Politicians—aided by media hysteria—seize the opportunity to dispense funds, create new programs, and enact proposals that had languished before the crisis. The current pandemic, for instance, has given protectionists a new excuse for restricting international trade. Progressives in Congress have tried to create new protections for workers and immigrants, subsidies for alternative energy, and mandates for diversity programs. Trillions have been added to the national debt with little debate because criticism becomes taboo during a crisis. During World War II, the conversation stopper was, “Don’t you know there’s a war on?” Today it’s repurposed by substituting “pandemic” for “war,” and accompanied by solemn declarations like, “A human life is priceless.”
The Covid-19 lockdown measures are supposed to be temporary, but Higgs expects them to endure due to another consequence of the negativity effect: because bad events have more impact than good ones, people strive harder to avoid losses than they do to achieve gains. As a result, any new government program typically creates a powerful coalition committed to its preservation: an “iron triangle” consisting of a legislative committee, an administrative bureaucracy, and a group of special interests reaping benefits from the program.
“Attempts to eliminate or diminish emergency programs,” Higgs wrote, “run up against a fundamental principle of political action: People will fight harder to keep an established benefit than they will fight to obtain an identical benefit in the first place. This asymmetry assists every effort to hang onto iron triangles created or enlarged during a crisis.”