The COVID-19 challenge: Good government

Why We Wrote This

Have big Western democracies handled COVID-19 badly because they are democratic? No. It’s because they are no longer good at government. Asian democracies have done better, and may have lessons to teach.

This is one of Ned Temko’s regular “Patterns” columns on global affairs.

Ahn Young-joon/AP
People wearing face masks to help protect against the spread of the coronavirus cross a road in Seoul, South Korea. South Korea is one of the Asian democracies to have managed the pandemic successfully.

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Big Western democracies – think the United States or Britain – have handled the coronavirus particularly badly. Beijing would have you believe that is because they are democracies, and that authoritarianism is a better model.

But other countries in Asia – democratic ones such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan – have done a good job of controlling the pandemic. The problem in the West seems to be that some governments are just no good at governing anymore. They have stopped making it their priority.

If Europe and the United States are to stave off angry populism, governments there are going to have to fundamentally rethink their purpose and reform accordingly when the pandemic is over. They might learn lessons from East Asia, or from nearer to home.

Germany is one big Western democracy that has done a reasonably good job of managing the pandemic, say the authors of a recent book called “The Wake-Up Call.” That, they suggest, is because Chancellor Angela Merkel is “a serious woman who is doing serious work.”

Liberal Western democracy could do with more leaders like her.

It’s been a formidable, worldwide stress test. And the COVID-19 pandemic is placing particular strain on a model of government long seen as uniquely able to combine individual freedom and economic advancement: Western liberal democracy.

With case numbers surging again in the United States and Europe, a variety of voices are calling for major changes in that model once the pandemic comes under control. They’re posing a longer-term question: whether Western democracies’ stress test will also prove to be a wake-up call – a catalyst not just for specific policy adjustments, but for fundamental reform.

The problems have been building for some years: a growing gap between haves and have-nots, aging infrastructure, uneven public-health provision, and a gnawing erosion of trust in political leaders and institutions. This has all fed the rise of an angry populism, just as the world’s economic center of gravity has begun shifting eastward, toward an increasingly wealthy, assertive, and authoritarian China.

The pandemic has had two dramatic effects in the West. It has spotlighted shortcomings in Western democracies, where death rates have been far higher than in many Asian countries. And the prospect of unprecedented government spending to get Western economies back on their feet has sparked intense debate over future priorities: over how all that money should be spent.  

Some of the arguments for change focus on specific policy choices – on issues such as climate change, urban planning, education, employment, trade, business, and technology.

But potentially more important is the underlying tone of the debate: the sense that Western democracies need to do more than just tinker around the edges, but find new vitality, purpose, and connections with their citizens.  

Can they summon the kind of resilience and reinvention they’ve drawn on in earlier crises: Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal response to the depression of the 1930s, for instance; or the revival of Western Europe as an increasingly integrated family of social democracies from the ruins of World War II?

Among the growing number of books that have been appearing on the political lessons of the pandemic, one, in particular, has now tackled that core question head-on.

It’s called, aptly, “The Wake-Up Call.” It is by John Micklethwait, former editor of The Economist newsmagazine, and its current political editor, Adrian Wooldridge.

Edgar Su/Reuters
A teacher in Singapore explains to students new protocols for taking recess breaks and daily temperature checks amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Singapore pays its teachers, and other public servants, better wages than most countries in the region.

They’re not politically neutral. They’re part of what – in less fractious political times – would have been called the center-right. They’re moderate conservatives, an increasingly endangered species in Britain’s Brexit-focused Tory party and a nearly vanished breed in the Donald Trump-era Republican Party in the United States.

But the strength of their book is its analysis of why liberal democracies – especially the two main exemplars, Britain and America – seem to be in such crisis.

They dismiss the lesson China’s leaders have suggested should be drawn from the world’s COVID-19 response: that the Chinese system has proved superior to liberal democracy. They note drily that other authoritarian regimes – Russia, Iran, Venezuela – have not fared so well.

Instead, they home in on a comparison with East Asian democracies like South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, and the island republic of Singapore in Southeast Asia.

Their central point is not that liberal democracy has passed its sell-by date. It’s that the major Western democracies are no longer good at the core business of governing.

In the East Asian democracies and in Singapore, the people who run government, the civil servants, are paid salaries sufficient to attract the best and most committed officials, rather than, as in many Western democracies, a fraction of what they could earn in the private sector. Good schoolteachers are paid far better. The not-so-good teachers are let go.

Infrastructure – not just roads or railways but broadband, software, and other high-tech essentials – is also a far higher priority. The systems used in government departments in the U.S., Britain, and a number of other Western democracies lag miles behind what any private business would accept.

The book does not argue against the welfare state. It does, however, point out that in Western democracies most “welfare” money no longer goes to those genuinely in need. The lion’s share is spent on state pension systems (a good chunk of which goes to recipients with ample retirement funds of their own), tax concessions, and other payouts that disproportionately benefit the wealthy.

In some Western democracies, the authors argue, elected leaders have simply stopped taking the business of government seriously.

One country where that is clearly not the case is Germany, a big Western democracy that has so far managed the pandemic fairly well. That’s in part because it has a health system with ample testing and tracking capability and hospital facilities, all of which were quickly brought into action.

But for Messrs. Micklethwait and Wooldridge, there’s a deeper explanation – emphasizing elements they see as essential not just to making democratic government work, but to rebuilding a relationship of trust between government and the governed. German Chancellor Angela Merkel “has always known that government matters,” they point out. “Brought up in East Germany, she knows what tyranny means. Trained as a scientist, she knows how to evaluate evidence. … This is a serious woman who is doing serious work.”

While no book could pretend to suggest all the ways in which Western democratic government might be repaired and reinvigorated, this one – backed by myriad other voices expressing their hopes for post-pandemic government – leaves little doubt that addressing the challenge will require serious work as well.

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