Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Head of the Parade

I was pointed to an essay in the New Statesman that proposes: "Leadership should be defined by consensus not coercion in a time of crisis." The central point is what it says on the tin; that in emergencies, governments should strive for citizen compliance with recommendations rather than seeking to force citizen obedience to coercive directives. Part of the reason for this is that governments are empowered by the support of the governed.

"When we say of somebody that he is 'in power'," [Hannah Arendt] writes, "we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name."
This is true. So in the end, the question is what fraction of the overall population is "certain people," and what is the nature of that empowerment. According to the author, Christopher Finlay, that empowerment comes in the form of "active buy-in," but I would argue that for most societies, indifference will serve equally well. And while I understand why Mr. Finlay believes: "In short, instead of focusing on coercion and issuing wholesale threats of 'stronger measures,' the government must convince as many people as possible to empower it through their voluntary support," in practice, "as many people as possible" is unnecessary. Once a certain critical mass is reached (and that number is a variable based on the society as a whole) the unconvinced have little choice but to more or less go along to get along. The actively convinced can choose to shut them out of access to important resources or activities, and the indifferent, more or less by definition, are not going to go to bat for them. So the unconvinced go along with the program, or they suffer for it.

But I really didn't get the impression that the unconvinced, or other dissenters, were really the people that Mr. Finlay was concerned with.
When sports bodies, universities and other organisations began cancelling in-person events ahead of any government ban, they demonstrated the public’s willingness to come together and be led by scientific expertise and pragmatic common sense.
But none of these groups are consensus-driven in the way that governments are said to be. I am not aware of any sports body or university that announced their measures due to public polling. The simple fact that they are not granted the coercive power of government over the general public doesn't mean that they needed popular support for their actions (something we see time and again). These are organizations that are openly empowered to dictate to their employees, they didn't need the public to come together, willingly or not.

The broader point that Mr. Finlay was making is that governments should not risk the good will of the governed by threatening punishments for non-compliance with measures that the public is already demonstrating that they are willing to comply with. Which is a fair point. But it's one that misses "a central part of political reality and the operation of the state." Namely, that people often see the actions of others, especially those who dissent from the usual understanding of "pragmatic common sense" as threats.
According to Hobbes’ argument in Leviathan (1651), the human condition is dominated by the almost inescapable fear of violent death.
I would remove the word "violent" from that sentence. Hobbes' viewpoint, as put forward by Mr.Finlay, is that people create states, and give them a monopoly on legitimate violence, to give them a way out of the fear of violent death that doesn't require they themselves to always stand ready to deal it out. So if people fear death more broadly, I would expect that many perceive the role of the modern nation-state to be larger than simply protecting them from the depredations of their neighbors. To the degree that, especially in the West, the role of the nation-state is often viewed as protecting citizens from all threats, foreign or domestic, the state is also often expected to protect people from their own "bad" decisions. And once an question has been determined to have an objectively right answer, it's no longer considered appropriate by many to place it up for a vote to people who can't be trusted to answer correctly. Especially when acting in accordance with "incorrect" answers is seen as actively dangerous. If the foundation of the state is surrendering the legitimate use of coercion to a centralized party to wield on "everyone's" behalf, part of the expectation is that it will be used against threats to "everyone" created by people's "poor choices."

And this, in the end, becomes the point. Governments are often empowered, and commonly expected, by a certain number of people to ensure that the right things happen. True, the reliance on at least the absence of open revolt often means that the governed have some sort of check on government. (This concept that is sometimes referred to as "Chinese Democracy," for the idea that as authoritarian as the Communist Party of China is, were the entire nation to adamantly decide to "throw the bums out" as we say here in the States, they'd be unable to maintain their hold on power. It might be bloody, but out they would go.) But depending on the ratio of active support and passive indifference versus active dissent, the size of the "certain number" of active supporters does not usually need to reach a majority. Sometimes the "war of all against all" ends because it stops being "every person for themselves" and one faction is united enough to impose its will.
And when faced with an epidemic, effective leadership relies on the authority that comes from showing that the government’s policies are based on the best available scientific expertise.
This is not an instantaneous process, nor is it guaranteed. "The best available scientific expertise" is neither infallible, nor does it always align with what any given section of the general public understands its own interests to be. It also ignores the overall difficulty in explaining things to people who lack expertise in the subject. (As an example, most of us believe that E = MC squared. But to really understand why that is the case {that is to say, to do the proof yourself} you'd need a background in mathematics/physics that couldn't be adequately conveyed in a conversation or hour-long webinar.) Making it out to be a simple matter for governments to secure the enduring faith of their constituents is disingenuous, at best. And when faithlessness is considered an active threat, on a par (or at least of a kind) with violent death, governments turn to coercion not because they see a need to take what would be freely given, but because those who freely give fear the results of allowing others to hold back.

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