Past Crises Have Ratcheted Up Leviathan. The COVID-19 Pandemic Will Too.

People sometimes regret actions taken hastily during a crisis but find reversing them diabolically difficult.


COVID-19 has plunged the United States into a national emergency. Initial applications for unemployment insurance benefits increased from 211,000 in the first week of March to 6.6 million in the first week of April, to another 5.2 million in the second week of April, and another 4.4 million last week. Real GDP fell by hundreds of billions in the first quarter, with further—and larger—declines sure to follow.

Another emergency has sprung not so much from the disease itself as from the reactions of governments at all levels. The magnitude of these reactions, ranging from mandatory closures of "nonessential" firms to preemptive quarantines of millions of people to massive relief bills to huge bailout measures by the Fed, staggers the imagination. Governments have responded to crises in the past, but never on such a scale in such a brief time.

So far, Congress has approved a total of $2.392 trillion in coronavirus-related spending. The Fed, using different "tools," has injected another $2.3 trillion into the economy.

Although everyone seems to agree that these measures are to be employed only in the short run, until the incidence of the disease has been reduced either by herd immunity or by new medical treatments, no one at the start put together an exit strategy from these extraordinary increases in governments' size, scope, and power. Everything was done on a piecemeal basis from day to day, on the assumption that when an endgame came into view the governments would terminate their crisis actions.

This assumption runs counter to how crisis-borne increases in government's size, scope, and power have played out in the past. The pattern followed since the early 20th century has been quite different. One of us (Robert Higgs) traced this pattern in his 1987 book, Crisis and Leviathan, and worked out the political logic by which such episodes tend to take place. The principal upshot is that the growth of government that attends national emergencies is not surrendered fully when the crisis ends. Instead, a ratchet effect operates whereby much of the crisis-borne growth of government becomes institutionalized in agencies and practices and, more important, in the dominant ideology of political elites and the general public.

As crisis followed crisis—World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the multifaceted turmoil of the Johnson-Nixon years, the 9/11 attacks, the Great Recession that began in 2008—the ratchet effect ensured that government's growth trajectory was displaced upward, time after time. The displacement was not always transparent or immediate, but precedents established in particular episodes reappeared again and again, sometimes after a lag of decades. In this way, government responses to short-run difficulties became lodged in the process by which rapid long-run growth of government became the norm.

People sometimes regretted actions taken hastily during a crisis but found that reversing them was diabolically difficult. As many observers have recognized, nothing is so permanent in government as a temporary agency or an emergency bill. Crises bring into operation new government activities and new scales of spending, taxing, and regulating; they were not intended to be permanent, yet became so by virtue of entrenched special interests and bureaucrats, often backed by congressional sponsors. Act in haste, repent at leisure.

We should be thinking seriously about where all our emergency actions will leave us in the long run. Will the quarantine of millions of people become a precedent? Will broad-scale distributions to the general population without a means test become an enduring public demand even when normal times return? Will the Fed's exchange of trillions of dollars for rotten securities become a lasting feature of its monetary policy?

The ratchet effect operates because of incentives and constraints built into the political and economic structure. But the effect hinges on the underlying assumptions of progressivism, which became the country's dominant ideology during the first two decades of the 20th century. To disable the ratchet effect, people must rouse themselves to think more seriously about the long-run consequences of actions taken hastily in response to national emergencies—and about whether they want to keep their remaining economic freedoms and civil liberties or be content to surrender them one crisis at a time.

NEXT: The Wretched Lives Up to Its Name

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  1. How about we go full Jubilee, and all laws expire every seven years? Then they have to be re-passed. That would keep things a bit more under control.
    Or a constitutional amendment that any executive emergency proclamation expires in 7 days unless approved exactly as proclaimed by the legislature within those seven days?
    And the legislative approval cannot exceed 60 days. After that, the emergency edicts go away.
    I suspect any emergency you can imagine is less frightening than the disaster of the last 60 days of fascist rule.

    1. Why don’t we imagine magical unicorns will descend from the heavens and grant our every wish? About as likely.

      1. Maybe not.

        While I am not sanguine about our future, maybe there are enough pissed off folks *on the edges* of “flyover country” that will work with “flyover country” to severely clip Congress’ and the Executive’s wings this time. I’m not betting on it (see all my other CV19 posts), but maybe we’ll get lucky.

        A quick analysis shows that quarantining MA, NJ, the southern counties of NY, CT and RI would bottle up the 50% of the areas with the highest infection rate. Add Illinois and you’ve got the the states with the greatest number. Throw in DC just because (and since it has the 6th highest infection rate) and you’ve solved one more big problem.

        Sorry, gotta go, the beagle is smelling bunnies.

        1. to be clear, all of CT and RI, it was the southern counties of NY (Rockland and Duchess and south) that I was referring to.

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      2. Tell me more about these magical unicorns.

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    2. I think you mean 50 years = full Jubilee 🙂

  2. idk if Unicorn Abbatoir created the nomer “Cronyvirus” but most.fitting.nomer.ever.

    1. He did…and it was a classic.

  3. “Everything was done on a piecemeal basis from day to day, on the assumption that when an endgame came into view the governments would terminate their crisis actions.”

    Who are these innocents, who assumed that the government would willingly give up power it had granted itself? I need to know. I have a bridge for sale- cheap.

  4. To disable the ratchet effect prohibit government from initiating force.

  5. The only way for people to have a non-Progressive choice is for people to start a new major party that has the same internal structure as constitutional government: separated powers, enumerated scope, and, above all, offsetting powers by which people in the organization limit other people in the organization, making the organization self-limiting.

    I’ve fleshed out this party structure in my book The Constitution Needs a Good Party: Good Government Comes from Good Boundaries. I’ve shown what the people from a good party need to do in office in my book rConstitution Papers: Offsetting Powers Secure Our Rights. For more information please see my author site by clicking on my name above.

    1. Prohibit government from initiating force and it won’t matter who’s in power.

      1. Do I get a pony?

      2. BTW, you keep posting this fantasy as if it were other than complete bullshit.
        Absent a monopoly of coercion, there is no government. Do you understand that?
        Is that a mystery to you?

    2. That’s from the “I want to usue the power of the state to force people to become libertarians, if necessary at gunpoint.” department.

    3. Mr. Anthony,

      We the people have allowed power-hungry politicians to bring this now-fragmenting, declining nation on fire to the banks of the River Styx. They are taking us across its black water to the netherworld from which no great nation returns if we continuing allowing them to do so.

      Yes, we do need a new political party … one dedicated to the vision of our Founding Fathers promoting individual liberty in a context of traditional American ideals and values. If your book does not contain a commitment to employ the principles of the Science of Human Behavior, it suffers from a fatal flaw. The Chinese have adopted that Science with great success to fulfill their own particular goals.

      Meanwhile, we Americans are witnessing the noose of economic and political tyranny tightening around our collective neck. We need a new political party but the right political party.

      See “Tyranny” at … .

  6. I wonder if the new normal is going to include yearly seasonal shutdowns whenever the elites detect a “dangerous” flu or other infectious disease signal.

  7. You can’t prevent the ratchet effect, nor can you reverse what has happened through the political process.

    Peaceful change happens through changing attitudes and changing technologies. Homosexuality was widely tolerated before it was legal. The V-Chip has been made irrelevant by technological advances, and the Clipper Chip didn’t even get off the ground.

    Laws reflect social change, not the other way around. And politicians always take away the maximum amount of freedom they can get away with; long term, it doesn’t matter who you put in power.

    1. Put another way, laws are trailing indicators of the wishes of the population.
      Right now, I’m guessing it will take a year before I can enter a grocery store without a ‘snow-flake’ mask, and I neither own one nor will buy one.
      Black market, delivery, etc; RESIST!

  8. Kasih slow ato nanti kaco

  9. “We should be thinking seriously about where all our emergency actions will leave us in the long run”

    This article itself explains very well “where all our emergency actions will leave us in the long run”.

    Dependent, cowed, and broke.

  10. The best thing to do during days like these is to just enjoy a good post apocalyptic podcast. I recommend Aftermath by Fire Pit Creative Group.

  11. We’re screwed. We already traumatized a generation of people. Worse, even when it becomes obvious we over reacted all they’re gonna say is ‘we had to and we saved lives you ingrate!’

    There’s no way out of this.

    Hope I’m wrong.

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