Research Article

The Political Economy of Crisis Opportunism


Under modern ideological conditions, a national emergency produces a virtual free-for-all of policies, programs, and plans that expand the government’s power in new directions and strengthen it where it previously existed. The crisis-driven surge of government growth may be analyzed usefully in terms of a multi-phase ratchet effect.

Opportunists, both inside and outside the formal state apparatus, play distinctive roles during each phase of this phenomenon. Indeed, their actions create the ratchet effect. These opportunists pursue their objectives by means of new government personnel, new government policies, new government agencies, new statutes, and new court decisions.

When the crisis ends, some emergency agencies (perhaps renamed or relocated within the bureaucracy) remain in operation; some emergency laws remain in force; and some court decisions reached during the crisis stand as precedents for future decisions, including decisions to be handed down in normal times. Above all, the populace goes forward with altered political and ideological sensibilities. Efforts to rein in the government’s crisis-driven overreaching must concentrate, first, on affecting the public’s thinking about how the government ought to act during an emergency and, second, on changing the machinery of government so that ill-considered or poorly justified measures cannot be adopted so easily.

Robert Higgs is a 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, the University of Economics, Prague, and George Mason University.

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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.