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Opinion: Whitmer’s executive action is hurting, not helping

Robert Norton

Anyone who has grown up in the Detroit area, as I have, has heard the stories of proud people from all walks of life coming together after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor.

These stories spoke of unparalleled resolve and self-sacrifice. They were tales of everyone pulling together, working long hours, taking on jobs previously unimagined and fashioning a fighting response to combat the Axis powers and literally save the world.

This was what President Roosevelt meant by the “arsenal of democracy.” This was the “sleeping giant” that Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto had awakened and filled with resolve. When America went to war, the world knew it. And when Michigan joined the fight, America felt it.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on "Good Morning America" Friday, April 17, 2020.

But sadly, we must contrast the grit and vitality of Michigan’s fighting spirit in WWII with the confusion and incompetence that characterizes Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s current response to our new, invisible enemy.  We are at war with COVID-19. But instead of putting Michigan in the fight, Whitmer is doing everything possible to keep us out of it.

Across the nation, state governors have issued executive orders to curtail business activity, restrict travel and limit all non-essential services that might place a burden on state infrastructure. Whitmer has done the same.

But Whitmer’s executive order stands apart from all of those issued by other states. It imposes the harshest restrictions and unduly hampers our state economy. At the same time, it is filled with vague and inconsistent directives that spread confusion and doubt. In her eagerness to exert an unprecedented control over the lives of Michigan residents, Whitmer has in fact created bureaucratic and political chaos.

Most strikingly, Whitmer’s executive order breaks ranks with other states by deviating from the federal guidelines for determining what is or is not an essential service or infrastructure. What Michigan needs right now is a clear action plan that inspires confidence, builds trust and seeks to bring out the best in each of us. Instead, what we have is an ever-growing ad hoc list of arbitrary commands that reads more like an account of the governor’s personal likes and dislikes than like an evidence-based and effective pandemic protocol.

How are Michigan citizens expected to follow orders that lack all rhyme or reason? Why does Whitmer think it is too dangerous for us to buy an aloe plant, but not to buy marijuana leaves? Why are allowed to walk in our neighborhoods, but are prohibited from gardening in our yards? Why can we go boating, but only if our boats don’t use a gas motor?

Yet Whitmer's proposals aren’t simply arbitrary. They also make a mockery of the Constitution. Why has the governor declared open season on the Second Amendment rights of gun owners by contradicting federal guidelines and deciding that firearms stores are non-essential? Is that decision in keeping with the nature of her role and power as governor?

We vest our governors with broad police powers for a reason: We need them to be able to take swift action in times of public emergency. But these broad powers come with both prudential and constitutional limits. Whitmer needs to understand the rationale behind and the appropriate limitations on her powers.

She has a duty to refrain from imposing restrictions that unduly infringe on our rights, just as much as she has an obligation to propose clear, narrowly defined and evidentially warranted measures that aim demonstrably and effectively at protecting the vulnerable and benefiting our communities. So far, she has failed on both accounts.

But there is hope that we can turn things around. A new study by the Anderson Economic Group was just recently hand delivered to the governor’s office by the law firm of Butzel Long. This study found that Michigan has already passed the peak of viral infection.

Under Whitmer’s current shutdown orders, Michigan is facing depression era levels of unemployment and economic decline. If she wants to beat COVID-19, she needs to heed the evidence put forward in this study and empower Michigan residents to liberate our state economy and secure sectors of our state for business and commerce. We cannot afford to cower in fear and wait this pandemic out. This state's citizens do not do cowardice well. 

Leaving us sequestered in our homes is the worst use of Michigan's most valuable and most potent weapon: its people. Gov. Whitmer, we’re calling on you: Unleash Michigan’s arsenal once more!

Robert Norton is general counsel of Hillsdale College but expresses these views in his personal capacity.