2020 05 – Political Theory in Responding to Covid-19

Plague and Political Theory

Christopher Winch

Nation states in the West are based on the ideology of liberalism. According to liberalism the state is a means of coercion whose only justification is the defence of the population from internal and external enemies and the securing of private property through legal as well as ‘kinetic’ means. Threats to the population of a nation state are: other  criminals internally and other states and/or brigands externally. At a stretch there are also wild beasts to be defended against: wolves, bears, snakes etc. Coercive power underpinned by a monopoly on the exercise of force is only justified to deal with threats to property and life coming from internal and external enemies, actual and potential.

To my knowledge, liberal thinkers do not consider natural threats to life: disease, famine, drought, earthquakes as factors to be taken account of when justifying the state. Liberal states do take such measures but they always sit uneasily with the ideology that underpins the state. But populations need protection from these threats as much as they do from the more conventional ones. So why are these threats neglected in liberal theory?

In part, this is because no state in the Seventeenth or Eighteenth Century could have dealt with some of these: virus and bacteria borne disease, threats posed by the climate and weather for example. But it has been well-known for millenia that food security can be improved through irrigation and navigation projects, as happened for example in Ancient Imperial China. Where liberal political theorists pay any attention to these at all it is to sneer. For example, Adam Smith in Book V of the Wealth of Nations dismisses reports of public works carried out by states in the Far East, without considering whether such works might be necessary and a proper function of a state that took the welfare of its population seriously. The idea that the state might increase people’s freedom by promoting public works to make them more safe and prosperous is anathema to liberals like Smith, not to mention contemporaries like Hayek and Nozick.

Let’s consider some features of these natural threats, with particular attention to plagues.

The enemy is invisible, impersonal, and does not have any malevolent intent. It cannot be frightened and its progress is invisible and insidious. You can’t mobilise the population against an ‘enemy’ in the conventional sense. Everything depends on organisation, education, persuasion, co-operation and compliance of the population. The lead has to be taken by the state, although a strong civil society and sense of solidarity can help enormously. But liberalism doesn’t take much account of these either.

The probability of the occurrence of these threats is known in a very general sense, but predicting them is difficult even when the general causal explanation for their occurrence is broadly understood. Inevitably, if they are to be mitigated there needs to be contingency planning, precautions need to be taken and that means redundancy in provision. Economic liberals hate the ‘inefficiency’ required by built-in redundancy. For them what is important is not the potential to ward off economic damage, but the maximum flow of goods and services.

To a certain extent everyone is threatened by plagues, pestilences such as locusts, droughts, earthquakes, etc. The wealthy can mitigate these threats but they remain deadly and unpredictable to all within the national boundaries. Furthermore, they are oblivious to national boundaries and cannot be contained within them unless extraordinary measures are taken such as restrictions on movement. The extent to which they damage a population does depend though on the ability of the population to take avoiding and mitigating action collectively. Up to a point this depends on collective habits of trust and solidarity but is unlikely to be sufficiently effective without the coercive power of the state being brought to bear to enforce collective action. Again, this threatens the market-based ‘spontaneous order’ based on short-term advantage beloved by liberals, especially economic liberals.

All of this can only be achieved with the state adopting a role markedly stronger than that accepted by liberalism. This is not even to mention the need to regulate the economy in crisis situations which has become so apparent in recent months. Recent awareness of the ability of the state to use its monopoly on the issue of money (ultimately based on its coercive power), to mitigate economic damage caused by plague and  to revive damaged economies, only reinforces the importance of the role that the state plays in maintaining normal life. The state can also mitigate personal risk. As we have seen in the US, people will not volunteer in times of plague if infection means financial ruin for them. This is not the case in the UK, where this risk is managed by the existence of the NHS. In Britain, a state based on liberal ideology, an irruption of socialism immediately after the Second World War ensured that the state took on the major responsibility for the health of the population.

David Hume (more of a conservative than a liberal thinker) emphasised both the sociability of human beings and our short term perspective. A ‘society without government’ could get along perfectly well for millennia, but would be unable to take long-term measures to secure the population’s security or to co-ordinate complex processes and divergent interests. For this a political class is necessary, able to make the long-term interests of the population their own short-term interests. Unfortunately, in liberal democracies it is much easier for politicians to attend to the short-term interests of the population if they wish to survive as a political class.

Until, that is, disaster strikes. The limited predictability of natural disasters (their long-term probability is known but their short-term probability much less so) reduces the incentive to take collective precautions. They belong to the realm of ‘known unknowns’ and this is an excuse to neglect them as the population will not even be aware that they are being neglected. This, together with the redundancy required for effective collective action to secure protection, makes liberalism ill-equipped to extend its protective doctrine from human to natural threats to human safety. We can also add that liberalism’s encouragement of short-term individualistic behaviour makes it more difficult to secure the non-coerced collective action that makes response to this kind of threat much more effective.

In other words, liberalism sees collective action in the face of threats as a regrettable necessity unless it is accompanied by the pursuit of private profit, as in the case of military technology. The development of public works and improved hygiene in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been the result of reforming pressure on the state through class struggle, not through the internal development of liberal ideology. The exception was the German development, influenced more by the economic nationalism of Friedrich List rather than the dogmatic cosmopolitanism of Adam Smith, which put in social provision early and ‘ate the socialist’s lunch’.

What is the role of the state if its role as a solution to collective action problems is to be taken seriously?

We need a realistic assessment of the threats, which may remain potential and unpredictable. This means the funding of national and international research and monitoring bodies whose ‘payoff’ may be uncertain. A  precautionary principle needs to be adopted, meaning there must be redundancy built into hygiene, public health and safety measures. The ‘threat to one, threat to all’ principle suggests collective action which can be coercive, but which also depends on habits of  compliance and co-operation to be fully effective. In the absence of such habits the state needs to take both precautionary, educative and coercive measures to ensure compliance in the face of health emergencies. This means a large degree of national self-sufficiency, such as making sure that there is enough medicine and medical equipment within the borders of the nation state to deal with sudden and unpredictable emergencies. But international collaboration is also linked to national security: collective security measures are a primary principle as viruses and bacteria are oblivious to national borders. Plague and natural disasters need collective action by states to mitigate their effects. The state as a body with a monopoly of force is the only collective agent within a society that can do these four things, but it is necessary for them to be done but not sufficient. There also needs to be a will to do them and a public attitude that supports that will. But even this may not be sufficient. At the very least there needs to be international co-operation in order to detect developing threats and to devise ways of coping with them. This means some pooling of national resources for an international common good.

Why has liberalism faltered in doing promptly what is required in the face of such threats? Liberal ideology has largely ignored them as an issue for collective security and collective action. Those particular liberal states most saturated with attitudes about the undesirability of state action and least inclined to promote collective compliance in the face of threats have shown themselves to be least equipped to deal with a plague. The United States and the United Kingdom stand out in this respect. So why is liberal ideology so uncomfortable about natural threats? The main problem is hubris about the power of markets and a failure to understand human vulnerability in the face of nature. Since these threats require pervasive collective action, whereas liberal ideology only mandates collective action in limited circumstances, sometimes not including those which pose a deadly threat to humanity, it is ill-equipped to justify the protection of populations against some of the most deadly threats to their security. Another way of putting this is to say that sometimes the exercise of one person’s rights has a very negative effect on the rights of another. My right to have a picnic in the park may affect someone’s else’s right to life. The protection of fundamental rights of one person then requires the temporary restriction of less fundamental ones of another person. A political theory based on recognition of these threats and the need for both the state and the population to act collectively to deal with them is needed. Socialism is such a possible response but only if the left lets go of the liberal thinking that raises individualism to a fetish.