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Public Risks and Institutions

Covid 19

From our Swindon Correspondent:

From Unherd

The Centre for Long-Term Resilience report, co-authored by Toby Ord, a professor at the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute and the author of a marvellous book about existential risks, argues that right now we have a rare opportunity. After the Second World War, both the world and Britain took advantage of the disaster to build new institutions. In the UK, we created the NHS, and a comprehensive welfare state based around a system of national insurance. Worldwide, we helped build things like the World Bank, the UN, the International Monetary Fund. This was possible, they argue, because the scale of the recent tragedy was fresh in people’s minds, and there was a willingness to take drastic, difficult steps to preserve long-term peace and stability.
Right. All true. But the problem is what happens once that tragedy is no longer fresh in people’s minds? What happens then? Well, the UN starts having human rights councils with the sort of countries that torture their political opponents. Or sending rapporteurs to the UK to write about poverty. We can add the EU to this list which started as the European Coal and Steel Community as a way to stop war between France and Germany and ends up telling countries about how powerful the motors in vacuum cleaners should be.
Look at the state of the preparedness for a pandemic. Exercise Cygnus, the pandemic exercise from 2016, identified a lack of ventilators as a risk and no-one did anything. Did anyone sit down and review Neil Ferguson’s models, or just tick the box to say that good work was being done?

I’m not going to blame the politicians for this, because how many people in 2016 cared? The press spent more time on The Bad Orange Man and how the USA was going to become a fascist state (which never happened). And the public tuned into that. People, (in general) ignore theoretical risks, panic like hell about new risks and then obsess over those risks long after they’ve gone. A few wonks considered the threat that came with 9/11. Then people cancelled flights for months after, even though it was unlikely to happen soon after. And we still have colossal levels of security theatre at airports, even though hijacking won’t work now because passengers will do what the people on United 93 did.

What I would do about future planning for possible risks is to spend absolutely nothing. Not a penny. What saved us during the pandemic was how advanced our private society had become. Companies switching to Zoom and WFH. Shoppers using Ocado and Amazon. Volunteer armies on Facebook groups helping little old ladies. Drug companies getting the hell on with creating vaccines. We want to leave as much money in people’s pockets to create this sort of innovation in everyday life so that we have more tools at our disposal for when a crisis hits. Spending money on departments of government starves future progress.

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Esteban
Esteban
14 days ago

I’d argue that all the examples above of big things done – NHS, welfare state, the UN, etc. were actually a net negative. As is often the case, people can’t imagine how we’d have gotten along without them. If there were no NHS we’d have no doctors! Um, they do have doctors in hundreds of other countries without it.

jgh
jgh
14 days ago
Reply to  Esteban

Or forgotten that in many places we *did* get along without them. Before the NHS (pbui) we had schemes like the Sheffield penny-in-the-pound health insurance scheme, the Whitby cottage hospital rich-peaople-pay, poor-people-don’t system.

Spike
Spike
14 days ago
Reply to  Esteban

Quite right, Esteban, Prof. Ord seems to be stating that the UK “let no crisis go to waste” and foisted a bigger welfare state on the country, “because: WW2!”

Seconding Swindon, I’d defund Emergency Management. Apart from total myopia at predicting the next emergency, this important-sounding function is a blank check to the bureaucracy in the absence of any current problem. When full-grown, like the US FEMA, it will mostly ensure that aid CANNOT flow to a disaster area without its certification.

Pat
Pat
14 days ago

I would argue that because in wartime a central organisation, along with coercion, is necessary it is during wars that central organisations have their genesis even if they grow immediately afterwards.
That is why fans of bureaucracies frame everything as though it was a war, to justify their existence.
But when we consider the usefulness of PHE (£5bn p.a.) in preparing for this crisis it may be harder to justify its expansion, even under a new name.

Barks
Barks
14 days ago
Reply to  Pat

Hah. What does justification have to do with bureaucratic growth, bloat and uselessness.

Snarkus
Snarkus
14 days ago

I suggest the same willingness to take big changes is still there. Such as creating internal passports like the USSR had. Only call them vacination certificates. The big changes are happening, except they are all negative. I wonder if the old USSR planners migrated to Western Universities and took up teaching failed policies. Germany is a good example. Went from industrial powerhouse to beaucratic nightmare of supine followers of orders over fears of plant food, then shutdown the best solution for such a crisis, then becomes a client state of Russia in all but name.

Snarkus
Snarkus
14 days ago
Reply to  Snarkus

I digress. Post WW2, the thinking, even in the bureacrats was to solve perceived problems. ie SMEAC in action. Now the goals of the bureaucrats and their political masters is seemingly only power. I wonder if this is Platos Republic thinking, creating a society of experts running things instead of philosopher kings ?

Michael van der Riet
Michael van der Riet
13 days ago
Reply to  Snarkus

In South Africa, pass laws were a form of internal passport system designed to segregate the population, manage urbanization, and allocate migrant labor. Also known as the natives’ law, pass laws severely limited the movements of not only black African citizens, but other people as well by requiring them to carry passbooks when outside their homelands or designated areas. Before the 1950s, this legislation largely applied to African men, and attempts to apply it to women in the 1910s and 1950s were met with significant protests. Pass laws were one of the dominant features of the country’s apartheid system until… Read more »

Michael van der Riet
Michael van der Riet
13 days ago

True. We want to leave more money in private hands. Second by second, billions of votes are freely cast for the most rewarding option. Naturally there are exceptions, such as carbon tax, where it is good to spend money on department of government to starve future progress.

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