David Ethan Kennerly. 14 May 2004.

The Major Themes of Crisis and Leviathan

In 1987, Robert Higgs, a professor of economics at the time, wrote a book on political science entitled Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government.  Despite his academic title, this book is classified as, and is, primarily a text of political science.  In it he used fundamentals of economics, politics, and history to explain the nature of the expansion of American government.  He determined that each was necessary to explain one of the primary political problems: in what manners and methods the scope of government grows.  In this brief essay, let us begin to appreciate what his entire book is about and briefly appraise its ability to predict future behavior.  He spends several pages clearly defining several key terms that become the major concepts with which he develops his thesis.  He develops, for about the first third of the book, a consistent framework of these concepts.  For a cursory overview, let us call these key concepts: scope, quasi-autonomy, and ideology.  Due to his precision, the terms as he defines them and then employs them, do not retain all their layman's connotations.  Let us then assimilate his definition of each in two passes, first for definition of terms, and a second pass for a summary of their usage in the analysis of government.

Higgs defines scope as an abstract measure of the amount of behavior in a society that is coercively controlled by a government.  This does not equate to a naive tabulation of the budget of a government, because

"... to equate government's role in economic life with the size of its budget ... is obviously wrong since many government activities (for example, statutes and administrative rules) redirect resources just as surely as taxation and spending" (Sam Peltzman qtd. 31).

So a government that affects many areas of life, through the invasive laws, yet appears to have an overtly small budget is still a large government.  Such a government takes with law what a fully private institution must pay with money.  This introduces complexity and admitted non-quantitative nature of to the analysis.  Unless each law can be evaluated for its hidden costs to society, the analysis cannot be quantitative.  As an aside, throughout the book Higgs effectively weaves poignant quotations, such as this one from Sam Peltzman, into his explanation. 

Although Higgs does not expressly coin the term quasi-autonomy, let us use it to summarize what he spends several chapters explaining.  A quasi-autonomous institution is able to act with a mitigated degree of impunity, without effective recourse from the rest of society.  It is somewhere midway between subservient and fully autonomous.  As he develops and we shall summarize later, American government is quasi-autonomous.  The quasi-autonomist paradigm differs from the pluralist and classist paradigms.  Briefly put, pluralism maintains that government is a neutral agent that mediates many biased agents, called special interest groups.  Classism maintains that a single class, an ill-defined quasi-agent, dominates the other agents, so therefore government is mostly an instrument of a class.  Quasi-autonomism maintains that government itself is an active agent with as much bias for its own members as any non-government agent.  Peter Navarro summarized the difference between pluralism and quasi-autonomism,

"[G]overnment is not only the target of special interest pressure but also one of its biggest instigators" (qtd. 63).

As an example, some labor unions lobby Congress for pay raises, health care or pensions; whereas, Congress directly votes raises, excellent health plans and luxurious pensions, even for members removed from office (Baum). This has dramatically different implications when combined with an understanding of scope and ideology. 

Ideology is a contested term in political science.  Higgs develops a precise definition of ideology for the purpose of his explanation.  Essential to his definition:

"... [A]ll [ideologies] contain unverified and--far more significant--unverifiable elements, including their fundamental commitments to certain values" (38).

In this book, an ideology means a system of opinions and preferences that are maintained by its adherents without proof because the nature of the problem is beyond the comprehension of the vast majority, or all, of its adherents.  An ideology is an inescapable construct of decision-making in an uncertain world.  This is because "knowledge is always and everywhere a scarce resource, costly to acquire and hence rarely possessed in abundance" (35).  Since full and complete knowledge of the world is beyond comprehension, an ideology contains some element of faith, which is an unverifiable opinion.  Higgs further defines that an ideology has cognitive, affective, programmatic, and solidary components (37).  An ideology includes cognitive opinions that affect a person's moral evaluation.  These opinions and values partially program a person's behavior, including which social groups a person identifies (solidarity) with.  Higgs maintains that this definition of ideology is necessary to explain political behavior. 

So, Higgs studies the expanded scope of a quasi-autonomous government and cites the ideologies that constrain this expansion.  Higgs wields the prior concepts of quasi-autonomy, scope, and ideology to draw some insightful conclusions.  The concepts themselves have several assumptions that warrant further attention.  Now that we have a basic understanding of what Higgs means by scope, quasi-autonomy, and ideology, we may analyze their usage in the explanation of government. 

Justifying quasi-autonomy in a democratic society is not intuitive.  American children, in government schools, are taught that democracy means rule by the people, which implies a pluralistic paradigm.  Yet there is an omission of a key fact, which is:

"[F]or better or worse a government is itself human: it is simply the collectivity of persons who exercise legal authority" (6).

Even in a democracy, some of the people sit in a seat of authority and some do not.  The same children are taught, in government schools, that democratic elections are a safeguard against quasi-autonomy.  Yet,

"... almost any politician can, within rather wide limits, behave contrary to the interests of his constituents without suffering predictable harm" (James Buchanan qtd. 14).

A voter must make many decisions based on ideology instead of facts.  Through a postelection poll, Congressman Pete McCloskey discovered, "that 5% of the people voted for me because they agreed with my views; 11% voted for me even though they disagreed with my views, and 84% didn't have any idea what the hell my views were" (qtd. 14).  Even within their own ideology, twice as many (11%) voted for an opponent as supporters (5%) and the vast majority voted in ignorance.  Due to the constraints of ideology and knowledge, ignorance is not fully amenable by education.  Due to this fundamental lack of accountability modern American governmental redistribution "degenerates into an absurd two-way pumping of money when state robs nearly everybody and pays nearly everybody, so that no one knows in the end whether he has gained or lost in the game" (Wilhelm Ropke qtd. 12).  Therefore, American government behaves with in quasi-autonomy in respect to the governed.

Due to government's quasi-autonomy, governmental scope, once temporarily expanded, tends not to withdraw.  This is because, "bureaucratic services generate constituencies that oppose their liquidation" (Francis Rourke qtd. 67).  Even, and especially, during temporary crises government tends to permanently grow.  Jack Hirshleifer explained that:

"Wars and defense crises that require gigantic budgetary expansions leave in their wake a mass of officeholders, with sufficient political clout to resist budgetary contraction when the crises pass" (qtd. 68).

This scope has a dramatic implications for the future of society, because it is the scope, and not the budget, that determines the long-term impact on the citizens.  Once government has acquired an authority, and thus a citizenry has abdicated a freedom, the long-term budget will convert this expanded scope into benefit for the government at the expense of the governed.  As Higgs argues, "Authority comes first: no authority, then no taxing, spending, or employment.  Authority arises from executive orders, statutes, court decisions, and the directives of regulatory agencies" (32).

Higgs employs concepts of economics to reveal the hidden costs of authority, because the government legislates preferential economic treatment.  Unlike a market economy which reveals costs, a command economy conceals them (66). Unlike a pecuniary cost, which is obvious, such as a tax bill or bill of sales, government employs fiscal illusions (65).  Higgs maintains that: "Some spending that has been accounted as private has actually been coerced by regulation, so ought to be accounted as the result of public policy and counted as an extension of the size of the government" (29).  Some examples of governmental cost-concealment include military draft, appropriations, and price controls.  Like a magician, government presents the illusion that a private institution is creating a cost, when that private institution is actually suffering the burden of the government regulation or tax. 

Because of the government's quasi-autonomy, it does not suffer from these costs.  Therefore, the costs are distributed most heavily to the politically weak (65).  Thereby government empowers prejudice and private corruption.  During World War I, Southern draft boards "flagrantly discriminated against blacks" (Baker qtd. 133).  Since the public scorned the local boards, instead of their Federal controllers, these local boards served as buffers to absorb dissatisfaction instead of the Federal government (Crowder qtd. 133-4).  Thus Federal government performed a superb con job:  It gained the labor of its draftees at sub-market prices and concealed its responsibility.  In another example, the Food Administration authorized local volunteers who "forced their neighbors to comply with numerous food regulations. ... Naturally the operation of thousands of petty tyrannies caused unpopular people to suffer harassment at the hands of those who wielded the government's profusely scattered authority" (137).  Thereby Federal government ate its cake and had it, too:  It acquisitioned food to be exported overseas at an enormous profit during World War I without appearing to be the cause of this robbery.  Yet, not only did citizens pay the economic cost and loss of economic civil liberties, it also paid the cost in social injustice, the cost in personal civil liberties, especially racism and other categories of unpopular persons. 

Despite the naive belief to the contrary, governmental regulations also empower private corruption.  Big Business can buy privileges at lower costs to itself, and higher costs to everyone else through regulations of a quasi-autonomous government.  Since the government is operating with quasi-autonomy, it has a surplus of coercive power to regulate which it can employ with some degree of arbitrary choice.  Each individual politician can rent his authority for a bribe.  But an entire political agency can rent its authority, through public regulation, without giving the appearance of bribery.  As Richard Hofstadter put it, "Before business learned to buy statesmen at wholesale, it had to buy privileges at retail" (qtd. 81).  All of these regulations are ultimately enforced by violence or the mere implied consequence of failure to comply will result in violence, revealing "... the underlying essence of government, which is coercive power" (27).

Yet the growth of American government has not fully explained by impersonal economic concepts.  Higgs maintains that ideologies, both of the office holders and the populace, have constrained the expansion of governmental scope.  Political behavior often defies the economic concept of a utility function, which has only goods and services to explain an agent's measure of well-being.  Higgs inserts into the utility function the additional factor of ideology (43).  Both conservatives and liberals defend deep economic stances not on pragmatic grounds, but logically indefensible ideological grounds (44).  Higgs further maintains that there are a few ideologies in a society, although in America there seems to be less evidence of consistent conservative-liberal ideologies.  Since surveyed Americans did not behave consistently with conservative/liberal ideological categories, Maddox and Lilie created a fourfold categorization: populist, conservative, liberal, and libertarian.  In addition to the well known conservative and liberal ideologies, each of which supports its own pet regulations, populists support most any government regulation and libertarians oppose most any government regulations.  Given these four categories, many Americans in the survey did have a consistent ideology (46). 

During a time of crisis, the ideology determines if and where government, like a huge creature, expands its tentacles of coercive power.  During a crisis the populace cries for a quick fix.  Depending on the ideology of the governmental officials, the government will respond and take advantage of the populace's naivety to create a permanently broader scope, as a bloated flea on the back of the people.  Only this flea is now man-size.  Since there is no suitable laboratory to perform national political experiments within, Higgs goes on for the second part of the book to examine historical examples and the fitness of his multi-causal explanation. 

This reader found the work highly worthwhile.  Higgs no doubt has his own ideological biases, such as his academic perspective.  Yet he demonstrates a powerful case that incidentally provides criticism on all the ideologies mentioned: populist, conservative, liberal, and libertarian.  The logic employed and the far-reach of his research is outstanding.  Yet the proof of any hypothesis is its ability to predict the result of an experiment.  The subject of experiment is the American government.  Since Higg's authorship in 1987, a number of relevant political trends may be appraised.  Let me briefly mention two.

First, the nature of California state government during the California energy crisis during 2000 and 2001?  This has often been cited as a market failure.  Many blamed private producers for limiting their supply (Baum).  But, using Higg's explanation of cost concealment and further research into the actual details of the crisis, the picture differs.  California energy regulations subsidize government-owned energy stations, and thereby penalize private energy providers (Elwood).  Additionally, California's quoted "deregulation" actually added several new regulations.  Energy providers were required to meet fixed price.  Since government providers were funded by the government, they could operate at a price loss.  In essence, the citizens of California were paying for government privilege.  Yet private providers had no such privilege.  Their only recourse to the sub-market price, was to reduce output in order to cut their losses.  This is how government created the energy shortage.  At the threat of violence, it diverted public money toward its own providers and forced non-privileged private providers to compete against this impossible advantage--none of which the Californian consumers wanted.  This illustrates Higg's theory of government scope (in regulation), quasi-autonomy (in self-serving behavior at the expense of citizens without electricity), and cost concealment (in convincing uninformed citizens that private businesses had caused their crisis). 

A second case to test Higg's hypothesis: did the Federal government permanently grow in response to the 9/11 crisis?  As Higg's hypothesis suggests, Americans cried out that government do something.  And the Federal government responded by increasing its scope.  It took away citizen determination over some aspects of their own lives through regulation.  As an example, the newly created Transportation Security Administration required airports to fire all private airline security and then forced them to rehire the same actual persons back as federal employees.  Everyday each American on a flight spends over one additional hour boarding due to the methods employed by these federal employees.  The cost of which, if bought at market price, would amount to billions of dollars a year.  Yet through regulation, government pays each traveler nothing in return, not even a provably higher level of actual security from terrorism.  The Federal government created the Patriot Act, which defies several civil liberties, including rights to privacy and freedom from unjustified detention.  The Federal government has begun to intellectually profile its citizens, by mandating all public libraries to forward records on what books each person is reading.  The Federal government has hoodwinked Americans into supporting an invasion and subsequent occupation of a country half way around the world under false pretenses. Federal officers claimed Weapons of Mass Destruction, connections to Al Queda, and the general threat that Iraq poses to the US.  Yet the US overshadows Iraq in military might by 280 to 1.  As a final example, although the stereotype has been that conservatives do not favor public spending, Republicans and Democrats in office are revealing their populist ideologies by supporting for greater social and military spending.  In short, more spending of every kind, spending of citizens' money, of course.  Social spending under the Bush administration has exceeded the Clinton administration.  Higgs seems to have predicted this quasi-autonomous response, to increase the scope in accordance with the ideology of many Americans. 

Given these examples, other evidence, and much further consideration outside the breadth of this essay, this reader agrees with the major themes and their major implications.  This reader's body of personal wisdom agrees with leaf preceding the first page, which states:

"Any society that entails the strengthening of the state apparatus by giving it unchecked control over the economy, and re-unites the polity and the economy, is an historical regression.  In it there is no more future for the public, or for the freedoms it supported, than there was under feudalism" (Alvin W. Gouldner qtd. xxi).




Works Cited

Baum, Richard.  "American Government." Political science lectures. San Francisco, May 2004.

Higgs, Robert. Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Elwood, James R. "California Greening: The Real Cause of the New Energy Crisis".  Freedom Network News, Number 61, Jan-Mar 2001.