The philosophical debate over the power and purpose of the state is an ancient one but COVID-19 provides a new. Responding to a pandemic effectively requires a robust state and the emergency can be used to warrant an expansion of the state’s power. While such an expansion can be warranted, there concerns about such expansions, and people should resist setting aside their critical faculties in the heat of a crisis.
One concern is the pandemic (or any crisis) will be used expand the power of the state to infringe upon liberty without having a positive impact on the crisis. While a crisis tends to claim reason as an early victim, the expansion of state power to protect us should always be carefully considered in terms of their negative impact on liberty and the effectiveness of the expansion in keeping us safe. An expansion that does not make us safer is clearly unjustified—we would be a paying a price in lost liberty in return for nothing. If the expansion does make us safer, then it becomes a matter of considering the benefits of the expansion in balance with the cost. As would be expected, people will differ a great deal when they weigh the benefits and costs. For example, someone who is very afraid of the threat will have a rather different assessment than someone who thinks the threat is minor or even a hoax. As another example, someone who greatly values a specific liberty (say the right to keep and bear arms) will see matters rather differently from someone who does not value (or even opposes) that liberty. While a rational assessment of such expansions will always have a strong subjective factor in play, it is essential to have an honest consideration of the facts. Unfortunately, misinformation and disinformation often come into play in such assessments. And, of course, emotions tend to have a negative impact on assessment.
While a rational assessment of expanding the power of state is always important, it is even more important in a time of crisis. This is because people will often be heavily influenced by their emotions and politicians tend to eagerly exploit the opportunity to expand the power of the state. Businesses and individuals will also endeavor to profit from such expansions, often at the expense of others. For example, it is easy to imagine companies like Google and Facebook using an expansion of location tracking as means to monetize the crisis. As such, we should always be on guard against such expansions.
It can be objected that there is no time for rational, objective assessment in a crisis and to try to do so is both foolish and wrong. While a crisis can often require immediate action, if there is time to expand the power of the state, then there is time to think about it. I am certainly not advocating dithering about in fruitless debate, but I am certainly advocating giving due consideration to the expansion of the power of the state. It would be foolish and wrong to act without thought.
The United States has suffered from not expanding the power of the state—we knew a crisis was on the way, but many leaders delayed, hesitated and took small steps rather than acting aggressively. This was a clear case where speed was important and the failure so far has not been due to a needless expansion of the state’s power, but a failure to exercise that power effectively and decisively. Though much time has been lost, some states are acting, and one must hope that it is not too little, too late.
In addition to carefully considering the expansion of the state’s power, one must also consider the duration of the expansion. An expansion of power that might be justified in a crisis is likely to be unwarranted and unnecessary when the crisis has passed. Since rulers are rarely inclined to give up their expanded powers, it is essential to place a clear and automatic limit on such expansions with clear rules for how they can be renewed. Otherwise, these expansions can become permanent and tempt rulers to exploit them.
There is also the concern that the expansion of the state can lead to bloat, such as the creation of new positions and entire departments. Such bloat can waste resources and cause inefficiency—something that is problematic even in normal times. Bureaucracies tend to grow over time rather than shrink—so the expansion must be carefully limited. That said, there is also a risk from reducing the size of the state to the point at which it will be unable to address a future crisis. The challenge is finding the right balance between too big and too small—to get it just right. Since people are inclined to discount the future and engaged in wishful thinking, it can often be challenging to convince them to expend resources to address a real crisis that might occur in the future. Thus, the expansion and reduction of the state should be given careful consideration and based on a rational, objective assessment of likely future need. Unfortunately, this sort of approach tends to not win elections.
While the expansion of the state in a crisis is what people most often think of, there is also the matter of the state reducing its power. To be specific, the rulers might decide to weaken or suspend regulations. They might also weaken or suspend protections for citizens. On the positive side, there can be clear justifications for weakening or even suspending some regulations. For example, since there is a need to rapidly expand hospitals to deal with the consequences of our rulers’ poor handling of the crisis, it makes good sense to suspend or weaken many of the normal rules that would impede this process. As another example, the vital need for test kits and treatments can justify weakening or suspending some of the normal regulations that would slow down the process. Doing so is not without risks but can be justified as one justifies the way ambulances drive: going fast and breaking the normal traffic rules creates a danger, but this is supposed to be outweighed by the need for speed.
Just as the expansion of the state must be justified, assessed and kept on a time limit, the same applies to reducing the state. There are the obvious concerns that weakening or suspending regulations could do more harm than good in specific cases. There is also the concern that the unethical will exploit the situation for their own advantage and to the detriment of others. For example, an unethical pharmaceutical company might misuse the change in regulations to take shortcuts to maximize profits rather than to benefit the public. As another example, tech companies might exploit weakening or suspension of privacy laws to scoop up data that they will monetize under the mask of helping with the crisis.