An uncontroversial observation, some might say. But the pair review the cross‐country wreckage to try to identify lessons from the successful and unsuccessful countries. Their conclusion: the better public health outcomes of East Asia highlight the legacy of a key Western failure (especially in Britain and the US) — decades of not taking government seriously.
The supposed glory days of good government through the 1960s gave way to left‐wing overreach in the 70s and neoliberal overreach in the 80s and 90s. The consequence of both has been crowd‐out and underinvestment in core government functions and ineffective, low quality leadership. The pair want the pandemic to wake us from this stupor, encouraging meaningful reform to re‐focus the state and measures to raise the prestige of public service itself.
As a libertarian, I’m predisposed to believe this year’s deaths and economic carnage land at the feet of useless, overbearing Western governments. I’m currently writing my own book that touches on the failures of politicians to think like economists through this crisis and have criticised how the growing scope of the state may have crowded out focus on core activity, such as infectious disease control, while highlighting how more specific government failures have made things worse.
But while there have been plenty of mistakes of competence and calculation, Micklethwait and Wooldridge’s book unwittingly highlights the difficulty of finding readily generalisable big picture conclusions for why some states have performed better than others. At times, we almost face a tautology:
“Why did some countries do well with Covid‐19?”
“Because they have more effective governments!”
“How do we know they have more effective governments?”
“Because they did well with Covid‐19!”
The problem any analysis seeking “lessons” about government from this episode faces is that simple correlation analysis finds no relationship between deaths/population and either government size, health‐to‐GDP spending, measures of government effectiveness, measures of state capacity, pandemic preparedness, recent fiscal policy, or inequality—the favoured metrics of many commentators (see my Twitter thread here)
Micklethwait and Wooldridge hold up East Asian states, for example, which have indeed enjoyed much lower death rates and have much to admire more broadly. Yet it seems a stretch to imply, as they do, that features of their governments — such as being unencumbered by large welfare states and granting higher status to public officials — explains their good Covid performance more than, say, having had recent experience with SARS and MERS. Especially because such a theory cannot account for the relative success of, say, Germany, let alone Greece.
“Three things stand out among the failures: a complete lack of urgency; an inability to organise testing and protective equipment; and dysfunctional politics,” Micklethwait and Wooldridge muse—a very US-UK centred view that perhaps also incorporates Brazil and Belgium. But there was no reason to expect that Greece, Australia, and Poland would be coping a lot better with Covid‐19 than Sweden and Switzerland, given the relative stability of the latter group’s politics. So, what are the implications?