Hey! Randy

Crisis and Leviathan, a Review

Posted by heyrandy on May 17, 2008

Crisis and Leviathan, Robert Higgs, 1987, Oxford University Press, New York. 274 pages, end notes.

We all know that government grows larger.  We know that it expands not only its size, but it also expands its control.  It passes new laws.  It creates new taxes that we must pay and increases old taxes.  It is ever proscribing some action and restricting other actions.  It regulates everything.

What causes this expansion?  This is the central question of Higgs’ book.  He answers that question in the title.

Leviathan, from Thomas Hobbes, is the government, especially the national, central government.  Here in the United States we call it the Federal Government.  The term is especially descriptive: a huge monster that consumes all.  It is Higgs’ thesis that government at all levels, but especially at the national level, uses a crisis, real or imagined, genuine or contrived, to grow.

Higgs admits that this does not always explain every aspect of government growth, but it seems to explain the bulk of government expansion.  After surveying various theories of governmental growth, Higgs concludes that no other theory but his own gives a satisfactory explanation of the endless growth of government.

Higgs scheme works like this:  there some crisis, a war (this is especially good as people rally to the flag as at no other time. It is that patriot thing.), natural disaster, economic panic, etc., that requires, really just provides some cover for, government involvement.  Often people expect, if not demand, such actions by their government.  Government usually responds with alacrity.

But this sharp, sudden growth is not such that can be sustained once the crisis is over.  After all, wars do end and floods do recede.  So according to Higgs, the government does shrink back but not to former levels.  There is always more government after the crisis than before the crisis.

Higgs further demonstrates that in legitimate crisises the government is not very careful with the truth.  Since people are willing to tolerate the abridgment of their liberties for The Cause, this is a government’s golden opportunity to give the people that experience.  Government always does.  The lies and propaganda are an essential part of the process.

This Higgs says is why we have draft laws, why FDR could take people’s gold, and why the rationing of the Second World War was tolerated (it really only allowed the government to buy things at below market price, too bad you had to do without.)

These type of practices are not unique to any one administration.  Higgs shows that the Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, and Johnson presidencies were all resticting liberty and raising taxes to further their power.  In the first two administrations and in the first half of FDR’s there was some protection offered by the Supreme Court.  But once the majority of its justices became Roosevelt New Dealers, it was government growth without restriction.

Read this book, and you can see the same gambits and strategy used today.  Only today we have an undefined, endless war on terror.  We have already seen the passage by a willing if, not complicit, congress of draconian laws restricting our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.  We hardly hear a peep of protest.  It would be deemed too unpatriotic.

Higgs closes his book with a list of those alphabetic agencies that restrict so much of what we do.  How did we ever live without them?

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