The Ratchet Effect

Robert Higgs, author of the libertarian work Crisis and Leviathan, explained one of my key issues with “temporary powers” granted to government in times of emergencies:

One aspect of my model, however, has received relatively little notice, although I have always regarded it as especially important. That is the notion that episodes of crisis and abrupt growth of government leave legacies after the crisis has passed, and these legacies, which may be institutional or ideological, sometimes lie dormant for long periods before they exert effects on the course of events.

I never thought, before 9/11, that I would ever have to explain to conservatives, classical liberals, and some libertarians the dangers of granting large amounts of emergency powers to the government even on a temporary basis.  Human history is so full of examples of why this is patently stupid that I would’ve thought people would know better by now.  The line of argument typically goes something like this:

‘We’re in a war with terrorists who could get their hands on weapons of mass destruction.  I know this power wasn’t originally allowed in the constitution, but the constitution isn’t a suicide pact!  And anyway, the government almost always gives back all of its emergency powers after the crisis is over.  Look at WWI or WWII.  There were lots of wartime powers that the government willingly relinquished after the fighting was over.’

Now, while this may appear persuasive, Robert gives a good example of the danger of setting precedent.  Once you’ve allowed a president to usurp a power, or once Congress has been cowed into granting such a power, it never is fully off-the-table again.  In Roberts example, a power the Fed was allowed to excercise 70 years ago that nobody knew about was flexed again in this AIG bailout.  While that’s far from the worst precedent to be followed-up on, it illustrates the point.

The Presidency will not always be occupied by people we feel are trustworthy, or good.  Having the safety of our liberty depend on the “continued” saintliness of our political class is a recipe for disaster.  The ability to claim that someone is an enemy of the state, and indefinitely incarcerate them with no due process is a terrifying power.  While some may claim that President Bush hasn’t abused this power, and has only used it for good things, can we always trust that such an unchecked power will never be used improperly in the future?  No we can’t.

And by not sanctioning President Bush for this and other abuses of power, we’ve pretty much guaranteed these powers will be used again.  It’s only a matter of time before a President uses this precedent and some precedents set by Abraham Lincoln in the civil war to start disappearing opposition politicians or adversarial reporters.

While it’s true that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, unfortunately the rest of us get to enjoy the remedial lessons as well.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
Jonathan Goff

About Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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9 Responses to The Ratchet Effect

  1. John Schneider says:

    It’s a good essay, and one I agree wholeheartedly with.

    I have an article suggestion, since your suggestion box is down: a feasibility analysis of the different heat-shield types mentioned in the Rocket Company would be really cool. Particularly about the sort using materials that hold large quantities of water and give it up under certain stimulus. As a Libertarian talk radio host/college student (business student at that) with an interest in rockets, I would find this article to be extremely interesting.

  2. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    John,
    Good point, I need to see about moving Skribit over to the new blog site.

    As for discussing heat shield types, I had been thinking about posting a bit about that…but it’s an area where I really don’t have a huge amount to add to what was already written there. I could try to do a nice layman’s discussion about some of the issues as I see it, but that’s about all I could really say on the topic.

    ~Jon

  3. Monte Davis says:

    I could try to do a nice layman’s discussion…

    Go for it. TPS is a good proxy for many of the technical challenges that were fudged on the way to STS, and on which little real progress has been made since then. A lot of space fans assume that “of course” we could now do a lot better than foamed ceramic tiles over felt over aluminum. In fact, we’re very little closer to a robust, manufacturable solution than we were when STS’ designers laid aside their hopes for hot structures and/or active cooling ~35 years ago.

    (John: massive as water is, and costly as it would be to carry it all the way to orbit for 15 minutes of re-entry, the “boil-off” idea is still attractive. What worries me is that it demands a material which is “just right” in both its percolation properties and its mechanical/chemical resistance to a nasty mix of superheated steam plus dissociated H and O, with all kinds of cavitation and wild pressure transients at a wide range of scales. A steam turbine designer will tell you how nasty that environment can be even where strength/weight constraints are a lot more forgiving.)

  4. Monte Davis says:

    Having the safety of our liberty depend on the “continued” saintliness of our political class is a recipe for disaster.

    Kenneth Burke in 1931, on ideas for “technocratic” rule advanced during the Great Depression:

    “Now the practical, who are well endowed with faith, like to assume that the proposed authority will be both benevolent and capable. (Why they make such cautious plans, after this beginning, I do not know — for once you postulate human virtue as the foundation of a system, you are a dullard indeed if you can’t make up a thousand schemes for a good society. A society is sound only if it can prosper on its vices, since virtues are by definition rare and exceptional.)”

  5. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Monte,
    Exactly. If people were angelic, we would never have to fear concentrated power. But people aren’t angelic, particularly those who manage to claw their way to the top. As Joseph Smith pointed out (while rotting in a Missouri jail on trumped up treason charges) “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.” A little earlier in his letter he described that the most typical ways this abuse of power is exhibited is in attempting to cover up sin, gratify pride or vain ambition, and to exercise control or dominion over others.

    But I guess, noticing that human nature is that way doesn’t necessarily require the gift of prophecy–just a pair of working eyes.

    ~Jon

  6. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Monte,
    I’ll try to get to that TPS discussion. I may end up making it a little more of an open comment thread, because quite frankly, it’s outside my primary area of expertise.

    ~Jon

  7. Adam Greenwood says:

    The layman’s discussion would be helpful.

    On your post–I’m by no means a libertarian and I accept that sometimes the evil of ‘temporary’ emergency powers is the lesser of two evils. But the press in this country is increasingly disposes to portray everything as an emergency. And our political system increasingly wants to embrace everything as an emergency, since our political system was essentially designed not to function except in cases of emergency. The end result is that everything is an emergency. Energy emergency! Terrorist emergency! Financial emergency! Global warming emergency!

    The Paulson proposal sounds plausible to me. If our governing class and information class were disposed to hype everything into an emergency I’d probably accept it. But since the powers that be portray everything as an emergency, as a voter I have no reason to assume that this one really is. I can’t go haring off up the mountain on the off-chance that this time there really is a wolf.

  8. Adam Greenwood says:

    uh, “were not”

  9. Habitat Hermit says:

    Adam Greenwood that’s an intriguing and interesting take on it and if it is correct it is also a deadly blow to the very structural foundations of the US all the way back to the beginning.

    If I should make an argument against it I would try to start from pointing out that one should remember that the thoughts, principles and systems the US was founded upon inspired and continue to inspire a very high number of other countries to implement related/similar systems and many of those are not at all “essentially designed not to function except in cases of emergency”. In short at the very least it can’t all be broken.

    Either way the mere possibility of it clearly exemplifies the virtue of having several different implementations available to gain experience from –worth remembering and space will hopefully step in as a future enabler of further diversification and experimentation on the concepts.

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