Joe Biden has said that he will shut the country down to prevent the spread of the virus if "the scientists" tell him to.
Such a pledge is remarkable for at least three reasons.
First, it displays a lack of understanding of the Constitution-conferred powers of the office Biden is seeking (an accusation, to be sure, often also directed against his opponent).
There is, of course, nothing in the nation's Constitution permitting the executive to "shut down" the nation (or to even issue a mask mandate, for that matter). Constitutions, including the one cobbled together at Philadelphia in 1787 by some rather farsighted gentlemen, exist largely to do the opposite--limit the power of those who govern by telling them what they can't do.
One is reminded by this of what Harry Truman reportedly said about his successor in the Oval Office: "He'll sit here and he'll say, 'Do this! Do that' And nothing will happen. Poor Ike--it won't be a bit like the Army."
At least Eisenhower (and perhaps Trump) had the excuse of having never held elected office before, but ignorance of the powers of the presidency is more difficult to fathom in a fellow who spent eight years only a "heartbeat" away from it and now cites that experience as a primary qualification for elevation.
Those who claim that Donald Trump has authoritarian ambitions might do well to consider the degree of authoritarianism contained in Biden's pledge. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine even the most absolute of feudal monarchs presuming to order a shutdown of all organized life within their realms.
Second, there is the way in which the rationale for Biden's assertion of illegitimate presidential authority actually contains within it an abandonment of the office's legitimate authority (and proper role in a democratic system).
As David Marcus dryly noted in The Federalist, "Biden just told us that as president of the United States he will do whatever the science bureaucracy tells him to do. Then why have a president? What good is he? ... Why have a Constitution? Let's just have a medical board that sends out decrees."
Biden thus vacates the primary purpose of the people's representatives in a representative democracy--to use their judgment to make decisions on behalf of the people (unless you count handing over such decision-making to others as an exercise of such judgment).
In Marcus' words, "If that's how he plans to lead, it's not leadership. If that's how he plans to govern, it's not governance. He just told us exactly why there is absolutely no reason to vote for him."
Finally, there is the strange and unfortunate (but hardly exclusive to Biden these days) tendency to blindly defer to "the scientists" in such a way as to demonstrate misunderstanding of science itself.
Even were we to somehow make the scientists the absolute authority in American life at the expense of our Constitution and liberty and system of self-government, it would still be unclear to whom precisely that would refer.
Which scientists? The ones with impressive credentials who supported the draconian lockdowns? Or the ones with impressive credentials who didn't? Or maybe the ones who wanted to prohibit mass gatherings but then later changed their minds if the cause was combating racism?
If there is anything remotely resembling a scientific consensus on a virus that few heard of seven months ago and on the necessity and efficacy of lockdowns as a means of preventing its spread, it is unclear where it can be found.
Not surprisingly at all if you know how science works, what the science was telling us six months ago was much different than what it was telling us three months ago, and different still from what we are hearing now. In reality, the only consistency has been found in the tendency of people to claim that whatever their position happens to be also happens to be the position supported by science (and that the other side's position isn't).
This isn't the fault of science; rather, it is what happens when science is politicized (sometimes even by those fallible human beings known as scientists) and used by politicians seeking to cover their derrieres and shirk their responsibility for making tough decisions by passing the buck to presumably disinterested third parties (called, in this case, scientists).
There are dangers in failing to sufficiently consult experts when formulating public policy, but there are perhaps even greater dangers for a free society in conferring dictatorial powers upon such experts under the guise of public health. Our greatest threat during the pandemic might come not so much from the virus but from the habituation of our people to rule by mandates issued by guys wearing lab coats and toting clipboards.
The (often disputed) science can't by itself tell us what policies to embrace or reject. To the contrary, it is the duty of elected officials to interpret that science, to engage in reasonable risk assessment and to more broadly weigh costs and benefits flowing from different courses of action wherein costly tradeoffs are inevitable.
To do, in other words, those things that Biden has now said he won't.
Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.