The value of constitutional principles is realized through laws that impose limits on them. Constitutionally guaranteed mobility rights are restricted by laws that require drivers to be licensed and their vehicles to be registered. Having met these conditions, mobility rights are then further restricted to driving in designated lanes, and progress is impeded by traffic lights, stop signs, turn prohibitions, and countless other rules and regulations that impose limits on the Constitution’s broad mobility right.
Without volumes of laws, rules, and regulations to govern the design, construction, and maintenance of roads, and to prescribe conditions for their use, the benefits of the Constitution’s mobility right would be mayhem. Constitutional principles are ideas, ideas by which a society agrees to live. The purpose of laws is to effectuate a constitution’s principles by imposing limits and restrictions on their use so as to prevent one person’s exercising of a right to interfere with the opportunity for others to exercise that same right. Formulating these laws and writing these regulations is a difficult balancing act; it is the elemental task of legislators.
In democracies this authority rests with societies that delegate it to representatives by way of elections.
Neoliberalism, the economic ideology implemented by Thatcher and Reagan (subsequently embraced by governments everywhere), transformed societies (Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society”) into markets (Bill Clinton’s “It’s the economy, stupid!”). With that the focus of elections shifted from education, healthcare and social justice to jobs, taxes, and deficits. This transformation inevitably gave rise to questions about government priorities: are they concerned with the needs of society or the demands of capital markets?
When the pandemic erupted we applauded health workers for their dedication. We trusted scientists to develop vaccines to neutralize the virus. The task of governments was to devise and implement programs to halt the spread of the virus in the short term, and to distribute the vaccines with efficacy to bring the pandemic to an end. This necessitated changes in how society functions and with that a necessity to restrict some constitutional rights.
Under neoliberalism, as Thatcher reminded us, there is no such thing as society. The focus of governments having embraced neoliberalism was now on markets ahead of society. That in turn eroded society’s trust in their government’s trustworthiness and sense of fairness. Today some members of society see the government’s pandemic-fighting measures not as a helping hand, but as a clenched fist.
The health workers we applauded for their dedicated service last year still deserve our gratitude. Limits imposed on our mobility rights and effective, verifiable vaccination programs are essential measures. But, as neoliberalism has changed our relationship to governments, people are critical of their programs. Neoliberalism has weakened our sense of social responsibility, our understanding of what it means to be a member of a community.
Neoliberalism has eroded society’s trust in government at the precise time when society’s trust in government, the people we have elected, is of utmost importance. Anti this and anti that protests are misguided, but they should not come as a surprise.