The Chinese government’s draconian response to the coronavirus outbreak begs a question. Do authoritarian regimes have an advantage, relative to democracies, in responding to crises?
A brief refresher on democracy. A form of government “in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
A brief refresher on the Coronavirus quarantine. Following the Coronavirus outbreak, the Chinese government imposed a quarantine that severely restricts travel into and out of an area with a population the size of California.
In an interview with Scientific American, NYU bioethicist Arthur Caplan upheld the measure as necessary for containing the spread of the disease. In addition, he noted the legal hurdles that might prevent such a measure in the United States.
“But quarantining an entire large city—or multiple cities—is not an approach that would work in many other places. You’re not going to quarantine the city of New York, ever,” Caplan argues, noting that U.S. authorities could not even effectively enforce a quarantine imposed on one nurse who returned to the country after treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone in 2014. “
The last sentence refers to the quarantine attempted on Kari Hickox. Upon her return to the states from West Africa, where she had treated Ebola patients, Hickox was quarantined for three days in New Jersey before being permitted to return to Maine. The Maine authorities tried to extend Hickox’ quarantine but Hickox took legal action and won.
(Hickox was neither infected with Ebola nor showed any symptoms).
There aren’t many other recent examples of an industrialized democracy dealing with a pandemic (though the US imposed a fair number of quarantines in the 19th-century: more on this later).
However, democratic systems have stumbled in confronting the multitude of crises currently facing humanity.
Take climate change. In the United States, older, more conservative constituencies support politicians who deny its very existence despite the numerous signs that it is indeed happening.
Even lefties in the US and Europe who claim to care about climate change are loath to take measures to restrict vehicle travel (e.g. ending parking minimums, raising gas taxes) that would actually make a dent in emissions.
What’s happening here?
In a government where politicians are responsive to the people, prudent action can be hampered by imperfect information, groupthink (i.e. voting based on social identity rather than substantive issues), and lack of political knowledge. Differing levels of political participation not only take the “democratic” out of democracy (as practiced) but allow well-connected minorities to hamper actions that would benefit the populace at large.
And yet, China’s response to the Coronavirus shows that authoritarian systems, in all likelihood, do a worse job of handling crises.
In the first days of the outbreak, the Wuhan provincial government dragged its feet, going so far as to threaten a doctor who reported the first cases of the virus.
Such misinformation may reflect authoritarian governments’ prioritization of (the facade of) stability over public welfare. They can solidify legitimacy this way (and always have a golden escape parachute in case things get out of control).
In fact, the Chinese government is already sending people back to work, despite acknowledging that the virus is still an issue.
Furthermore, the quarantine may not actually have been the most effective measure. By concentrating persons (both healthy and sick) in a disease-ridden area, it could end up increasing the infection rate in these areas. Restrictions on the flow of goods into and out of quarantine areas create shortages in medicines those infected desperately need. Democratic oversight on this policy would have probably warranted consideration of these issues.
Point being, democracies have stronger incentives and improved feed-back mechanisms for protecting public well-being in times of crisis. How can democracies respond to voters without being beholden to voters’ imperfections, or to the narrow interests of a loud minority?
I wonder how improving the spread of knowledge from expert sources can better inform voters (something social media could aid, if willing to referee). Bringing more people into the democratic process dampens interest group politics, if the focus is on achieving outcomes rather than fighting battles.
3 responses to “Democracy in a Time of Crisis”
Well written, Ryland. I agree with your conclusions.
[…] a month ago, I pondered whether democratic governments could respond to COVID-19 as effectively as authoritarian China. I […]