty sent a clear message about its ambition and tolerance.”
The remainder of the report documents plenty of other examples of abuse—though as we all know now, there were far too many to catalogue. But the research paper is more than just a collection of grievances; it also proposes a framework to amend Texas’ disaster laws, as found in Chapter 418 of the Texas Government Code. It recommends a variety of policy prescriptions, i.e., enhancing the Legislature’s role in times of extended crisis, limiting state and local executive authority, clarifying state-local roles, etc.
But its central premise is this: We need more and stronger checks and balances in Texas government.
There is, of course, more substance to the research than just that single point; but if there is a main takeaway then it is that Chapter 418 as it exists today is inadequate and should be rewritten to incorporate new checks-and-balances and strengthen existing ones. This point cannot be overstated.
So rather than forget the “complicated choices” that were forced upon us all and pretend like it never happened, let us instead study those mistakes and learn to translate them into meaningful action. So that, in doing so, we might never repeat that history again.