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Poison as cure

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In times of crisis, there is a primal impulse to hand over power to a strong central authority in order to escape the existential horror we find ourselves facing. There has never been a shortage of strongmen to indulge this impulse, and regardless of the ethics or efficacy of their solutions, their power persists long after the storm has passed. Those who clamor to be relieved of their responsibilities invariably find their rights taken along with them, and once surrendered they are not easily taken back.

Like many of our baser instincts, one would hope that education would temper our adulation of authority, especially at an institution “where the wind of freedom blows.” Alas, old habits die hard. An earlier editorial in The Daily by Ravi Veriah Jacques makes outlandish claims, not only carrying water for the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) colossal cluster of a response to coronavirus, but also asserting that the Chinese model of governance is superior to the West’s. 

Veriah Jacques derides Trump for downplaying the dangers of the disease while glossing over China’s silencing of whistleblowers in the early stages of the outbreak and the suppression of data that could have helped Chinese citizens and other countries calibrate their responses. Indeed, had the CCP sprung into action earlier, it could have reduced the spread of coronavirus by as much as 95%. Veriah Jacques lauds Chinese officials for their competence and efficacy, a party line that even the Communists in Wuhan had to retract after the popular outrage at praise of Xi Jinping’s leadership was so massive that it overwhelmed the censors. He also suggests that the official reports from China and international organizations monitoring the present situation are above suspicion. He calls any concerns about the integrity of these reports products of a “Trumpian mindset” of “prejudice and ignorance.”

These officials and organizations are not authoritative angels hovering over the benighted masses as paragons of objectivity and virtue. They are people — flawed, limited people — with their own agendas. China, the world’s second-largest economy and a major player on the world stage, lacks scruples in using its influence to punish those who question the party line and to influence international organizations. It is not unreasonable to suspect that the regime that months ago suppressed initial information on the outbreak might now continue to do so in order to maintain its own image. If we’re to talk of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, Chinese government officials blaming the United States for the origins of the pandemic to obfuscate blame fits the bill quite nicely.

Questioning authority is not anti-science; skepticism is the central pillar of the scientific habit of thought, and without it we would still rely on the mystic medicine of sympathetic magic, bloodletting and desperate prayer, all of which were advocated by the authorities of their day and all of which are nakedly inferior to soap and hot water. Truth is established by taking the ideas and theories of others, smashing them with the full force of our empirical hammers and seeing what is too resilient for us to knock down. If something falls apart at the first critique, it almost certainly is not true.

Veriah Jacques’ article praises the Chinese government in general as superior to the “neoliberal” West, saying the Chinese Communist Party “has dragged 700 million people out of poverty in 40 years.” As a matter of historical fact, the central planning of the CCP was responsible for the deaths of untold tens of millions of people, and it was only after the death of Mao and the limited liberalization of the economy that living standards began their rapid ascent. Even with as much progress as it has made, China’s GDP on a per capita basis still lags behind not only the liberal West but also its much freer regional neighbors like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan (also known as the better Republic of China). Veriah Jacques’ support for authoritarian China’s model is made all the stranger given that the much freer South Korea had a much stronger and swifter response to the outbreak.

China’s central planners did not drag the nation out of abject poverty, but they may well have dragged it and the world into the worst outbreak in a century. When local actors have to go through a complex, bureaucratic chain of command before they can respond, and when information is tightly controlled, the entire reaction to a crisis is slowed. By the time the appropriate authorities have put together a plan, the situation on the ground will have changed rapidly.

Slow, clumsy central governments will not stop coronavirus. Individuals will. Each individual who stays home when feeling sick or steps away when they see someone cough; each individual who decides to practice social distancing, whether the law demands it or not; and each family and community that offers aid to sick or vulnerable loved ones and makes best use of the information available. Governments cannot enforce good judgement.

Despite this obvious reality, there are those all too eager to capitalize on the crisis. Aside from fawning over incompetent authoritarian regimes, there are also increased cries for government to seize even more control of the healthcare system, to bail out corporations and individuals and to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on welfare programs old and new. More government control is generating increasing bipartisan support — more often than not the mark of a terrible decision. Some panic in the face of a pandemic is understandable, but we must remember to preserve not just our lives but the things that make life worth living. If you advocate central planning to stop the spread of coronavirus, don’t be surprised when your cure is worse than the disease.

Contact Michael Whittaker at mwhittak ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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