Carnegie Mellon University

Encroachment of civil liberties, but not because of public tolerance

May 06, 2020

Encroachment of civil liberties, but not because of public tolerance

By L.H. Patience

Although civil liberties are encroached upon in the United States during times of crisis, it is not due to an excess of tolerance on the part of the general public. In some cases, the United States has not taken certain sensible steps that other countries would because the public is afraid of government overreach. In some cases, the government has simply gone behind the public’s back to implement measures that weaken civil liberties. Often, both have happened during the same crisis.

The current coronavirus crisis gives perhaps the best example of the first phenomenon. While we have not only world-class health services but also world-class medical research institutions, we have been unable to contain the virus in the way that Japan, Singapore, South Korea, or Taiwan have. We implemented shelter-in-place orders one state at a time and have enforced them very inconsistently. We have yet to implement any sort of mandatory testing or proof-of-health pass. While some of this may be attributable to incompetence, much of federal and local governments’ reluctance to implement these measures has been out of fear of public backlash. These fears have proven to be well-founded in the light of increasing protests against even the measures we have implemented already.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when public support for the government and willingness to accept encroachment were at record highs, the Patriot Act represented a somewhat rare open infringement on civil liberties. As the 2000s went on, however, and this willingness quickly evaporated, various government agencies continued with programs to meet the threat of international terrorism away from the public spotlight. When the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program was uncovered in 2013, the public’s reaction shows how unlikely it is that such a program would have been “allowed” by the general public if it was discussed at all in the public sphere.

The combined effect of these two phenomena is pernicious. When crisis situations demand that some sacrifices be made in terms of civil liberties, and the public’s reaction is so often knee-jerk opposition, government officials are incentivized to forego the public forum altogether. While the public may not be morally accountable for their government’s impropriety - the right thing to do is to make the tough sell to the public - it is nonetheless unfortunate that such behavior is effectively encouraged.