Nothing makes government grow like a crisis. People get scared, politicians respond to that fear with promises that the state will step in and make everything better, and government ends up larger and more powerful. The pandemic of COVID-19 coronavirus threatens a world-wide wave of sickness, but it's the healthiest thing to happen to government power in a very long time. As it leaves government with a rosy glow, however, our freedom will end up more haggard than ever.
"You can look at it as socialized medicine," Rep. Ted Yoho (R–Fla.) said on Tuesday about White House proposals to have the federal government foot the bill for uninsured COVID-19 patients. "But in the face of an outbreak, a pandemic, what's your options?"
Yoho isn't the only Republican to have found a new place in his heart for government control of healthcare; obviously, the Trump administration is on-board, too. During Senate testimony, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Robert Kadlec, who coordinates the department's COVID-19 efforts, floated the idea of treating virus patients as disaster victims eligible for federal funds.
What else can you do "in the face of an outbreak, a pandemic" that has, so far, resulted in an estimated 94,000 cases and 3,200 deaths worldwide (though the numbers continue to grow)? You could, I suppose, rely on the same not-yet-entirely government-dominated health system that deals with influenza outbreaks every year. In the 2019-20 flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention our long-time viral enemy has, so far, infected 32 million Americans, sent 310,000 to the hospital, and killed 18,000.
That's not to say that COVID-19 isn't serious, or that people aren't suffering from its effects. But we forget about our annual wrestling match with a deadly disease, the flu, while freaking out about the emergence of a virus that is frightening mostly because of its novelty, despite any evidence that we're inadequate to the challenge.
Fear is the key here to Yoho's sudden love for socialized medicine, as well as other panicked proposals for the government to somehow save us from the pandemic. Fear is a survival characteristic, but it makes us vulnerable to the impulse—or demand—that we surrender control to somebody else.
"All animals experience fear—human beings, perhaps, most of all. Any animal incapable of fear would have been hard pressed to survive," wrote economic historian Robert Higgs, the author of Crisis and Leviathan (1987), a book-length examination of how bad times drive government to grow in power and scope. "The people who have the effrontery to rule us, who call themselves our government, understand this basic fact of human nature. They exploit it, and they cultivate it. Whether they compose a warfare state or a welfare state, they depend on it to secure popular submission, compliance with official dictates, and, on some occasions, affirmative cooperation with the state's enterprises and adventures."
Or, as Rahm Emanuel put it in 2008: "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before."
Politicians are human beings, too (allegedly so, anyway) and subject to fear, including fear of being voted out of office by panic-stricken constituents looking for officials to "do something." So, their instinct to exploit a crisis complements their inclination to soothe the fearful by making efforts—even counterproductive ones—to assure the public that everything will be just fine.
That combination of calculation and fright gave us not only a proposal to stick the taxpayers with the medical bills of the uninsured, but also a seemingly pointless cut in the fed funds rate by the Federal Reserve, and proposals for massive federal spending to off-set economic disruptions by the spread of COVID-19.
"The Federal Reserve has become the default doctor for whatever ails the U.S. economy," noted a skeptical Wall Street Journal editorial board. But economic fallout from the virus "relates mainly to the damage to global supply chains and expected limits on travel and commerce as the world tries to mitigate the rates of infection. Nobody is going to take that flight to Tokyo because the Fed is suddenly paying less on excess reserves."
That combination of calculation and fear also gives us Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren's proposal to "enact at least a $400 billion fiscal stimulus package to head off the potential economic impact of coronavirus" on top of "free care for coronavirus" that she also endorses. Will the spending repair disrupted supply chains and put production lines back in operation a minute sooner than demand for goods and services dictates? Not a chance—but Warren probably hoped it would look sufficiently compassionate to those looking for government to "do something" to keep her (now-concluded) presidential campaign on life support.
Public health has long been a playing field for fear and calculation, giving us intrusive laws that sit on the books, waiting to be invoked by the next microorganism to catch the public's attention.
Those laws include a nearly unlimited power to quarantine people suspected of exposure to infectious diseases—and then bill them for the confinement, as has happened to Americans returning from Wuhan, China, where COVID-19 appears to have originated. Never mind that "quarantines of passengers arriving from mainland China appear excessive and are inconsistent with available epidemiologic data," according to bioethicists Lawrence Gostin and James Hodge. Crises breed more government authority, not sensible restraint.
There's usually little pushback because "people are pretty compliant as long as they believe that their best interests are being taken care of," Wendy K. Mariner, a health law professor at Boston University, told The Washington Post.
Like all crises, the COVID-19 pandemic will pass, hopefully with a minimum of illness and death. But it will leave behind a residue of laws, spending, and precedents for future government actions that won't depart in its wake. That's because of what Higgs calls the "ratchet effect," by which each crisis sees government shrink a little, but never back to its pre-crisis status. "Thus, crisis typically has produced not just a temporarily bigger government but also permanently bigger government," he wrote.
So, even after the public panic retreats, the politicians' calculations subside, and COVID-19 becomes more knowable and treatable, we'll be left with the permanent swelling of government caused by the latest crisis.