Humanity’s collective reaction to COVID-19 has accentuated the differences between the various political systems and governments currently ruling their own corners of the world. China amazed many with its rapid and effective suppression of the virus (despite being the original nucleus of the outbreak), reporting no new infections on Saturday 23rd May. It is arguable that the Chinese government’s ability to bypass democratic discourse and checks and balances allowed it to respond quickly and comprehensively. In contrast, much of the Western world has recently been consumed by heated debate regarding government policy. One broad tension, particularly noticeable in the United States (with supposed disagreement between the President and leading physician Anthony Fauci vehemently denied by the White House), is the question: should elected politicians give way to expert advice and decision-making?
The word ‘technocracy’ has recently become a pejorative, characterizing the portrayal of liberal institutions such as the European Union and the United Nations by nationalists in the Western world, for whom popular sovereignty is a critical issue. Indeed, the principled framework upon which democracy is built demands from the very beginning that it is those who are elected who hold the reins of power. The state’s perpetual coercion of its citizens through the enforcement of laws and the collecting of taxes elicits a reciprocal duty to represent the will of the people: this is compromised when a temporary rule by experts lacks democratic accountability and correcting mechanisms (presumably through elections).
The common response is that every state has a number of moral obligations, each of which it has to balance against of the others in order to achieve optimal outcomes. Whilst it has a duty to be democratic, at the point when the fulfillment of that duty results in suffering and death, it is arguable that the state’s responsibility to protect the lives of its citizens should hold far more weight. There are numerous occasions where this applies on a daily basis (in circumstances often holding far less gravity than a pandemic), such as the existence of independent, unelected banking systems and Supreme Courts around the world. The Bill of Rights in the United States is another example of the constraining of democracy in order to protect individual citizens. As a result, we should measure our two options using the yardstick of practical outcomes, in terms of which better most effectively minimizes loss of life and economic damage.
Whilst the specialized, technical knowledge possessed by experts may be crucial to an effective response, such expertise can still be utilized with politicians at the wheel. Note the large role played by expert advisors in providing politicians with information in governments around the world, with examples including Dr. Fauci and the UK’s chief scientific advisor Sir Patrick Vallance. However, it will always be the case that politicians have limited access to the data and reasoning that experts do, given the very common need to quick decisions that limit the counsel that politicians can seek. At the point when politicians are calling the final shots, the effectiveness of policy is marginally reduced when they are relatively less able to gauge the size, importance and interconnectedness of the dozens of various factors that come into play.
Furthermore, even if we were to assume that politicians had access to the same information that experts did, it is unfortunately the case that in many countries perverse political incentives expressly interfere with the decision-making made by elected officials. For example, it is in the interests of politicians to focus stimulus and aid in the hands of their donor and voter base. One massive criticism of American politics, mainly coming from the left, is the concentration of media ownership (which easily has a deciding impact on most elections) in the hands of a few elite shareholders. In the status quo, only six conglomerates control most of the broadcast media in the United States. In addition, the powerful lobbying industry is disproportionately funded and controlled by wealthy companies. To many, this combination of factors would explain supposedly disproportionate money allocated to ‘distressed’ large businesses as opposed to poorer areas and individuals. Accountable.US, an anti-corruption nonprofit, alleged that companies which had donated to the Trump Campaign received disproportionate sums of relief earlier than other companies.
Finally, politicians are to a far greater extent influenced by personal opinions and ideology than experts, who are generally trained to cast away biases and preconceptions in the pursuit of their professional objectives. Whilst a leader with libertarian views may overlook certain options for dealing with a crisis because they clash with his personal beliefs, an epidemiologist’s sole purpose is to enact whatever measures necessary to minimize human suffering. For example, many would attribute Britain’s recent refusal to co-operate with and receive equipment from the EU as an unfortunate byproduct of the anti-EU sentiment of Boris Johnson’s Brexit-orientated government.
Of course, this works both ways- an epidemiologist’s focus on purely preventing the spread of a pandemic may severely compromise the economy. A politician could be considered a better option in that the fact that he is broadly accountable to the electorate necessarily means that he or she must balance different needs and interests to achieve an outcome that most people feel optimal. However, this difficulty could be alleviated by creating combined boards of, say, epidemiologists and economists that decide policy. Furthermore, there still are to a great extent convergent interests- an economist still has incentives to preserve public health so that more of the workforce is available and productive. Similarly, epidemiologists still have reasons to protect the economy, given that their own standards of living and their own sources of funding depend on it.
On the other hand, policy always requires a certain amount of trust and buy-in from the public. There will never be enough policemen to force every individual inside their homes- rather, it is crucial that the public believes the policy is enacted in their interest. At the point when politicians feel threatened by contradicting public opinion, it may be the case that the public is more willing to trust these individuals and respect the decisions that they make. However, the major lockdown protests by the far-right that have engulfed the United States and Spain, with armed protestors entering the Michigan state capitol, beg to differ- it has been made clear that individuals and activists will always stoke backlash to policies with which they disagree, regardless of who enacts them.
For the West, the legitimacy of government depends on a sacred social contract enshrined in the process of democracy. However, there are certain unique circumstances in which democracy is constrained- circumstances in which we recognize that politicians are either incapable of enacting good policy outcomes or unlikely to do so. A pandemic is one example of this- too many humans now lie dead because of the folly, ignorance and malice of politicians.