Limiting the authority of county health officers

Here is a very quick civics lesson: We do not live in a technocracy. We live in a constitutional republic, where elected officials that make decisions are accountable to the public and can be replaced by voters in the next election. We are not ruled by unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats.

This, of course, leads to a much-needed effort in the Indiana General Assembly to limit the authority if local health officers, placing the final say with elected officials directly accountable to the voters. This effort has led to an anti-democratic backlash by people who do not trust their neighbors to make the right decisions about who to place in authority:

“Our local commissioners and local government officials are politicians with agendas. They don’t have the expertise to make those types of decisions. Decisions about the health of our community should be made by doctors and no one else.”

You can see two versions of the article here and here.

The authority to close businesses, issue stay-at-home orders and implement mask mandates should rest with elected officials, not unelected bureaucrats. Obviously elected officials should listen to medical experts and take their advice seriously, and many times the policy recommendations of county health officers should be followed. Many of the measures implemented to slow the spread of COVID-19 were wise. But the ultimate authority in these decisions should be someone who is accountable to the people.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown a weakness in our laws, especially as it relates to emergencies. We want the executive branch to be flexible in dealing with a fast-moving, dangerous situation. But we also need to keep guardrails in place to prevent that authority from being abused and to ensure that the authority to pass laws ultimately resides in the proper place. The legislature must strengthen those guardrails.