Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Politics of Fear: Is COVID-19 Just The Latest Emergency Justifying Expanded Government Power?

According to economist Robert Higgs: yes.
   In the political response to the Covid-19 pandemic, everything is proceeding just as economist Robert Higgs has foreseen. But that doesn’t make it any easier for him to watch it. “I have an overwhelming feeling that I am reliving a bad experience I’ve lived through several times before, only this time it’s worse,” Higgs says. “I have no doubt that even if the current situation plays out in the best imaginable way, it will leave an abundance of legacies for the worse so far as people’s freedom is concerned.”
   Higgs sees government, as usual, vastly expanding during the crisis, and he’s sure that it will not shrink back to its former scale once the crisis is over. It never does, as he famously documented in his 1987 book, Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government, and in later works exploring this “ratchet effect.”

   “I believe the crisis will produce a net increase in the government’s size, scope, and power,” he says. “That includes regulations. Some may be scrapped, but those that have been set aside in response to the crisis will likely be reinstated after the crisis has waned, because the political forces that caused them to be created in the first place will still exist—same special-interest lobbies, same politicians selling favors to the highest bidder, same capacity to slip anti-competitive clauses into huge statutes, and so forth.” The only way to curtail such overreach, he adds, is to “shrink the power of the state, and it will be a cold day in hell when that happens.”
   It certainly won’t happen any time soon, given the unprecedented shutdown of the economy and abrogation of civil liberties—mostly done with widespread approval, according to public-opinion surveys. It may seem astonishing for Americans to surrender their freedom so willingly, but Higgs isn’t surprised.
   “Americans, for the most part, are so liable to being terrified by government agencies and their kept media that they lose almost all judgment when told that a horrible threat of mass death hangs over them,” he says. “I foresee the worst depression since the Great Depression right around the corner. That alone would be enough to bring forth a host of bad government policies with long-lasting consequences. Many such policies have already been adopted. But much more awaits us along these lines.”


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