03/13/2020Peter G. Klein
In his magisterial Crisis and Leviathan, Robert Higgs shows that the growth of government in the twentieth century can largely be explained by patterns of crisis and response. These crises can be real (World Wars I and II, the Great Depression, stagflation) or imagined (inequality, the various isms). In either case new government programs, agencies, and policies are established, purportedly as temporary responses to the perceived emergency. But, as Higgs shows with rich historical detail, most of the temporary measures become permanent—either explicitly or in a revised form based on the original.

As I summarized Higgs’s thesis in an earlier paper https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/....1002/sej.1147 :

Higgs (1987) noted that the expanded role taken on by the state during the New Deal period remained largely in place once the crisis passed, leading to a “ratchet effect” in which government agencies expand to exploit perceived short-term opportunities, but fail to retreat once circumstances change. Higgs (1987) suggests that government officials (regulators, courts, and elected officials), as well as private agents (such as business executives, farmers, and labor unions) developed capabilities in economic and social planning during crisis periods and that, due to indivisibilities and high transaction costs, tend to possess excess capacity in periods between crises. To leverage this capacity, they looked for ways to keep these “temporary” measures in place. Indeed, many New Deal agencies were thinly disguised versions of World War I agencies that had remained dormant throughout the 1920s—the War Industries Board became the National Recovery Administration, the War Finance Corporation became the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the War Labor Board became the National Labor Relations Board, and so on. In many cases the charters for the New Deal agencies were mostly copied verbatim from World War I predecessors. Higgs’ (1987) ratchet effect illustrates that excess capacity in organizational capabilities isn’t necessary leveraged as soon as it is created, leading to smooth, continuous organizational growth, but may remain dormant until the right economic, legal, or political circumstances arise, leading to sudden, discontinuous jumps in organizational size or scope.