Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a senior faculty fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. He is also a visiting professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing. His most recent book is “Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe.”
He was interviewed recently by Noema editor-in-chief Nathan Gardels. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Gardels: Some years ago, Jared Diamond wrote a book on how nations recover from crises, or don’t. He listed several general qualities that enabled some to recover when others didn’t. For Diamond, what applied to individuals overcoming crises applied as well to nations.
These qualities included realistic self-appraisal, selective adoption of best practices from elsewhere, a capacity to learn from others while still preserving core values, flexibility that allows for compromise and a strong enough sense of identity to mobilize an effective response.
Looking back across the history of catastrophes you document, as an applied historian, can you offer a similar list of such general qualities?
Ferguson: In the second chapter of “Doom,” I take issue with Diamond’s argument that nations can be thought of in similar ways to individuals. Because there is much greater variety in the size and duration of states, we cannot and should not anthropomorphize them — what is true of China or India is unlikely to be true of Denmark or Costa Rica. The challenge for a polity in the face of catastrophe is precisely to overcome the impulses of individual citizens and to check sauve qui peut (panic) behaviors that have suboptimal consequences for the population as a whole.
The three lessons that I would offer here are: First, it is better to be generally paranoid (as the governments of Taiwan, South Korea and Israel are) than meticulously prepared for the wrong disaster (as most Western governments were). Second, speed of response is more important than prophetic powers. Disasters are inherently impossible to predict, so governments need to focus on rapidly reacting to a broad range of possible scenarios. Third, when new and useful technology exists, for example digital contact tracing as practiced during the early pandemic, governments should make use of them. Those that don’t deserve to fare badly.
Gardels: In the case of the United States, you note in your book the atrophy of operational capacity in recent decades — the American bureaucracy is not so competent or capable, and thus not as trusted or effective, as it once was.
What are the reasons for this demise? What will it take to repair it? Are President Biden’s current huge plans to invest in not just roads, bridges and broadband but also in other social and scientific infrastructure, from early childhood care to basic R&D in tech and medicine, the right course?
Ferguson: I think the simple answer is that the bureaucratic mindset is inherently dysfunctional. Philip K. Howard, who founded Common Good, has studied this. Legislation is written in ways that reflect the competition of interest groups via lobbying. The bureaucracy generates regulations that are designed to cover every eventuality (and to grow the bureaucracy). The result is increasing complexity.
On paper before the pandemic, we had numerous preparedness plans. They just didn’t work. On paper, banks were subject to multiple regulations in 2007. They didn’t work either.
The Biden administration’s approach is the disease of which it purports to be the cure. Measures with a price tag approaching $6 trillion will not, in my view, do anything other than make the problems I have just described worse by expanding the scope and resources of the bureaucracy, without addressing its fundamental pathologies.
Gardels: Because Western democracies are open societies, they are both resilient and vulnerable. Resilient because the capacity for constant innovation has, in the case of the COVID pandemic, shown a remarkable agility of networks to transfer many core activities to the digital realm and come up with vaccines within a year, as you point out.
On the other hand, we are so open that it has been a challenge to mobilize a solid collective response. Thanks to the participatory power of peer-driven social media, masks and vaccinations are seen by large constituencies as an assault not on a proliferating pathogen, but a conspiracy against individual freedom by state authority. The plague has become politicized.
Do you agree with this framing of the West’s strengths and weaknesses? Are there parallels in history of such resistance to authority in the face of plagues that impact everyone?
Ferguson: Yes, I largely agree, although I think Taiwan has a good deal more openness than many in the West assume and they have certainly shown how to contain a pandemic without compromising individual liberties as much as we have.
The striking thing to me is that public health has become politicized to the point that masks, therapies and vaccines have all become partisan issues. That was not always the case in the U.S., for example in 1957 when people were generally very glad that the U.S. led the world in vaccine development, manufacture and deployment.
On the other hand, popular resistance to public health measures has a long history. In “Doom,” I look, for example, at the 18th-century opposition to smallpox variolation and the 19th-century cholera riots, which were directed against health officials trying to improve urban sanitation.
Getting consensus on public health measures isn’t easy, and we need to think hard about ways to do that. It would help if, to take one case, the CDC and other agencies had done a better job with messaging. It would also help if there was some cost to Facebook for promoting dangerous content like anti-vaccination conspiracy theories.
Gardels: As you note in “Doom,” because of ever more integrated networks, contagion of many sorts — from pandemics to financial bubbles and crashes — can spread disaster more quickly and widely than ever before. You suggest that, where there are networks, there must also be circuit breakers.
Can you give a case or two in point?
Ferguson: Circuit breakers are familiar not only in electronics but also in financial markets, where trading in a security can be suspended if it goes into a tailspin. The idea here would be that, in case of a novel pathogen with potentially high infectiousness and lethality, there would be an immediate suspension of travel from the area where the pathogen was identified.
The new report from the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response makes this point, but Yaneer Bar-Yam, Joe Norman and Nassim Taleb said it right at the outset, back in January 2020. Yes, it might lead to interruptions in cases when a pathogen turns out not to be too worrisome, but better safe than sorry.
“Early detection, early action,” is the mantra I learned from the great epidemiologist Larry Brilliant. In the same way, we need to be able to disconnect computers from the internet if they become infected with viruses or malware. That could matter a lot in a cyberattack.
One last example: properly graphed social networks, in which nodes and connections are mapped, would enable much more targeted interventions to limit mobility than lockdowns. They had a plan for that in Taipei, but didn’t need to use it!
Gardels: Does this imply that renewing the civic and cultural infrastructure — by somehow reviving solidarity and trust in governance in a highly diverse society — are every bit as important to national resilience as investment in physical infrastructure? How might we get from here to there?
Ferguson: Yes, no question. Depoliticizing the challenges of public health should be a vital goal, but it will not be easy, because there has been a general erosion of trust in our institutions over a period of decades — and of course the internet, particularly the networked platforms that now dominate it, has made matters worse by supplying conspiracy theories, fake news and extreme views in vast quantities.
We need to learn from Taiwan’s Audrey Tang, the minister for all things digital, whose mantra is that technology should empower citizens, not the government. A proper inquest into the disastrously bad messaging of our public health authorities would also help.
Gardels: China’s response to COVID, as well as bullet train crashes or earthquakes in recent years, shows both the strengths and weaknesses of its system. The Party’s need to shape the narrative by controlling or covering up information in order to protect its myth of infallibility, and thus in this case unleashing COVID to spread into a global pandemic, revealed the weakness of its system. The ability to impose a draconian crackdown that effectively squashed contagion — while still maintaining legitimacy — showed the strength behind the kind of national identity backed by authority that Diamond talked about.
Is there anything the West can learn from this example?
Ferguson: No. Among the biggest mistakes of March 2020 was to regard the Chinese lockdown as something we should imitate. But we were copying the wrong China — the People’s Republic instead of the Republic of Taiwan.
The disastrous attempt at a cover-up was in many ways like the Soviet response to Chernobyl, but with far higher human costs. In my view, the West is overrating China, believing far too much of the propaganda put out by the Xi regime. In truth, the pandemic has been a heavy blow to the Chinese system, which was already heading for slowing growth even before COVID-19.