Coronavirus Crackdowns and the Ratchet Effect

by | Sep 14, 2021


One of Robert Higgs’ great contributions to understanding government is his exploration of what he terms the ratchet effect. In a 2011 interview posted at the Mises Institute website, Higgs provided this succinct description of the ratchet effect:

In my work, the ratchet effect describes the characteristic way in which government under modern ideological conditions grows during a perceived national emergency. The government’s size, scope, and power grow abruptly as the government acts to “do something” to allay the threat. Then, as the threat is eliminated or diminished, the government shrinks, but not all the way to the level it would have reached if the crisis had not occurred. Hence, each crisis shifts the government’s growth trajectory to a higher level of size, scope, and power.

Since early last year, we have witnessed many governments across the world demonstrate the ratchet effect in their use of stirred up coronavirus panic to support their undertaking massive expansions of government power at the expense of liberty. Yet, in many places where there has been a major increase in government power in the name of countering coronavirus there has yet to be the partial backtrack that Higgs suggests follows.

Two developments this month in Europe may indicate that the expanded government power in at least some of that part of the world has reached its peak and that rescinding some of government power claimed in the name of countering coronavirus is becoming the new trend. The two big developments are Denmark ending all its coronavirus restrictions and England deciding to abandon its planned vaccine passport mandate.

In America, things are a bit complicated for some people who are dealing with local, state, and national governments moving in different directions. Consider, for example, someone living in a big city in a state where the state government has rescinded much of its coronavirus crackdown. While the state government has backed off, the city or county government and the local school district are likely maintaining or even expanding their coronavirus crackdown mandates. And the national government is going full tyrant with mandates concerning masks, experimental coronavirus vaccine shots, and more.

Denmark and England are providing some hope this week. May the retreat from coronavirus crackdowns continue. And may people keep demanding that it continue; government can be very reluctant to give up newly claimed powers.


  • Adam Dick

    Adam worked from 2003 through 2013 as a legislative aide for Rep. Ron Paul. Previously, he was a member of the Wisconsin State Board of Elections, a co-manager of Ed Thompson's 2002 Wisconsin governor campaign, and a lawyer in New York and Connecticut.

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