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The Independent Institute
Commentary

Crisis-Induced Losses of Liberties


Michael Barone thinks that, this time, war will not give rise to significant increases in the size and scope of government (“Not a Victory for Big Government,” editorial page, Jan. 15), because the war on terrorism does not require the massive spending and comprehensive economic controls of World War II, and because the voters continue, at least in certain polls, to favor smaller government in the abstract.

Having studied this topic for a long time and written a book on it (Crisis and Leviathan, Oxford University Press, 1987), I am not convinced that the present crisis will differ from the previous ones, all of which, from World War I through the civil rights/Vietnam War episode, did cause a permanent upsurge of government.

Because the war on terrorism has just begun, it is too soon to conclude that the pattern that held throughout the 20th century has been broken. If the government decides to wage a full-scale war against Iraq, as a number of high-level officials and advisers are urging, or if it sends forces to fight on a front stretching from Africa to Indonesia to the Philippines, then the size and scope of government will certainly grow.

Already, however, the government has grown in significant ways. Especially important are the greatly enhanced powers the government has assumed to spy on and seize the property of all Americans. Several parts of the USA PATRIOT Act bulk up the Big Brother State, from sneak-and-peak provisions to asset-confiscation measures ostensibly aimed at abating money laundering—the latter premised on evidence inadmissible in U.S. courts.

Attorney General John Ashcroft has reactivated the FBI’s notorious Cointelpro operation used from 1957 to 1971 to spy on domestic political and religious organizations. A number of states are considering the enactment of emergency laws that would give their governors Draconian powers over persons, property and personal information.

As such measures continue to augment the government’s powers at all levels, the population remains in large part insensitive to the threats those measures pose to liberty, not just now but in all likelihood for many years to come. Pollster John Zogby declared recently that “the willingness to give up personal liberties is stunning, because the level of fear is so high.” We can only hope that people regain their composure and their sense of proportion before the ratchet turns once again and our liberties sustain another irreversible crisis-induced loss.


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

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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. Learn More »»