Paul Jacob

It’s not exactly new, but using the word “emergency” to justify political action — particularly new spending or new taxation — has emerged as the default rhetorical (and legal) trick of the modern politician.

Back on the campaign trail, candidate Barack Obama promised transparency in the legislative process. President Obama, on the other hand, now says that he will sign his new super-duper Keynesian “stimulus” bill on Monday, without benefit of transparency. He has pushed it through Congress without first publishing it online for the promised five days of citizen review. (Of course, not a single congressman has read the 11,000-page bill, either.)

Why must we not look before we leap? We are in a crisis, that’s why, an “emergency.”

But of course, it would take bigger brains than the president has in his trust — or we have on tap on this spheroid we call Earth — to demonstrate why the spending is needed a mere five days earlier than his transparency promise would allow. Five days won’t add an appreciable kick to any alleged stimulus.

And hey: Five days late could mean a workweek’s delay in paying the bill for all the “stimulus” . . . three centuries from now.

Economic historian Robert Higgs, in his brilliant book Crisis and Leviathan, developed what he calls “the ratchet theory of government growth.” He notes that government spending tends to spike upwards in times of crisis, when people panic, or when spending may actually be necessary (such as after Pearl Harbor), but once the crisis is over, spending rarely subsides back to the pre-crisis levels. Spending does not fall below the last click of the political ratchet.

Thus we know how Big Government emerges: Through emergencies, real or perceived.

Or, as it often the case, trumped up.

Too cynical?

No, of course not. There’s so much evidence for this theory of government growth that really, I could just stop right here and be done with it.

But let’s briefly consider the evidence not at the national level, but closer to home, in the states.

Politicians in the state of Maine provide today’s most instructive example. To tell the story, though, I’ll start with the citizenry.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.