In 1947, two days before Christmas, scientists at Bell Laboratories revealed the first working transistor. By 2018, there were 15 quintillion — 15,000,000,000,000,000,000 — transistors at work worldwide, more than all the leaves on all the world’s trees. This is from Simon Winchester’s “The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World,” as is this: “In 2015, the four major chip-making firms were making 14 trillion transistors every single second.” This is the speed of modern change.
“There are,” Lenin supposedly said, “decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.” John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge cite this in their new book, “The Wake-Up Call: Why the Pandemic Has Exposed the Weakness of the West, and How to Fix It.” Such is the speed of covid-19, in eight months it has reversed a decade of global gains against poverty. In the United States, it has produced the worst monthly unemployment figures since the Great Depression, and in Britain probably the steepest annual decline in output since 1706. Such social carnage has been abetted by inadequate governmental planning before, and responses during, the pandemic. This has been especially so in the United States and Britain, “when compared,” the authors say, “with countries in Asia.”
They date the beginning of the decline of Western governance to the 1960s, when confidence in government, including government’s high regard for itself, peaked. Since then, government has grown bigger and more sluggish — sprawling and unfocused. In 1914, wrote historian A.J.P. Taylor, law-abiding Britons could pass through life hardly noticing the state, “beyond the post office and the policeman.” Micklethwait and Wooldridge, both British, say:
“By the mid-1970s a Briton couldn’t move without bumping into the state. Leviathan was promising to deliver fairness, equality, happiness, the end of racism, and free opera for the masses. Almost half of Britain’s national income was devoted to public spending and nearly a third of the labor force worked in the public sector. There were so many benefits that the Department of Health and Social Security produced a leaflet that listed all the other leaflets.”
The British state’s most impressive achievement, however, was its resistance to reduction: In 11 years, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher managed to reduce social spending from 22.9 percent of gross domestic product to 22.2 percent.
As the private sector sprinted to new heights in many countries, Micklethwait and Wooldridge note, “the idea of a brash businessman who could fix everything became more attractive.” Hence four-time Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, and Ross Perot in the 1992 U.S. election, and then someone else.
Perhaps the largest lesson of the pandemic is that where the lumbering “overstretched state” (the authors’ phrase) has, by overpromising and underperforming, forfeited citizens’ confidence, covid-19 has surged. Where there has been a shortage of goodwill toward government, there has been insufficient voluntary cooperation with public health protocols (e.g., social distancing, wearing masks). An insufficiency, we seem to have learned Friday, even at the pinnacle of the U.S. government.
“Most populist leaders,” write Micklethwait and Wooldridge, “rely on instinct rather than planning, and bluster rather than project management, none more so than [Donald] Trump. As the virus struck, Trump was on his fourth chief of staff, his fourth national security advisor, and his fifth secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, with both the DHS secretary and his top deputy serving in an ‘acting’ capacity; there were also seventy unfilled positions at the DHS.”
The authors note that many governments have had two recent growth spurts, of security powers after 9/11 and of economic powers after the 2008 financial crisis. Many governments have been trying to do so many things of peripheral importance, they have insufficient resources, not least of attention, for the urgent.
To the discomfort of some conservatives, the authors advocate strong government. However, they also argue, to the discomfort of some progressives, that large size is no guarantee of government strength; indeed, it is often a correlate of weakness. This correlation should be considered when President Joe Biden assembles a commission, comparable to the one that examined how 9/11 happened, to analyze how the pandemic struck a nation so unprepared, and how it erupted into such an unnecessarily enormous event.