Book Review: Crisis and Leviathan by Dr. Robert Higgs

In the last two years I’ve been a lot of essays, columns, etc. from economist Dr. Robert Higgs. Most recently I finished his classic work: Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government.

He has really opened up my eyes to the growing size and entrenchment of government at all levels, particularly Federal. Dr. Higgs published this book in 1989. His thesis was (is) that government generally works with a ratchet effect. With every crisis, government grows itself (while at the same time crowding-out liberty) and when the crisis recedes, government either does not get any smaller, or if it does shrink in size, doesn’t come close to getting to the size it was prior to the crisis. Dr. Higgs’s book is explained well by the sub-title: “Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government.”

Consider this famous quote from Jefferson …

The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground.
– Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, Paris, 27 May 1788

So with each passing crisis, liberty continues to yield.

[The book is praised by both Murray Rothbard and James Buchanan]

The crises in question include things such as world-wars, economic depressions (even if ironically caused by government action), and labor strife. The ratchet effect is problematic in part because as pointed out, politicians of 100+ years ago were likely no less corrupt than they are now, but they had vastly less ability to do mischief.

The book begins its look at U.S. history around 1890 and comes right up to the 1980s. The first several chapters set-up the book’s thesis and explain it well. Other competing theses are analyzed for comparison. From that point on the book looks at major events in U.S. history, and notes the associated ratchet affects.

Let’s look at some specific items in the book:
1. It’s not clear that just because technology changes and improves that we need a larger govt. (modernization hypothesis) p.7
2. In spite of its stated goals, the FTC has had a perverse history, regulatory capture. p. 8
3. When you consider grants, contracts, and programs, the federal labor force is much larger than it seems. p. 27

I’m Glad I Discovered Dr. Robert Higgs ]

4. The underlying essence of government is coercive power, under the threat of violence.
5. Current measures of the size and scope of government power are outdated and may greatly underestimate its size. p. 29
6. “Relative to the economy, the government has grown enormously in the 20th century.” p. 33

Every collectivist revolution rides in on a Trojan horse of “Emergency.” It was a tactic of Lenin, Hitler, Mussolini. In the collectivist sweep over a dozen minor countries of Europe, it was the cry of the men striving to get on horseback. And “Emergency” became the justification of the subsequent steps. This technique of creating emergency is the greatest achievement that demagoguery attains. The invasion of the New Deal Collectivism was introduced by this same Trojan Horse.
—  Herbert Hoover

7. Timing is everything. p. 57 – 59
8. The govt. is simply not a victim or the result of these forces, it is often also the impetus. For example, the supreme court seems to nearly always permit the unconstitutional growth. p. 63
9. The temptation to “do something” seems irresistible. p. 66
10. The agriculture and railroad industries were some of the worst/most affected.

11. The lumpenproletarians. p. 95
12. The Civil War veterans’ pension program by 1890 consumed more than a third of the federal budget p. 97
13. Regulatory capture. pp. 115 & 180

14. Progressives ~ Socialism. p. 116
15. WWI was a massive ratchet event, followed by the Great Depression, then WWII.
16. “Heatless Mondays” as war prosperity. p. 137

[Be sure to see the appendix to chapter two, a list of all federal government agencies as of the book's writing in 1987. Also see the appendix to chapter nine.]

17. FDR loved the call of “emergency.” p. 171
18. By the end of WWII, what had been left of American capitalism was in large part gone. p. 237
19. What are we to make of the term “fascism?” p. 240

The book was originally written nearly twenty-five years ago and instead of looking dated and proven-wrong, the thesis looks stronger than ever as of 2012. Consider the change in scope and direction of the federal government since the economic downturn circa 2008. Another round of proof for Dr. Higgs’s thesis. In fact, news clippings from the last four years would make a perfect new chapter to the book nearly by themselves.

I wouldn’t recommend this as one of the first books you read (it’s somewhat advanced), but as you make your way through others (Bastiat, Sowell, Hayek, Hazlitt, etc.) add this to your list; it should definitely be in your library. And do make sure to read every column he writes.

Related links:
What Books Would You Recommend To Progressives?
All previous mentions of Dr. Higgs
Dr. Robert Higgs On Liberty
Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government
‘These past 10 years have shown that America does not give in to fear’ …
Dr. Higgs Nails Right-Wing Hypocrisy