Communist Viruses II

Communist Viruses was the least popular Civil Horizon post in a long time; to date, it has been read by only 39 people. The many regular readers of this blog who didn’t read it were wrong. Just sayin’. In Communist Viruses I introduced an idea about the parallels between the Chernobyl and Coronavirus disasters that gets to the heart of the differences between free and unfree systems of government.  

Today’s New York Times has an excellent, richly detailed front page article on the mistakes that were made by the Chinese authorities during the first seven weeks of the Coronavirus outbreak. It details how the government actively – including with police action – suppressed knowledge of the outbreak for political reasons for seven weeks after it first appeared, thus allowing the virus to spread widely before any actions were taken to arrest it. The consequences of this behavior are already tragic and may become truly catastrophic. 

Both crises – Chernobyl and the Coronavirus outbreak – illustrate the flawed manner in which authoritarian governments manage incipient problems. The first reaction of guardians of the state, the KGB in the Soviet Union (as it was) and the police in China, is to suppress any knowledge of burgeoning problems – even at the expense of putting innumerable lives at risk. Local experts are ignored while the apparatus of the state awaits decisions from the authoritarian center that is far away, ill-informed and slow to recognize the problems. Almost everybody living under such systems fears a political misstep more than the consequences to others of their own behavior while following orders, so they obfuscate, delay, and await orders. They are not true decision-makers.

In the case of Chernobyl (as illustrated by the recent HBO documentary) the experts had known of the plant’s vulnerability to the sort of accident that happened, which vulnerability resulted from shortcuts in how the Soviet plants were designed, and had tried to warn people about the problem – but their warnings had been suppressed by the KGB in the interest of maintaining the prestige of the Soviet Union.

Then once the accident happened, the slowness of the communist government’s reaction and its unwillingness to acknowledge the seriousness of the crisis until western governments, which had detected gigantic spikes of radiation in their own lands, forced their hand, put millions of lives at risk. Even when the Chernobyl crisis abated due to the heroic and often self-sacrificing acts of ordinary people, the Soviets were unwilling to acknowledge the accident’s cause, notwithstanding the continuing risk at other, similarly shoddily built Soviet nuclear plants. No wonder the Communist government lost the respect and support of the Russian (and Ukrainian) people. 

Can you say SARS-then-Coronavirus?

Authoritarian governance – whether under the banner of the Divine Right of Kings, Communism, National Socialism or whatever – is always characterized by the extreme concentration of political and economic power in the hands of a few people. The rulers maintain their power through intimidation; most people live in fear of the consequences of crossing, or even being seen to disparage the prestige of, their leaders. They are almost always better off doing nothing and telling their bosses what the latter expect to hear than taking stands of any sort. 

Meanwhile, in the real world, knowledge isn’t centralized like power in an authoritarian state – it’s widely dispersed.  The nuclear experts knew what terrible things were likely to happen at Chernobyl before the disaster happened, and they knew what was happening long before Moscow would listen, just like the doctors in Wuhan knew that they had a terrible problem long before Beijing would let them do anything about it. 

The article in today’s Times is terrific – it’s the sort of reporting that reminds me of how great that paper used to be before almost every “news” article became a disguised, smug anti-Trump editorial. It paints a picture of the terrible decisions that allowed the Coronavirus to spread like wildfire, while making the actual and possible consequences of those terrible decisions perfectly clear. 

What the article doesn’t do, though, is push through to the conceptual point that it wasn’t just bad luck that terrible decisions were made in Wuhan (and Chernobyl). Those decisions reflected the primary characteristics of centralized, authoritarian governance. In a very real sense, those characteristics caused the disasters.

In an authoritarian or totalitarian state, political accountability can only be achieved by overthrowing the government. Short of revolution, most people keep their heads down. 

In a free country, in contrast, political power and wealth are sufficiently disbursed, along with individual accountability, that there are innumerable actual decision-makers. Leaders can easily be voted out; reputations – or fortunes – won or lost. Warnings of incipient problems based on local knowledge and expertise are much more likely to be heeded on a timely basis.

And, for that matter, the same principle applies to opportunities, which are much more likely to be found and pursued by those who have the most immediate knowledge of local circumstances – which is one good reason that market economies consistently outperform those governed by central planning.

M.H. Johnston  

5 comments to Communist Viruses II

  • Doug  says:

    Good piece. Sorry I didn’t read it earlier. Some parallels top a discussion we had last month regarding the ‘settled science’ of CO2 and Climate Change. From The Devils Delusion…”Science is infallible because its judgements are collective. Critics are unneeded, and since they are unneeded, they are unwelcome.” Surprisingly; however, as recently as 1979 soon after Newsweek announced (1975) that “evidence of global cooling is so strong that meteorologists were having a hard time keeping up with it”, there was a pronounced division in opinion with scientists suggesting both that CO2 would result in cooling and others suggesting warming. Wasn’t until the collective of WMO and IPCC came on the scene that the COLLECTIVE wisdom of state sponsored science became infallible. Nothing to see here.

    • ES  says:

      Thanks for another commentary on the dangers that over-reliance on central planning and associated elites has for our and any society. Market systems (appropriately and fairly regulated) and individual freedom of choice have provided and will provide the best outcomes and opportunities for the largest number of people.

  • Dennis Paine  says:
    • Dennis Paine  says:

      Thank you, Mark, for two excellent posts.

      This faithful reader is impressed by your analyses both for their clarity on the concentration of power and its applicability, on a smaller scale, to the problems plaguing the once Golden State of California. From forest fires, to homelessness, to the attack on fossil fuel production and use, and to the destruction of nuclear power production, the once Golden State, is suffering from the decisions of one-party authoritarian governance.

      The open question: Is this current state of affairs irredeemable?

  • Beyond the horizon  says:

    Well presented. Openness always beats secrecy, a policy that is being sidestepped in our own country more and more. Why are so many seemingly innocuous facts hidden from the people under the guise of classified information? When will the Kennedy assassination files be fully revealed?

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