The COVID Ratchet Shows Up

As the COVID pandemic unfolded in 2020, I predicted that before it was over, we’d surely hear calls for a cabinet level “Department of Pandemic Planning” or some other equivalent of the Department of Homeland Security that we set up in the aftermath of 9/11 to “coordinate” government agency activity at all levels of government.

That prediction has moved a step closer to fulfillment. From the New York Times today:

A bipartisan panel of health experts calls on Tuesday for an overhaul of the American public health system that would greatly expand the role of the federal government, giving Washington the authority to set minimum health standards and coordinate a patchwork of nearly 3,000 state, local and tribal agencies.

The recommendations flow from what the panel, the Commonwealth Fund Commission on a National Public Health System, described as the inadequacies and inequities of the United States’ response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than one million Americans.

But in a report released on Tuesday, the panel said it also wanted to address the failures of the nation’s public health agencies to protect Americans from other health risks, including drug overdoses, diabetes and maternal mortality.

Never mind the pretensions of centralized expertise, the belief in the magical powers of Washington to “coordinate,” and the mission-creep (i.e., expanding the portfolio beyond pandemics to solve every other health problem by “address[ing] the failure of the nation’s public health agencies to protect Americans from other health risks”). What the first paragraph means in practice is: no more Floridas or any other state or local government bucking the demands of Saint Anthony Fauci.

This is another perfect example of the “ratchet effect” in action (otherwise known as “never let a good crisis go to waste” when there’s more centralized government power to be accumulated), best described years ago by Robert Higgs. For more than a century now, government has grown bigger in the urgency of a “temporary” crisis of some kind, but somehow never recedes back to where it was before the crisis.

Here’s the schematic representation of how it works:

You might say that the ratchet effect is endemic to government.

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