Coronavirus Is the Health of the State

The disease will leave behind a residue of laws, spending, and precedents for future government actions.


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The coronavirus pandemic threatens a world-wide wave of sickness, but it's the healthiest thing to happen to government power in a very long time. It'll leave the state with a rosy glow, but our freedom will end up more haggard than ever.

For the sake of their survival, "all animals experience fear—human beings, perhaps, most of all," wrote economic historian Robert Higgs. His 1987 book Crisis and Leviathan examines how bad times cause governments to grow in scope and power. "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."

"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."

And will stimulus 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.

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.

Coronavirus will leave behind a residue of laws, spending, and precedents for future government actions. That's because of what Higgs calls the "ratchet effect," by which the aftermath of 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 coronavirus becomes more knowable and treatable, we'll be left with the permanent swelling of government caused by this latest crisis.

Written by J.D. Tucille. Voice-over by Katherine Mangu-Ward. Motion graphics and thumbnail illustration by Lex Villena. You can read the full article that this video is based on here.

Visual credits: 3D Statue Model by jerryfisher (CC BY 4.0), ID 55403234 © Destina156 |, Ashleigh Nushawg School of the Americas Protest (CC BY 2.0) 3D Hand Model by quangdo1700 (CC BY 3.0) Procedural Metal Texture by Zantique (CC-BY)

Soundtrack: "11" by Lex Villena