Still, we should bear in mind two stubborn facts, both of which call to mind the September 11 aftermath. The first is that government authority is programmed to grow, never shrink. I slightly depart here from the economist Robert Higgs, who’s been frequently cited since the pandemic began. Higgs thought up what he called the ratchet effect, which holds that the state gains powers during a crisis, then surrenders only some of them afterwards, yielding a net growth in government. Yet at least since 9/11, the feds haven’t relinquished much of anything at all. Instead an authorization for use of military force has become a permission slip for ever-expanding empire. A gigantic surveillance apparatus has grown out of the NSA. Fear begat action, which created precedent, which became the license for even more action. Now we’re assured the current measures won’t beckon this way, that they’re only temporary. Are we so sure?
The second fact is that our responses to crises don’t arise inorganically. That is to say, much of what we do under threat are things we’re inclined to do anyway. Red Sox fans hauling away Yankees fans is only the cheekiest example of this. Certainly the urge to snitch is deeply embedded within some of us, as so many totalitarian polities have demonstrated. Rod Liddle expresses this well: “There is a certain tranche of the population,” he says, “which yearns for its fellow citizens to be chastised, punished and, if possible, banged up.” We’re also attracted to those civic-minded catchphrases, national security and public health—if we must conform, we prefer the line to be simple. And of course, everyone wants to feel safe. Authoritarianism, in other words, isn’t something artificially imposed; its pieces naturally interlock at a time like this.