Nearly two decades after the publication of his landmark Crisis and Leviathan, economic historian Robert Higgs' chief thesis in the book -- that, to quote Randolph Bourne, "War is the health of the state" -- seems more relevant than ever. Thus it's only fitting that he should revisit some of those same themes in the excellent new volume, Resurgence of the Warfare State: The Crisis Since 9/11, a collection of essays on the myriad ways we have seen, once again, government exploiting public fear in the wake of crisis to engage in shameless ratcheting up of state power.
I caught up with Higgs, a senior fellow in political economy with the Independent Institute and editor of The Independent Review, for a little round of five questions.
In Lehmann's Terms: The subtitle for Crisis and Leviathan was "Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government." How does the episode we've been living through since 9/11 differ from those of the past?
HIGGS: The current episode is smaller, but its basic structure is the same as that of the preceding ones: public fright and insecurity; reliance on government to "do something" to save the day; rush of all sorts of opportunists--political, economic, ideological, even religious--to seize the day, especially to grab the keys to the Treasury; massive government propaganda to grease the skids, leverage the crisis and, in this case, make it permanent.
ILT: I credit you with inventing the slogan "God save us from great presidents." In light of the past five years, should that prayer be amended to include doltish, incompetent ones, as well?
HIGGS: God save us from all presidents (with the possible exception of Grover Cleveland).
ILT: Libertarians typically oppose campaign finance reform as an unjustified infringement upon free speech. But given that there has developed a symbiotic relationship between a permanent class of government contractors -- particularly with the DoD -- and the lawmakers who feed them, what about a rule banning any company (or trade union) that has donated to a campaign or a political action committee from receiving any contract from the federal government for, say, five years?
HIGGS: This might help, but where there's a will, there's a way. So long as government has the power to convey massive benefits or to impose massive costs, people are going to do whatever it takes to gain some control or influence over the people who hold the control levers of that terrifying machine.
ILT: You live in the Bayou state. What sorts of ratcheting up in government power have you seen in the wake of Hurricane Katrina?
HIGGS: Besides various seizures of control (most of them temporary, thank God) over everything from garbage dumps to motel accommodations, this area is now awash in federal money. Naturally, we wily Cajuns, good old boys, and canny black race hustlers who rule the roost hereabouts are having a field day pocketing said loot, utilizing all our usual corrupt devices (which to us are just politics as usual). The outcome of this activity will be not only massive waste and stupid actions of all sorts, but residual of government control--over such things as urban and regional development--that did not exist before. Mainly, though, Katrina has been turned into a serviceable excuse to loot the U.S. Treasury big time.
ILT: Other than the Independent Review -- where, clearly, you have a bias -- what other academic journals do you read regularly and which do regard as the best?
HIGGS: I read some professional literature in economics, such as the Journal of Economic Literature and the Journal of Economic History, to see what the profession is doing, but truth be known, I don't read any academic journals regularly any more. I go to particular articles when they pertain to projects I'm working on. Otherwise, the academic journals are not worth my time.
Thanks again, Bob!