Exploiting Crises to Expand Government and Curtail Civil and Economic Liberties:

In a recent post, co-blogger Eric Posner writes that:

The specter of fear is everywhere, not just on Wall Street. And the scale of the government’s reaction is no less than what it was after 9/11—that is what probably scares ordinary people the most. Yet no one who believes that the government exploited fears after 9/11 to strengthen its security powers is now saying that the government is exploiting financial crisis fears in order to justify taking control of credit markets. No one who thinks that government would use fear to curtail civil liberties seems to think that government would use fear to curtail economic liberties. Why not?

Perhaps Eric means to say merely that very few people who criticized the Bush Administration's reaction to 9/11 are now concerned about the expansion of government power in the present economic crisis. But it isn't true that "no one" has. I myself have been critical of the Bush Administration's claims of virtually unlimited executive power in the aftermath of 9/11 (see, e.g., here). And I have also warned repeatedly that the present economic crisis presents dangerous opportunities for government power grabs that curtail economic liberties and benefit powerful interest groups at the expense of the general public (e.g. - here, here, and here). And my position is far from unique. Indeed, it is similar to that taken by most libertarian commentators. The median libertarian public intellectual is probably even more skeptical than I am about both post-9/11 security measures and the federal government's policies in the current crisis.

In both the 9/11 case and the present crisis, I don't think it is merely a case of government officials cynically manipulating fear to curtail freedom in ways they know to be unjustified. Rather, I think that they, like most of the rest of us, naturally believe that expanding their own power and influence is also in the public interest. Crisis situations give greater scope for this natural bias by inducing fear in the general public and diminishing skepticism about government power grabs. Therefore, crises often lead to enormous - in many cases excessive - expansions of government power. The risk is heightened by widespread political ignorance, which makes it difficult for the public to assess which "emergency" measures are genuinely necessary. See here for a discussion of how political ignorance helped pave the way for various harmful policies during the Great Depression.

Some emergency expansions of government power may be defensible. But healthy skepticism is warranted during both economic and national security crises. And not everyone has been remiss in applying it.