In the political response to the Covid-19 pandemic, everything is proceeding just as economist Robert Higgs has foreseen. But that doesn’t make it any easier for him to watch it. “I have an overwhelming feeling that I am reliving a bad experience I’ve lived through several times before, only this time it’s worse,” Higgs says. “I have no doubt that even if the current situation plays out in the best imaginable way, it will leave an abundance of legacies for the worse so far as people’s freedom is concerned.”
Higgs sees government, as usual, vastly expanding during the crisis, and he’s sure that it will not shrink back to its former scale once the crisis is over. It never does, as he famously documented in his 1987 book, Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government, and in later works exploring this “ratchet effect.”
By surveying the effect of wars, financial panics, and other crises over the course of a century, Higgs showed that most government growth occurs in sporadic bursts during emergencies, when politicians enact “temporary” programs and regulations that never get fully abolished. New Deal bureaucracies and subsidies persisted long after the Great Depression, for example, and the U.S. military didn’t revert to its prewar size after either of the world wars.
Besides charting the growth of government, Higgs identified the fundamental psychological cause. He recognized the political significance of the negativity effect, also called the negativity bias—the universal tendency of negative events and emotions to affect us more strongly than positive ones.
In our recent book on this bias, The Power of Bad, social psychologist Roy Baumeister and I drew on Higgs’s work to argue that the greatest problem in politics is what we call the Crisis Crisis—the never-ending series of crises, real or imagined, that are hyped by the media and lead to cures too often worse than the disease. It’s a perpetual problem because it’s so deeply rooted in human psychology, as Higgs explained in a 2005 essay, “The Political Economy of Fear.”
“To tell people not to be afraid is to give them advice that they cannot take,” Higgs wrote. “Our evolved physiological makeup disposes us to fear all sorts of actual and potential threats, even those that exist only in our imagination. 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.” Rulers instinctively heed Machiavelli’s advice: “It is much safer to be feared than loved”—a sixteenth-century formulation of the negativity effect.
“Without popular fear, no government could endure more than twenty-four hours,” Higgs wrote, explaining how the earliest kingdoms were founded by warriors who augmented their…