If you’re in favor of President Donald Trump’s decision to declare a national emergency and build a border wall between the United States and Mexico, congratulations: You’ve fallen for the oldest trick by which wannabe totalitarian states expand their authority.
This general argument, of course, won’t be new to “build the wall” Trumpers, but they might perhaps not be aware of the research done by Robert Higgs on this very topic. In Crisis and Leviathan, Higgs’ studies find that crises and emergencies are often the pretexts for expansion of government power.
This isn’t a mere abstraction — you can chart it empirically.
Government power doesn’t increase steadily by population or any other factor, but increases via a ‘ratcheting effect.’ Problems, real or imagined, are exacerbated in the minds of the populace: We’re convinced this problem, whatever it may be, needs to be solved at all costs. The fate of civilization is at stake!
Who is going to fill this important role? Of course, the state humbly takes on this burden and, for the sake of the little people, expands its coercive power over them.
Even apparently benign government expansions like the Adamson Act are not introduced by the gradual increase in public will, but by this sequence of ‘problem, reaction, solution’. The 1916 railroad strikes almost brought the entire service to a standstill. Both strikers and employers were intransigent. Under the auspices of serving the American people, the Act, legislating for an 8-hour workday and other workplace protections, was passed in Congress and fast-tracked in the Supreme Court thanks to further strikes.
Fundamental increases in government power come from extreme reactions to singular arbitrary crises. The Patriot Act didn’t come about as a general response to the risk of domestic terrorism, but the call to action from the shock of 9/11. Most gun control legislation is inspired by newsworthy shootings. Most calls for intervention in the Middle East come from high-profile so-called human rights crises.
This all serves to stimulate the “something must be done!” effect.
This is not to say that emergencies aren’t real or that the reasons for action don’t have any argumentative weight. In the case of the Adamson Act, there were real problems associated with the strike.
But as the old adage goes, this is a permanent solution for a temporary problem.
Of course, it wouldn’t have occurred to Woodrow Wilson, the borderline fascist that he was, that the answer is to release barriers for market competition in rail. We have the benefit of hindsight and a century of authoritarianism to draw on to warn us against such moves. Why don’t Trumpers understand this?
Let’s accept for the sake of argument that there is a crisis at the border. A migratory influx is not optimal, even if you are generally in favor of immigration. Yet even at its worst, this will not be happening in perpetuity. The migrants will be absorbed and the economy will adjust.
Apart from the argument that this sets a precedent that everyone’s been making, the wall in and of itself is a problem. If and when the United States succumbs to a totalitarian dictatorship, one of the key means of escaping — emigration — will be inhibited. And don’t expect Canada to save your arses.
The more hubristic among us might imagine that we can see tyranny coming from a mile off, only evil people advance it, and only fools are taken in by it. Realistically, it comes to us unawares, and we’re the ones cheering it on. Next time a leader wants to divert funds for their own pet projects because of an “emergency,” you have this wall to blame, but who will recognize it?
The Sedition Act is the Adamson Act is the Federal Reserve is the Vietnam War is the Patriot Act is the Wall.
Trumpers say his opposition wouldn’t hesitate to use emergency powers to implement their own strategy, so why not beat them at their own game? Because there’s a better solution: Personal secession. A pox on both their houses. That way, you don’t need to pretend you haven’t read Higgs (which is perhaps worse than pretending you have read him.).