Harsh Shanghai lockdown highlights the strength of the U.S. Constitution

Written by Derek Monson

April 27, 2022

China’s enforcement of a public health lockdown in Shanghai in response to a COVID-19 outbreak reminds us why it is good to be American. Americans of all political and ideological stripes have bemoaned at times the national and local U.S. public health response(s) to COVID-19. Indeed, it is striking that in this moment of polarized division and disagreement on seemingly everything, there has been some consensus that American governments botched the response to the pandemic.

But communist China’s oppressive methods reveal what a truly horrifying pandemic response looks like.

The use of “COVID cages” to block entrance and exit on streets and residential buildings. Installation of electronic door alarms to prevent infected individuals from leaving their homes. Forcibly evacuating families – including noninfected people – from their homes for days so the government can disinfect them. Families suffering from food shortages as a result of the lockdown, with no sign of when it will end.

This is what an unchecked, centralized national government can inflict on its people in the name of “protection.” Contrast this with American government as laid out in the U.S. Constitution: political power intentionally and explicitly decentralized and spread across multiple levels (state and national governments, known as federalism) and branches (legislative, executive and judiciary, known as separation of powers) of government.

James Madison wrote in Federalist 51 about the American form of government:

In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each subdivided among distinct and separate departments. Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people. The different governments will control each other, at the same time that each will be controlled by itself.

In other words, the multilayered complexity of American government that some criticized as hindering the pandemic response early on is the very thing preventing in America what is happening in Shanghai today. Some Americans were burdened by having to work, school and live remotely, but at least we could go to the grocery store when we needed food.

So as Americans and their elected leaders reflect on the lessons of the pandemic and how to best prepare ourselves for the next public health crisis, let’s remember the lessons of communism in Shanghai. Federalism and separation of powers are frustrating at times. Any government action can take an inordinate amount of time; necessary coordination between levels and branches of government can be difficult to achieve; and the system can be hard to understand and navigate.

But remember the alternative. We could have a simple form of government (grounded in simplistic logic and a misunderstanding of human nature) that has the power to lock us in our homes by installing alarms on our doors to make sure we can’t leave and building metal fences on our streets to make sure we can’t drive away.

Freedom of movement, with masks and vaccines, doesn’t seem so bad in comparison.

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