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Too early or too late?David Runciman
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Vol. 42 No. 7 · 2 April 2020

Too early or too late?

David Runciman on political timing and the pandemic

3536 words

InDemocracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, published in 2016, the political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels described what happened when sharks started attacking bathers off the New Jersey shore in the summer of 1916. It was a wholly unexpected turn of events: sharks had never been seen that far north before. When lifeguards began pulling mauled and dying swimmers out of the water, the effect on local businesses was devastating. Resort hotels that were normally full saw occupancy rates fall to 25 per cent. The highly seasonal local economy registered significant job losses. There was little anyone could do about it, least of all the federal government. Back then the US had minimal national disaster planning and pitifully limited welfare and relief programmes. The things politicians could do – shut the beaches, close the resorts – would only have made the problem worse, and anyway would have come too late. Soon the sharks had moved on. But people were looking for someone to blame, so they blamed the president.

In that year’s presidential election Woodrow Wilson lost the state of New Jersey, where he had once been governor. The biggest swings against him came in the counties nearest the shore, where the switch of allegiance was comparable to the turn against Herbert Hoover at the nadir of the Great Depression. In his opponents’ local campaign literature Wilson was symbolised by a black shark fin. It made no sense: the president hadn’t summoned the sharks and was powerless to mend the damage. But the strategy worked. In the end Wilson narrowly held on to the White House, compensating for his losses in the North-East with sweeping gains in the agrarian Midwest, far from the sea. But the sharks nearly cost him. Even though there was nothing he could have done, voters thought he should have done something.

In the current crisis another shark has been on people’s minds. In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak quite a few commentators compared Trump to the fictional mayor in Jaws. Steven Spielberg’s mayor refuses at first to accept that a shark is responsible for the fatal attacks – he claims the first was a boating accident. When the evidence becomes hard to refute he still declines to shut the resort. Only when another swimmer gets chewed up on 4 July does he finally accept that he needs to call in the professionals. It’s all rather Trumpian. But only one politician has actually cited the actions of the mayor from Jaws as a model of crisis management, and it isn’t Trump. Boris Johnson used to tease audiences by suggesting that ‘the real hero of Jaws was the mayor, a wonderful politician. A gigantic fish is eating all his constituents and he decides to keep the beaches open.’ Usually Johnson would end his riff by admitting: ‘OK, in that instance he was wrong. But in principle we need more politicians like the mayor.’

That Boris Johnson – the playful provocateur – has barely been in evidence recently. As prime minister during the greatest health crisis of his or anyone else’s lifetime, in public at least he has been sombre, serious and at pains to show that he is following the best scientific advice. Only when he talked about ‘squashing the sombrero’ – to describe the government’s original strategy of trying to manage rather than contain the spread of the disease – did we get a hint of the old Johnson. But political leaders never entirely leave behind their primal political instincts. Johnson is an instinctive libertarian. He doesn’t believe in telling people what to do. He is not, despite what some of his wilder Twitter critics say, a Social Darwinian. There is no evidence that he thinks a cleansing virus will relieve the body politic of its weaker members, and so relieve the Treasury of the burden of their social care. In 1918, at the height of the Spanish flu, some newspapers held that succumbing to the disease was evidence of a weakness of will. Johnson isn’t so callous.

But he is a product of his class and his background. He is a man who rags children and throws people into swimming pools. During one of London’s recent heatwaves, he chided those who felt that travelling on public transport was intolerable in 40°C heat. It might be a little ‘muggy’, he said, but people should just get on with it. You know what he was thinking: don’t be such wusses. And you know why he was thinking it: this isn’t how we built the British Empire. It was pretty muggy during the Raj too, not to mention the ever present risk of fatal illness, and that never stopped us then. These are some of the ways in which Johnson thinks of himself as Churchillian.

But it isn’t just Johnson. In the fights about crisis management we have all been following our political instincts, even when we insist we’re just talking about the science. It’s true that there has been a big difference between the response of the British government – which appears genuinely to have been guided by the scientific advice it received – and that of the US government, which for a long time seemed to be operating on a wing and a prayer. Yet there’s no such thing as simply doing what the science says. This is partly because the science itself is political – how could it not be, when so much of it is the science of human behaviour? Models of the expected course of the disease under different policy regimes rest on assumptions about how people will respond to government injunctions to change the way they live. The point isn’t that the people who create the models are following their own political preferences – they aren’t saying that they want this or that to occur – but that anyone acting on the basis of those models will also be passing a judgment on their underlying premises. The government’s decision to delay introducing strict restrictions and to seek to slow rather than stop the spread of the virus was consistent both with the idea that a squashed sombrero saves more lives in the long run and with the idea that hasty government intervention is often counterproductive. The first is a ‘scientific’ claim. The second is a ‘political’ one. But are you sure you can tell the difference?

The torrents of criticism brought down on Johnson have invariably been issued in the name of science. ‘I’m an epidemiologist. When I heard about Britain’s “herd immunity” coronavirus plan, I thought it was satire,’ one recent headline in the Guardian ran. Science (an ‘-ology’) over here; satire (politics) over there. But the people who demand more action – quicker, faster, harder – are usually those who feel comfortable with major political intervention anyway. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong. If you believe that most citizens are more or less capable of doing what is asked of them at the appropriate time then a more interventionist approach will almost certainly save lives in the long run. This is a real argument, based on real evidence. But it still starts with an ‘if’.

Partisanship and the tribalism of our politics have entrenched this division, particularly online. Rumour and suspicion abound. Have you heard that Boris’s inner circle have been telling their friends for weeks that they should be getting out of London? Why is the Labour leadership so eager to shut down the leadership contest? But you can’t just blame the temper of the times: there has always been division between those who distrust government intervention and those who demand it. The effects of this crisis may yet end up being more severe than those of the last great crisis we faced, to which this one is often compared, the financial meltdown of 2008. But there is a similarity: then, as much as now, responses to the policy challenges were shaped by political instincts, even when the responses were evidence-based. Those on the right, whether libertarian or socially conservative, worried that massive upfront government intervention would have damaging effects down the line: pent-up inflation, zombie corporations kept on life support. No one went quite as far as Andrew Mellon did in his plea to Hoover in 1932 that he ‘liquidate … liquidate … liquidate [and] purge the rottenness out of the system,’ but they too thought it better to suffer a few immediate casualties than risk the consequences: support lavished now, through whatever misguided good intentions, would only cost us dear later on. And the same instinct is at work today, among those who warn that a ‘second wave’ of the virus might be more deadly than the first. What will happen, they ask, when the NHS is at overcapacity and people stop obeying the government? They present forecasts totting up the number of lives that will be lost if we intervene too soon, which they say could be just as costly as intervening too late.

Their critics on the left think this is crazy. Why wait to save lives? Why gamble on an unknown future when we can take action today? In an odd twist, the Keynesians of 2008 are the ‘lockdowners’ of 2020. Shut the schools! Stimulate the economy! Of course shutting the schools, now that it’s finally happened, will do nothing to stimulate the economy – but that’s all right because it just makes government intervention in the form of a massive stimulus and welfare package all the more essential.

This argument is, in part, about how we should think of the future. For those who warn about a second wave of the illness – pointing to charts from the flu pandemic of 1918 to show that it was the second wave then, hitting in the autumn, that did the real damage – the future is long, almost as long as the past. It is a place where we’ll have to live, whether we like it or not. This is one of the things that makes them – or many of them – conservatives. For those who itch for action sooner, the future is both more remote and more pliable. It is a place that can be what we would like it to be, if only we put in the effort.

Something​ the 2008 financial crisis revealed is that the instinct to protect the future against too hasty action in the present rarely survives its first real contact with the enemy. Worries about the long-term consequences of rash government intervention tend to evaporate once trouble is staring you in the face. During the financial crisis governments of all political stripes – advised by central bankers ostensibly of none – threw money at the problem, fears of future inflation be damned. The result wasn’t uniform, since it mattered a great deal how, and how much, money was spent. But no one stood by and watched things burn as Hoover had done. This pattern – universal agreement over the correct response, with local variations – has repeated itself in 2020. Centre-right governments – in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia and the US (if you can call the US centre-right) – have been more resistant than others to pushing the shutdown button. But they haven’t been very resistant. The extra days and weeks it took them will make a difference, just as the different levels of government intervention shaped long-term outcomes after 2008. Still, as I write, talk of a second wave has receded. The first wave is enough to be getting on with. France, a centre-right government which once tried to pass for a centre-left one, tried to hold the line for longer than its equivalents in Italy or Spain. But once the line could no longer be held, it moved to an all-out war footing. For now the war is all there is, and the peace will have to take care of itself.

We don’t know yet whether the British government will have to follow the French, who had to follow the Spanish, who had to follow the Italians, down the road to a total shutdown of major cities. Libertarians inside the government will resist. But if and when that resistance becomes futile and the army is called on to patrol the streets, libertarians can be the most unscrupulous politicians of all, because they have no principles left to compromise.

What this crisis has revealed, even more clearly than the last, is that libertarianism isn’t the laissez-faire attitude it sometimes pretends to be. There has been nothing que sera about Johnson’s approach. Libertarians have their charts too, their faith in the science, their insistence on doing what the evidence calls for. Inaction has to be empirically justified: in a situation like this a shrug of the shoulders won’t do. A virus that lurks in the shadows of the data waiting to reappear – like the risk of inflation that we’re told never really goes away – is politically useful: it can be a device for resisting excessive commitments in the here and now. But a crisis is a useful device of another kind, since it shows that these fears are largely redundant. In the central divide of our politics, it isn’t that one side is stoical and the other trigger-happy, or that one side is open-minded and the other side closed. In the end, everyone is twitchy.

The divide is also about the nature of democracy. Another deep worry on the libertarian right is that large-scale government intervention during a crisis will be hard to unwind once the crisis is over. This is the slippery slope argument that Friedrich Hayek polished to perfection in The Road to Serfdom (1944). He believed that the vast centralised systems of planning which the war against fascism had required would continue to infect democratic politics long after the war was done. This followed logically from his view that, in a democracy, planning always boils down to favouritism: planners get to decide who gets what, on the basis of political preference alone. There are no impartial rules to say which industries should be bailed out, which jobs protected or citizens saved. There are only prejudices. Once voters realised this, Hayek thought, they would want more of the benefits for themselves – to hell with others. This would be entirely rational. Why stand by and watch someone else get saved when you know that the judgment that saved them was arbitrary? Hayekians regard democracy under planning as a contest to see who can shout loudest. It slides towards oppression because the more politicians seek to exercise control, the louder people shout, and the louder they shout the more control politicians feel obliged to exert.

Hayek was wrong about the slippery slope. If planning inevitably led to public demands for more and more preferential treatment and therefore to more and more planning we would hardly be where we are today, trying to deal with a crisis for which we are so ill-prepared, with government bureaucracies stripped of many of the capabilities they are going to need. But the reason we’re in this situation is that Hayek won the argument. Some Western democracies elected Hayekians to government, beginning with Thatcher, who once banged down a copy of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty in a meeting and declared: ‘This, gentlemen, is what we believe!’ The direction of travel over the last forty years has been in the Hayekians’ favour: towards deregulation, market competition, global interdependence and winner-take-all economies. The 2008 financial crisis arrested the momentum of that movement but didn’t fundamentally alter its course. Now, though, the future may be more open to lasting change. If this crisis does represent a turning point towards the assertion of greater government control over economic outcomes it won’t be because we were on that slippery slope all along. It will be because – as Hayek claimed to believe, without ever seeming to think the lesson applied to him – politics is never predictable.

In this sense, everything is arbitrary. Politicians – armed with the full range of available data and the latest assessments of the risks of acting too soon, too late, too fast, too slow – are making judgments that will benefit some people and harm others. Even the strictest libertarians, who think we should leave these judgments to fate, are staking a claim to the exercise of arbitrary power, because what is fate if not arbitrary? There is a difference between a politician deciding your fate and its being left to impersonal chance. But it isn’t a difference that matters much when lives are on the line. When something has to be done – and something always has to be done, even if it’s nothing – then what matters is what it leads to. It makes no sense to criticise some people for wanting to take action for its own sake. Claiming to be taking the long view, to be holding fire, to be thinking about the second wave is no less arbitrary than rushing to judgment now. In a crisis we’re all rushing to judgment. And so, in a crisis, we’re all Keynesians in the end, even if we aren’t doing what Keynes would have wanted.

The various rushed judgments that national politicians have made in recent weeks will have long-lasting consequences. How will they be judged for their choices? If Woodrow Wilson could be punished for failing to deal with sharks, over which he had no power, surely this crisis means that many political careers, indeed entire political movements, are on the line. By the autumn differences between national death rates ought to give voters all the information they need to determine whether these are the people they want to be making life and death decisions on their behalf. But as Achen and Bartels point out, it isn’t as simple as that. If voters sometimes punish politicians for events over which they had no control, they also sometimes fail to punish them for things that they could have prevented, or at least mitigated. It depends on whether rival politicians succeed in constructing a plausible narrative of failure, which in turn depends on their own political choices rather than on the brute facts of the failure itself.

During the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, which killed a tenth of the population of Philadelphia in a few months, fierce political rivalry led to competing accounts of what had caused the disaster. Republicans attributed it to poor sanitation, climatic conditions and the city’s unhealthy location. Federalists tended to blame disembarking refugees from Haiti. As it happens, Achen and Bartels argue, ‘both sides were right.’ Deep political polarisation can get in the way of apportioning blame. ‘If available interpretations are sufficiently contested, and if incumbents can exploit competing explanations to exonerate themselves and blame others, they may sometimes escape blame altogether.’ More striking still is what happened after the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed many more people in a single year than died on the battlefields of the First World War. In Britain, the government chose to hold an election that December, while the country was still being ravaged by the illness, and it won an overwhelming victory. The flu played almost no part in the campaign, beyond killing some of those who took part in rallies. In the US, where half a million died, many because of the incompetence of their politicians, the electoral consequences were similarly negligible. Hence the need, as Achen and Bartels would have it, for sober realism:

If voters punished the incumbent government whenever they felt significant unhappiness, the millions of people who lost friends or family members to influenza in 1918 would have produced the greatest anti-incumbent landslide in American electoral history. But electoral retribution requires voters to imagine, however plausibly or implausibly, that incumbent leaders could have prevented or ameliorated their pain. In the case of the flu pandemic, that crucial attribution of political responsibility was lacking. As a result, as best we can tell, the electorate utterly failed to respond to the greatest public health catastrophe in US history.

We don’t know what will happen this time. The contingencies of politics are the contingencies of the disease; the contingencies of the disease are the contingencies of politics. If we get to November and Covid-19 has been eradicated in many places but is still latent in others, with small outbreaks threatening to become renewed sources of wider transmission, who will have been proved right and who wrong? The economic consequences at this point are unfathomable. In the medium term there are bound to be many political twists and turns. And in the long run, that temporal domain in which, as Keynes famously said, we are all dead? The long run is something else. Achen and Bartels quote the words of one historian of the Black Death, which remains to this point the worst plague in human history: ‘The plague also discredited the leaders of society, its governors, priests and intellectuals, and the laws and theories supported by them. These elites were obviously failing in their prime social function, the defence of the common welfare, in the name of which they enjoyed their privileges.’

19 March

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