September, 2002

Is 9-11 a Crisis to be followed by a Leviathan?

  • Susan Dudley

    Director, George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center
  • Bruce Yandle

    Distinguished Adjunct Fellow
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A year after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, our nation, and our government, have changed. The attacks cut the nation to the quick and sent shock waves around the world. In response, signs of patriotism and enthusiasm for government action rivaled those of World War II. Where before 9/11, the national political debate focused on excess revenues and how much to return to the people, post-9/11 politics was about home security, war, and how quickly government could move to meet the national emergency.

Writing last October about the nation's new commitment to war and domestic security, New York Times reporter Richard Stevenson interviewed Robert Higgs, author of a seminal 1987 book, Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government. Higgs' rigorously developed economic history of the United States showed how major national crises triggered expansions of federal government agencies that inevitably, it seemed, remained long after the crises had past. Commenting on 9/11 and the theme of his book, Higgs indicated "We are rushing very quickly to throw overboard announced positions about government assistance to private enterprise about surveillance, about security measures of various kinds that intrude on our liberties. In that respect, this episode mirrors the great national emergencies of our past." (Stevenson 2001) But as legal scholar Jonathan Macey (2000) wrote:

[D]esperation creates windows of opportunity for entrepreneurial politicians and special interest groups, because such desperation induces people to abandon cynicism and embrace the fantasy that the government will generate solutions to their problems? [P]eople become desperate for government-driven solutions during crises. (295-296) 


Crisis and Leviathan is indeed the theme of this essay. Inspired by the scale of post-9/11 actions taken by government and the fact that this national crisis is the first to emerge since Higgs' book, we seek to do three things. First, we will describe the mood change that affected public opinion about government. If Higgs' thesis is to hold, the will of the body politic must somehow be supportive of crisis response. As Macey put it, even cynical people must be moved to believe that government can provide meaningful solutions. We will show the degree to which support was forthcoming, as indicated by polls. We then examine some data on government size and levels of activity to identify evidence of the Higgs' ratchet theory. We note that some of this was reported in other ways by Higgs in his original work. Finally, we focus on regulation and identify activities that seem to suggest that a new kind of ratchet is forming. Based on the data, we speculate about the current episode.