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Commentary

Mongers of Fear


     
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Robert Higgs’ scholarly specialty has been the study of how government grows exponentially in times of real or exaggerated crisis and rarely returns to its previous size, scope and power after the precipitating crisis is over. This “Higgs Ratchet Effect”—detailed nicely in the economist’s 1987 book Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government (1987)—proves that James Madison was right in 1794 to warn us about the old politicians’ trick “of turning every contingency into a resource for accumulating force in government.” The ratchet effect operated during World Wars I & II, the Cold War and economic crises like “The Great Depression,” and the Independent Institute (independent.org) senior fellow suspects the war on terror and the current global financial meltdown will be no different. We asked Higgs to provide us with an excerpt or two from his latest book, Neither Liberty Nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government (Oakland, Calif.: The Independent Institute, 2007).
—Bill Steigerwald

Our evolved psychological and physiological makeup predisposes us to fear actual and potential threats, even those that exist only in our imagination. . . . The people who have the effrontery to rule us, who dare 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 fear to secure popular submission, compliance with official dictates, and, on some occasions, affirmative cooperation with the state’s enterprises and adventures. . . . Without popular fear, no government would endure more than twenty-four hours.

The fear need not be of the government itself and indeed may be of the danger from which the government purports to protect the people. Of course, some of the threats that induce subjects to submit to government in the hope of gaining its protection and thereby calming their fears may be real. I am not arguing that people who look to government for their salvation act entirely under the sway of illusory threats, although I do insist that nowadays, if not always, many public fears arise in large part if not entirely from stimulation by the government itself. If the people’s fears may be (1) of the government itself, (2) of real threats from which the people look to the government for protection, and (3) of spurious threats from which the people look to the government for protection, we must admit that the relative importance of each type of fear varies with time and place. In every case, however, the government seeks to turn public fear to its own advantage.


Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation. He is the author of many books, including Depression, War, and Cold War.

Full Biography and Recent Publications


  New from Robert Higgs!
CRISIS AND LEVIATHAN (25TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION): Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government
The size and scope of government power has grown in response to crises of war and economic upheavals. Such increased power remains long after each crisis passes, threatening both civil and economic liberties, all at the behest of special interest groups.






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