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Leviathan and Crises

My latest column for AIER – discussing the current expansion of government activity – is inspired by Robert Higgs’s great 1987 book, Crisis and Leviathan and by James Buchanan’s sadly largely neglected 1967 book, Public Finance in Democratic Process. A slice:

Contrary, therefore, to the conventional wisdom of ECON 999, state power isn’t created and used only according to objective, detached, scientific criteria. Politicians and bureaucrats are not altruistic ciphers, standing above the tempest of historical contingencies, surveying reality and intervening only if, when, and to the extent that they detect, with their scientific tools, “social” costs and benefits diverging from “private” costs and benefits.

No, says Higgs: “None of the standard theories recognizes the extent to which the development of Big Government was a matter not of logic, however complicated and multidimensional, but of history…. [R]eal political and socioeconomic dynamics are ‘messier,’ more open to exogenous influences or shocks and less determinate in their outcomes than the theorists suppose. Critical events may turn on nothing more substantial than the whim of a President or the ideology of a single Supreme Court justice.”

Furthermore, as the example of Calvin Coolidge [who stepped away from power that was then to be grabbed by] Herbert Hoover suggests, those individuals who obtain and retain positions of power in government tend to be those who are most interested in possessing and exercising such power. For each crisis, then, the likelihood is that the ideology of the holders of power prompts them, not to keep their power in check, but to expand it. And as power expands in a ratcheting-upward way, power becomes ever-more valuable and intoxicating to possess – meaning that competition to grab power becomes ever-more intense. This increasingly intense competition for power, in turn, selects those persons who are both most hungry for power and least bound by ethical restraints in pursuing and using it.