The United States government has made infringement upon our basic liberties common practice—and this is only getting worse. Our leaders continue to use the COVID-19 pandemic as a justification for nefariously expanding its size and scope.
And this should not be surprising. Many political theorists erroneously portray the historical role of government in American society as one that has expanded slowly to meet the needs of the body politic, doing so at a relatively consistent rate. While most individuals recognize that government expands quicker under some presidents, or even—albeit rarely—shrinks under others, they see the change as a slow and steady increase. Such an approach is not accurate, however, as most of the state’s growth occurs during certain events: crises.
In his Crisis and Leviathan, economic historian Robert Higgs refers to this phenomenon as the “ratchet effect,” arguing that crises provide the opportunity for the government to massively expand. President Barack Obama’s former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel affirmed Higgs’ thesis when he asserted that “[y]ou never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” During times of stability, the state indeed grows at a roughly uniform rate. But, during a crisis, the state justifies rapid expansion with the rationale that expansion is temporarily necessary, just so that the crisis can be adequately handled.
This, of course, is a lie. Once the crisis ends, the state shrinks minimally, but does not return to pre-crisis levels. To quote Higgs: “[A]fter each major crisis the size of government, though smaller than during the crisis, remained larger than it would have been had the pre-crisis rate of growth persisted during the interval occupied by the crisis.” For a pictorial depiction of the ratchet effect, see Higgs’ diagram below in which he compares the rate of change of size of the state during a stable period (the straight line with a positive slope) versus during a time of crisis (the large leap in the rate of change, followed by the meager downsizing of government).
The incentive to grow the state in response to crises is fueled by the government’s desire to fearmonger and employ scare tactics to heighten the public’s paranoia. Examples throughout history include: the Federal Reserve, which was intended to combat an overblown fear of free banking following the Panic of 1907; the Espionage Act during World War I; the minimum wage and Social Security as responses to the Great Depression; and the Patriot Act and the War on Terror in reaction to the terrorist attacks on September 11th. The state has a habit of holding on to expansive powers assumed in crises. And in his review of Higgs’ book, journalist Daniel McCarthy explains that the American government has unfortunately fulfilled one of James Madison’s prophecies, which is that it has embraced “the old trick of turning every contingency into a resource for accumulating force in government.”
COVID-19: Expanding the State at the Expense of Liberty
The COVID-19 crisis, which has been marked by government consolidating previously inconceivable powers, will be no exception to the ratchet effect.
Granted, COVID-19 is a public health crisis, and it is not just “another flu.” However, the harm comes not in acknowledging COVID-19’s seriousness, but rather in allowing government officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci to use scare tactics to convince Americans that the state must intervene and prescribe a one-size-fits-all approach by foisting a shutdown on everyone. These policies are enforced regardless of whether the person in question is a physically fit 20-something living by himself or an octogenarian with multiple comorbidities—showing Fauci’s disregard for individual responsibility and calculated risk. The level of scientific knowledge possessed by figures like Fauci is also rather dubious, given that over the course of the public health crisis, he has done everything from say that “there’s no reason to be walking around with a mask” to claim that “it just makes common sense” that wearing two masks would be more effective than wearing one.
The government has also used collectivist platitudes, such as “we’re in this together,” to justify mask mandates and lockdowns—neglecting to acknowledge the fact that most of those who truly wish to avoid COVID-19 at all costs could do so without irreparably damaging the lives of countless others. Many Americans have looked at the non-negligible risk COVID-19 presents and decided that the virus, while certainly a risk, is not the risk that should be avoided at the expense of all else. A substantial number of individuals have therefore decided to prioritize mental health, cardiovascular health, economic stability, and education, among other things.
Even the World Health Organization (WHO) eventually changed its stance on lockdowns to provide much-needed nuance. WHO official Dr. David Nabarro recently stated something in an interview that more sensible individuals have understood since last March: “Lockdowns just have one consequence that you must never, ever belittle, and that is making poor people an awful lot poorer.” Dr. Nabarro’s admission of this only came after months of pearl-clutching at the mere mention of economics being relevant to the conversation.
In addition to subverting the individual sphere, the government has also increased its stranglehold on the United States economy. It claims to provide economic stimulus as a panacea to the problem of unemployment, which the government itself exacerbated. A natural corollary to this stimulus is the massive amount of money being printed by the Federal Reserve. Alarmingly, estimates show that a whopping 22 percent of U.S. dollars issued since the very start of our country were created in 2020 alone, which is a significantly elevated creation of money supply in comparison to prior years.
Even worse, the prioritization of federal aid over state and local aid destroys our federalist system, in which the benefits of good policies and consequences of bad ones are felt by each state and town—rather than being distributed evenly across the nation. “Federal aid” is code for forcing states that chose to stay open to bail out the states that chose to sacrifice their economy.
It’s difficult to accurately predict how, exactly, the ratchet effect will come into play following COVID-19, but by looking at what scientists and economists have already noted, there are some troubling indicators that this crisis will continue to be used for vast governmental expansion.
Disturbingly, Dr. Fauci admitted in December (without an iota of shame)that he had lied to the American people about the vaccine threshold needed to reach herd immunity, claiming that he had done so in order to incentivize vaccination. Evidently, America’s supposedly trustworthy go-to source on the COVID-19 pandemic believes that the American people are lemmings who must be told lies for their own good. Meanwhile, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy tweeted that “we cannot consider our jobs done until that number [the number of COVID-19 cases] hits ZERO and stays there.” Since when have we approached any public health crisis with this mentality and for such a sustained period?
While diseases like measles, mumps, polio, and smallpox that were once serious health risks are not perfectly analogous to our current situation (they were much more deadly and contagious), they shared some essential characteristics: they presented nonzero public health risks that required careful cost-benefit analyses optimally performed by the individual, not lockdowns. Risk is about making calculations. Mitigating–not eradicating–COVID-19 should be the goal.
The ratchet effect directly applies to our present situation, seeing as the government has now permanently co-opted the action of risk calculation—something that has historically been largely within the individual sphere—and will now likely never concede this usurped power. The absurdity of such governmental intrusion is quickly apparent, upon reflection. Car accident deaths will never reach zero, but society has accepted that the benefit conferred by traveling in an automobile is worth the risk of getting injured in an accident. Seeking to lower car accidents through drunk driving education and safer car technology is a reasonable goal, but reaching zero car-related deaths would be an absurd standard. And yet, this is the standard our government has seemingly set for addressing COVID-19.
Another question that must be asked, regarding the long-term ratcheting up of government power, has to do with masks. Will we be having seasonal mask mandates in preparation for other, more common viruses? Such a policy proposal is not beyond the realm of possibility. A few months ago, Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine stated, “[p]erhaps we are moving more toward what’s happened for years in countries in the East where, during cold and flu season, many people wear masks to protect themselves and others. Masks may simply become part of life.”
Schaffner’s stance obviously does not indicate that the government will make the decision to mandate mask-wearing to prevent individuals from contracting colds, influenza, and rhinoviruses, but it is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which this proposal manifests. Many Americans have decided that wearing a piece of cloth on one’s face is not a huge inconvenience, in order to possibly avoid contracting diseases. While individuals may choose to wear masks at any time and for years or even decades to come, Americans must nonetheless make one thing clear: the government must not abscond with the inalienable rights of the individual to make decisions, think critically, and compute risks and tradeoffs for oneself, particularly over an extended period of time.
Lockdowns as a Method of Attacking Free Markets
In November, Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted that 647 billionaires in America have become richer, while tens of millions of Americans face eviction. This was intended to be an indictment of capitalism. However, an objective review of Sanders’ argument results in the recognition that this statement, while true on its face and without contextualization, is a resounding affirmation of the importance of truly free markets and a rejection of socialism.
Consider the central flaw with Sanders’ line of thinking: his critique of increased pandemic wealth inequality is actually a critique of coercive measures imposed on normally free markets. Lockdowns are one of the most overt examples of the state impairing the free market. While interventionism normally distorts the otherwise best possible allocation of scarce resources within certain markets, lockdowns collapse these markets entirely.
Of course the physical laborer or minimum-wage worker will rely more than the capitalist investor on attending work in-person. This is exactly why the economy should be open, rather than shut down. Nonetheless, those in Sanders’ camp refuse to recognize that the economic tolls borne by the lower and middle classes are indicative of the necessity for free markets, instead mistakenly believing that the remnants of a free market not yet irreparably destroyed are somehow responsible for the economic downturn.
It is no coincidence that capitalism has been used as a scapegoat for problems directly caused by the state. Left-wing populists understand that this unfortunate situation can be used to exploit the masses into thinking that the market is the issue, when much of our current misery is being caused by the lack of a free market and laissez-faire capitalism.
Lockdowns as a Social Engineering Panacea
Unsurprisingly, lockdowns have entered the mainstream discourse as a potential “solution” to other problems that statists would like to address. In September, corporatist economist Mariana Mazzucato delivered an ultimatum: either we “do capitalism differently,” or we implement a “climate lockdown.” Under a climate lockdown, Mazzucato proposes the following measures: “Governments would limit private-vehicle use, ban consumption of red meat, and impose extreme energy-saving measures, while fossil-fuel companies would have to stop drilling.” Such a set of policies would be disastrous for America, particularly for the lower and middle class, who disproportionately rely upon these industries not only for their livelihoods, but also for their sustenance.
Foreign governments like that of Mexico City have already demonstrated their capacity to restrict freedoms in the name of some nebulous climate-related goal, despite lacking results. The ratchet effect does not just indicate that the government will refuse to relinquish the power it has bestowed upon itself; it also explains that once a government exercises certain restrictive measures, these measures will always be on the table when making future policy decisions.
Now that we have had an extensive lockdown for the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdowns will be considered a completely reasonable solution to anything from climate change to the common cold.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Governments have long used crises as an excuse to expand the powers at their disposal. As we have seen, COVID-19 is no exception.
True friends of freedom must stay vigilant, always watching for state power grabs at the expense of the liberty and prosperity of the masses. Speaking before the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1755, Benjamin Franklin said, “[t]hose who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” This message has never been more true in recent history than 2020, and now 2021.
The COVID-19 crisis is a test of how committed our government is to avoiding the seductive allure of authoritarianism—and it is currently failing that test miserably.
*The views expressed in this article solely represent the views of the author, not the views of the Chicago Thinker.
Mitchell Robson is a Senior Editor for the Chicago Thinker. As a sophomore at the University of Chicago, he is majoring in Physics and Molecular Engineering. When not studying or doing work for the Thinker, you can probably find him shooting hoops, reading something by Ludwig von Mises, or cheering on the Patriots or Celtics.