12 November 2020

Competent governance – not ideology – kills the Covid cat

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I suspect Nicola Sturgeon would quite like to be New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern — at least when it comes to managing COVID-19. Her emulative desire extends to drawing explicit comparisons and of late has manifested in attempts to get responses out of the Kiwi leader on Twitter.

The latter incident generated snippy observations that Sturgeon was “a simp”. This bit of kid-ese refers to an individual who invests a lot of “notice me” energy in a romantic interest who then blanks him. Realistically, it’s more likely Ardern is simply a terse twitterer, but that doesn’t mean we should take Sturgeon’s other claims at face value.

It’s not just that Scotland has had a coronavirus horror run (along with the rest of the UK) while New Zealand is a notable success story. There’s also the basic fact that widespread arguments purporting to correlate “covid success” with political ideology, sex of president or prime minister, or style of leadership amount to weapons-grade statistical hooey.

Probably the most risible example was Pankaj Mishra in the London Review of Books, a piece so bad (blaming “unfettered markets and minimal government”) it prompted Janan Ganesh of the Financial Times to launch himself into the letters pages and observe that “public spending in what Pankaj Mishra calls ‘Anglo-America’ exceeds that in Australia, which has dealt with Covid-19 better than either nation. France has perhaps the largest state in the OECD and no obvious taste for individualist dogma. It fared worse than New Zealand. Greece, which has performed well, is not known for possessing a technocratic super-class to which citizens defer equably.” You could hear a sigh in one of his observations: “a bummer, I know, but we have to entertain the possibility that there is no neat lesson from the pandemic.”

Ganesh was writing in early August, and since then a clearer picture has emerged — one that reinforces his point.

First, Covid-19 has vindicated no politics. New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern is a left-leaning social democrat. Australia’s Scott Morrison is a right-leaning conservative. Victoria, Australia’s worst-performing state (although still better than Germany, the EU’s best performing state) has the most left-wing government in the country. Taiwan has a centre-left government. Japan has a centre-right government. Then there’s the discomforting little detail that one of the best performing countries is Vietnam, which isn’t even a democracy (although it is a well-governed and relatively benign autocracy).

Instead, Covid-19 has revealed starkly which countries have efficient and competent government systems and which do not. The result is interesting because it doesn’t correlate with political ideology, level of development, type of economy, territorial scale, or size of population. There is a weak correlation between efficiency and smaller population, but it is weak. It explains a little of New Zealand’s success, and maybe a bit more of Northern Ireland’s: although still underperforming by global standards, NI has done better than the rest of the Home Nations.

“Covid-19 success” doesn’t even appear to correlate with the scientific claims driving Covid-19 policy across different regions, which when I first started number-crunching on this issue really alarmed me. I can still hear my high school physics teacher observing that the laws of gravitation don’t change when one changes countries.

Successful states — although they used scientific advisers to greater or lesser degrees — were all over the place in policy terms. It didn’t seem to matter if a country went all-in for test and trace (or didn’t, like Japan); all-in for masks (or didn’t, like most of Australia); all-in for closed borders (or didn’t, like Taiwan); all in for lockdowns (New Zealand) or didn’t (Japan and Taiwan).

The only way to square this circle is to add the rider that while the countries in question did different things, they did them competently, whether it was ensuring there were enough masks for everyone, test and trace apps actually worked, or any quarantine arrangements were well-managed. It would seem what economic historians call “state capacity” is an entirely independent variable. It also suggests, in epidemiological terms, there are more ways of killing the Covid cat than cutting its throat.

State capacity refers to a nation-state’s ability to project power evenly and equally over its population. It’s nothing to do with having a strong military or being in charge of an empire. Instead, it asks how well governments do the job they have to do in their own backyard.

Psephologist Marc Champion and political scientist Ivan Krastev make the intriguing point that “many of the Western democracies that score worst for their electoral processes — including the US, the UK, Italy, and Spain — also score poorly in terms of their handling of the coronavirus”. Running free and fair elections is pretty much the sine qua non of state capacity. Electoral processes that are slow, corrupt, or prone to partisan bias have been known to be destructive of trust and civil society since Roman times, something worth keeping in mind since the Electoral College in its original form was a Roman invention. “If there is no trust, you can achieve nothing, because politics is about collective action,” says Krastev.

As comforting as this observation may be — if one is from a country with both a commendably clean and well-run electoral system and a stellar response to Covid-19 (as I am) — it still doesn’t explain Vietnam the autocracy. It also shows that countries setting up Electoral Commissions on the Australian or Canadian model need the state capacity to run them properly — especially when it comes to impartiality. The UK failed in this when the Commission took sides over Brexit (on which, see the Darren Grimes imbroglio) and finished up humiliated in the courts. Putting an Australian, Kiwi, or Canadian label on the tin will not change the contents. Perhaps the Grimes case — rather than Public Health England preparing for a flu epidemic instead of coronavirus — presaged the UK’s Covid-19 failures.

If there is a commonality across the “successful countries”, it appears to be a degree of authoritarian governance — something that holds even when one excludes Vietnam. Some of this is internal and social. Japanese, for example, are law-abiding and courteous, but also exert considerable pressure on individuals to comply with moral norms. If you visit, there is seldom a police presence and the country is one of the safest in the world. South Korea’s effective test and trace system wasn’t so much a technical triumph as evidence that its citizens were willing to sacrifice their privacy in a way legally impossible across both the UK and EU. Australians, by contrast — consistent with that country’s stronger liberal traditions — will kick over the traces and tell authorities where to get off. It’s for this reason the world has been treated to video footage of the Bill nicking pregnant women in their homes and dragging protesters out of cars. “Victoria’s response,” says Melbourne University legal scholar Professor Katy Barnett, “is a reminder that Australians are descendants not only of convicts (I personally have at least six or seven convict ancestors) but also their gaolers.”

Not only is Nicola Sturgeon not Jacinda Ardern (let alone Scott Morrison), the governance abyss separating “winners” and “losers” on Covid-19 poses more questions than it answers. As vaccine production ramps up and returns civilisation to normal, it would be unwise to “move on” and ignore those questions. The answers may tell us more about the way we do things than we ever knew.

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Helen Dale read Law at Oxford and won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper. Her latest novel is Kingdom of the Wicked; it was shortlisted for the Prometheus Prize for science fiction.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.