"Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.
This is known as ‘bad luck.’”
— Robert A. Heinlein
It is a strange thing, to watch all of the Heinleinian bad luck unfolding in Nevada right now. Our economy continues to limp along, while various special interest groups – at this point left-wing anarchists, language police, and various public employee unions who have no idea whatsoever by whom or by what mechanism they are paid – try their hardest to ensure we remain impoverished as long as possible. Our government continues to trade away the principles and institutions which have made us wealthy and free in the name of a virus which will actually sicken very few, and kill only the tiniest percentage of us.
The veneer of civilization is thin – very thin indeed, and can be lost faster than most people think. It takes a great deal of dedication to maintain it, and the inertia of generations of people used to living free to keep it. But it also takes an understanding of what makes us civilized, or even what that word means. It also takes a government with the trust of the people — trust which is often abused, but has never been so abused as now.
But it also takes organizational structure – structures which required inventing by a historically fortuitous collection of geniuses in the late 18th century – which works within the flawed confines of the human condition. Our system of separation of powers – among our branches of government, between state and federal governments, and between private citizens and their government – was invented and refined by people who understood the corrupting nature of power, and wanted such power constantly checked, limited, and balanced.
The past week has seen a lot of stress testing and abuse of American societal norms and those government structures. Gov. Sisolak continues to hang onto “emergency” powers which allow him to make laws on a whim and force criminal penalties upon those who defy his dictates. The Legislature, when it is called into session, allowed itself to operate with the public locked out of the building (all in the name of safety, of course). How nice it must be for politicians to be able to make their sausage without having to look their constituents in the face.
Whatever problem I have with some of the policies passed into law (and I have many), the idea that major legislation was written in secret, unveiled at the last minute, and then voted on in the middle of the night while cutting major stakeholders (not to mention the public) out of any meaningful conversation is far worse. It’s banana republic type stuff, and should be unacceptable in any American state.
If you want to know why so many people distrust out government, this is it. It was pretty rich when Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro huffily tweeted back at RNC Ronna McDaniel in response to GOP criticism of the irresponsible and dangerous changes to our voting laws that she “would be damned if I’m going to let a partisan hack like you use this pandemic to suppress Nevadans’ right to vote.” Just a few days prior, Ms. Cannizzaro had been caught playing a probably illegal and without-question-unethical shell game with campaign contributions, in order to defeat both donation limits and transparency rules designed to protect the integrity of our elections. If you want us to trust that 100 pages of substantial changes to our elections systems – made over the objections of the secretary of state charged with running those elections – is something we can trust, it just might help if neither the people nor the processes involved in making those changes were so untrustworthy.
It would also help if out state government wasn’t so incompetent in executing the grand plans. I’m glad Gov. Sisolak is finally taking some action to fix his terribly broken unemployment system (after how many months of what – just hoping it would fix itself?), but does anyone at this point think a “strike force” (really?) is actually going to make a difference? And his latest declaration that racism is a public health crisis is far worse than just empty and insulting pandering (although it definitely is that) — it also shows that he understands neither racism nor public health, has no serious interest in actually addressing either one of these legitimate but discrete issues, and cannot be trusted to solve either.
With eroded trust in government institutions, people will (and already are) starting to simply take matters into their own hands. Sometimes that’s a good thing, like the proliferation of school choice options, public and private, now being recognized as an essential escape valve from the tyranny of the would-be monopolists of the teacher’s unions. I also rather enjoy the creativity of conservative and religious protesters who decided to hold a prayer meeting in a casino, where the public gathering rules are less restrictive, even in the face of the government selectively enforcing such rules based on the political ideology of the protest.
But there are great dangers. Just like with prohibition, people will increasingly tire of often arbitrary restrictions on behavior and commerce, and will take their parties and their markets underground. If COVID-19 really is the apocalyptic plague the governor (sometimes) acts like it is, the harder he cracks down, the more difficult it will be to contain as rebels slip through his fingers. And the more arbitrary and senseless the rules are (wearing a mask for the two minutes it takes to be seated at a restaurant and then exposing our faces to all for the next hour, as but one example), the more quickly other, more sensible rules will also be ignored.
As police inevitably become less effective and less present as the result of lower morale, a perceived lack of public support, and excessive restrictions on their ability to keep order, more and more people will simply take the law into their own hands. As University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds often notes, “Ultimately, cops aren’t there to protect the community from criminals. They’re there to protect criminals from the community. Communities dealt with crime for millennia before police were invented, usually with rather limited due process.”
I didn’t vote for President Trump in 2016 in no small part because I believed that were he to be elected, he would embrace authoritarianism every chance he got. And yet here we are in a crisis where his political opponents are angry he hasn’t been more authoritarian by locking down the whole country, and where our governor has adopted unending emergency powers without a peep from “The Resistance.” (Indeed we live in the strangest timeline.)
Instead, Mr. Trump’s federal government is correctly pushing back hard in defense of our most basic principles of freedom. I’m not talking about the lawsuit against our new midnight voting laws (although I’m glad it’ll be vetted in court, since it wasn’t in the Legislature), but rather in bringing to an end a pre-COVID assault on due process.
For years, public universities have been able to hold kangaroo courts against students accused of sexual misconduct. The very idea of this has always been absurd – colleges should leave the handling of crimes to the criminal justice system. But real justice is hard, and why do hard when you can dispense with all of those silly due process rules like the presumption of innocence, a high burden of proof, or the right to confront your accusers with an attorney at your side? There’s no swifter justice than mob justice!
Wielding the power of the purse, the Trump Administration demanded real due process be injected back into these proceedings. While these show trials should be banned altogether, this at least is a start. It’s the sort of thing the ACLU would champion, back before the ACLU went completely insane, sold out to naked partisanship, and came out against these due process protections for people accused of terrible crimes. Because money talks, the Board of Regents in Nevada approved the new rules, and Lady Justice smiled.
It’s sad that it needs to even be said, but here it is – if you don’t believe in such basic concepts as the presumption of innocence, or that someone has a right to confront people who have accused them of crimes, then you’re a bad person who cannot be trusted with power over other human beings. History is littered with the corpses of the victims of governments who dispensed with these civil rights. The time to challenge the erosion of those rights is before we lose them, and before those who advocate against the principles which have made America a shining city on a hill for two centuries gain any more purchase.
Nevada has already had more “bad luck” than we can handle. The solution is up to us — we as Nevadans cannot rely on the federal government to come save us from ourselves. Every new week shows us that COVID is doing more harm to our institutions than to our health, and ultimately if we maintain this unsustainable path, we will lose both and impoverish ourselves both economically and culturally for generations. Whether our political leaders are acting in sincere but misplaced paranoia of a virus, or are cynically exploiting public health concerns for political gain, the damage is and will be the same. It’s time to replace or blunt the power of those leaders who don’t understand the long-term damage they continue to do.
Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at [email protected].