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Janet Bufton: We have high state capacity, actually—we just have to demand its use

Commentary

Early in March 2020, on one of my last almost-normal outings, an acquaintance said the government ought to do something about this virus. “Like what?” I wanted to know. Shut everything down, he said, as China had shut down Wuhan. I was incredulous: that couldn’t happen in Canada. Dictatorships can force their citizens to shut down their lives, but liberal democratic governments don’t have that kind of power. 

A few days later, governments brought the world to a screeching halt, including liberal democracies. Including Canada. State capacity is much, much higher than I’d believed.

That’s not the story most people tell. Instead, you can read piece after piece about insufficient state capacity in Canada. These pieces argue that things aren’t the way they ought to be because the government doesn’t have the capacity to fix them.

That argument is wrong, and we should argue against it.

Like the economist Bryan Caplan, I am incredulous that so many people looked at pandemic responses and saw evidence of low state capacity. The government did lots of things, quickly and effectively. Governments put in place policies that closed businesses and schools, stopped us from crossing borders to see friends and loved ones, and prevented us from importing tests and medicines approved in other countries with high safety and efficacy standards. They cancelled vacations, celebrations, and funerals. Governments required masks in stores and vaccines in arms. They controlled who could be vaccinated and when. 

Government capacity was fine. Government priorities were wrong. 

Our real complaint isn’t an abstract one about state capacity, but that problems we think ought to be solved aren’t being solved. We make a logical leap when we conclude from “this society-level problem isn’t being solved” that “the government doesn’t have the capacity to solve society-level problems”. 

Can the problem be solved in the way people want? Is the government the appropriate institution to solve the problem? Is the government making good policy choices? Is it focusing on the problems we care about? Only if we’ve established that the answers to all of these questions are “yes” should we start worrying about state capacity. That’s not a bar anyone’s even tried to clear. 

Getting our beliefs about state capacity wrong isn’t costless. 

Andrew Potter helpfully defines state capacity as:

a function of leadership, coordination, and compliance. Without leadership there is no policy, and without coordination the leadership is merely pulling on levers that aren’t connected to anything. But without compliance—that is, the consent of the governed—you risk stalling the whole machine. The secret sauce of state capacity, the mortar that holds the whole thing together, is that intangible of social science called trust.

Potter misses the mark when he says that without leadership there is no policy. The choice isn’t between no policy choices and the right policy choices, but between no policy choices, good policy choices, and bad policy choices. Leaders can lead us in the wrong direction.

If we believe a government isn’t doing what we want because it can’t, we don’t hold politicians accountable in elections, even where heavy-handed policy responses failed to deliver favourable pandemic outcomes, as in Ontario and Quebec. 

If we believe that a problem isn’t being solved because of government capacity, we won’t be outraged when governments invoke emergency powers to remove a protest from Parliament Hill, even if that protest is removed using fairly standard—even relatively restrained—police tactics. 

If we believe the government can’t run itself, we might not react when $66 million in unaccountable spending goes to federal consultants, without any acknowledgment that the bureaucracy, for which Canadians continue to pay, used to do this work. 

As Potter puts it, “every time a government implements a policy or a program or a regulation, it is engaged in an exercise in either trust-building or trust-degradation. How the policy is developed, implemented, delivered and communicated is affected by existing state capacity, and in turn, affects the future exercise of state capacity.” In other words, insufficient state capacity can become a self-fulfilling prophecy when the government’s actions erode social trust. In such cases we should see it as an effect of policy blunders, not the cause.

It wasn’t a lack of capacity that defined the Ontario government’s pandemic decisions. The Ford government implemented policy after policy in ways that predictably undermined social trust. Too little investment in testing and tracing predictably left public health scrambling to describe the past rather than slow viral spread. Shutdowns imposed effectively, but only after viral spread had accelerated, predictably failed to avoid surges in illness and hospital strain. Grace periods before shutdowns predictably undermined the belief that there really was an emergency. And accurate information about airborne viral spread and how to use rapid tests is still missing from plain-language public health advice about COVID-19, predictably undermining trust in public health generally.

Over the past three years, Doug Ford’s government demonstrated strong capacity. That capacity was used poorly, undermining itself. The Ontario government now has precious little political currency to spend if we’re faced with a more serious COVID strain or another infectious viral epidemic. 

Our belief in low state capacity isn’t a foregone conclusion, but it’s an argument many politicians seem happy to embrace. When the convoy blockade entrenched itself in downtown Ottawa, people were angry. Protestors said exactly what they planned to do and then they did it. Ottawa police badly miscalculated when they assumed the form the protest would take rather than listening to the organizers. 

The police claimed nothing could be done. The province refused to step in. And the federal government refused to do anything but deploy the biggest sledgehammer in its legislative arsenal. The inquiry that follows the use of the Emergencies Act was used by the Trudeau government to argue that it had no choice but to use emergency powers to clear the blockade. Trudeau didn’t have to win that argument. But he did. Only a few local Ottawa politicians, and a few convoy protesters, were held responsible for the mess. 

By jumping from “This problem exists” to “The government must solve this problem, but it can’t”, we absolve ourselves of responsibility, too. We expect too little of ourselves and too much from our government. But when we don’t hold politicians responsible when they make a mess of public policy we also manage to expect too little from the government. 

We don’t control the political system we live under, but neither are we completely at its mercy. It’s good when a swell of public outrage, or public support, motivates a government to do something even if an election isn’t imminent. The passage, updating, and repeal of policies—based on how much we want those policies and whether they succeed or fail—is a normal part of the trial-and-error through which social policy evolves in a democracy. 

Policymakers should be held accountable when they fail to implement policies when they’re needed, when they implement policies that aren’t wanted, or when they don’t update or repeal policies that fail. When the public doesn’t impose any consequences, it short-circuits the feedback that makes democratic policy evolution work. 

Absolving policymakers of responsibility for bad policymaking weakens support for democratic institutions at a time when we should be looking to strengthen them. And accepting that our governments can’t do better absolves policymakers of responsibility.

The good news is that we have the capacity to solve this problem if we’re willing to make it a political priority. We have institutions in place to hold policymakers responsible when they behave badly. The bad news is that we actually have to decide to do that, and no one is in charge of what “we” care about politically. No one is going to call everyone up and tell us to start acting differently. It’s a decision enough of us have to make individually if it’s going to happen at all.

Howard Anglin: The contrarian temptation

Commentary

I am a natural contrarian. If you tell me something, my first instinct is to try to figure out why what you said is wrong, of limited application, or an incomplete account of the matter. I hasten to add that this response is usually left unexpressed—a basic courtesy I learned later than most, but did eventually take to heart. 

But lately I’ve been trying very hard to be contrarian about my contrarianism. Perhaps it’s because I see, with apologies to Mr. Ginsberg and some allowance for literary hyperbole, the best (or at least some of the most interesting) minds of my generation destroyed by madness, dragging themselves through the online streets at dawn looking for an angry fix. Twitter is especially tempting for contrarians—the rapid escalation of hot takes leaves mere curmudgeons sounding banal, almost emollient by comparison. 

The internet encourages extreme cases, but contrarian inflation is nothing new. There seems to be a temptation inherent in contrarianism that, if indulged, can produce a mental inversion that leaves you at odds not just with your society but with reality itself. Anyone whose job involves attracting attention can fall prey to this weakness, which is the only way of explaining a certain genre of opinion piece, which sets out to disprove common sense and ends up proving the author’s foolishness. Perhaps it also accounts for curious cases like Michael Coren, Canada’s Vicar of Bray, who can effect a complete reversal of creed with any discernable diminution in confidence or zeal. 

One of the most remarkable examples of the contrarian temptation in my lifetime is the squandered career of Joseph Sobran. Sobran began as a prodigy of conservative journalism. A protégé of Bill Buckley, he was an undeniable polemical—and, indeed, literary—talent. Buckley once devoted an entire edition of National Review to one of his long-form essays called “Pensées” (a title Sobran reportedly hated). Ferociously orthodox in an age of experimentation, Sobran delighted in savaging the vacuities of his Boomer contemporaries, from the New Age philosophies of the 1970s to the neoliberal conformity of the 1980s and 1990s. 

A virtuoso contrarian at a time when America badly needed to be slapped out of its trippy revolutionary reverie, the signs of his eventual crack up were clear by the time he offered his pen to the Oxfordian cause. (The denial of Shakespeare’s authorship against overwhelming evidence is often a good sign that a contrarian has slipped the leash of sense.) After his relatively benign foray into the authorship question, Sobran began dipping his toe in hotter water. 

In 1992, his boss and whilom friend felt compelled to address his increasingly lurid obsession with Zionism. In In Search of Antisemitism, Buckley concluded, unconvincingly, that Sobran’s columns in a small Catholic journal were at least “contextually anti-Semitic.” If there were any doubt, Sobran soon shrugged off his contextual cover. Within a few years he was addressing Holocaust denialist conferences, the ultimate perversion of the contrarian impulse.

Sobran is a contrarian cautionary tale. Most of us (thank God) don’t end up at his extremes—most probably don’t even start out as extreme as he did—but the gradual detachment from reality can take less virulent, though still disorienting, forms. The process is something like what I’ve seen described as the “libertarian to fascist pipeline” (though being neither a libertarian nor a fascist, I can’t comment on the validity of the theory). As far as I understand it (and to summarize crudely), the idea is that people with extreme and unpopular ideas of one kind are susceptible to extreme and unpopular ideas of other kinds. 

The thesis is too simplistic. It’s just as likely that a certain type of dissocialized person drifts from one ideology to another seeking meaning and belonging, more interested in the form of belief than its content. But there is something to it. It does seem that you can get so used to being on the other side of common opinion that it weakens your ability to differentiate between being right and in the minority and believing that you are right because you are in the minority. The fact that almost everything you read and everyone you talk to tells you that you’re crazy ceases to give you pause—worse, it confirms that you are on the right path.

This is a particular vulnerability for contrarians at a time when mainstream elite opinion has shifted so far, so quickly, on so many topics that some degree of contrarianism is practically a precondition for maintaining your sanity. Reading the news headlines as they pop up on your phone, you could be forgiven for thinking that our expert class has passed en masse through the intellectual looking glass. If Twitter has done one undeniably good thing, it is exposing the general shallowness of a lot of people who are expert in one specialized field. Outside their niche, it turns out that even (especially?) very smart people are susceptible to political fashion and hold a lot of unexamined, low-information opinions. But accustomed to the assurance of expertise, they hold them with blithe ultracrepidarian confidence.

So many experts being wrong—publicly, repeatedly, stubbornly, and infuriatingly—is a contrarian trap. Reasoned opposition to mainstream elite opinion can easily morph into reflexive opposition, and from there into blind opposition. One day you are standing up for the benefits of the nuclear family and defending the importance of cultural tradition and the next you are proclaiming that you are “at peace with” a 21st century led by the Chinese Communist Party and burnishing the silver lining of a genocidal regime. We also saw this during the recent pandemic, when some people began by raising reasonable questions about public restrictions and vaccinations and ended up in a fever dream of ALL CAPS TWEETS ABOUT NUREMBERG TRIALS.

Contrarianism isn’t for everyone. A generous and broad-minded skepticism is a healthy way to approach the world, and a stubborn refusal to heed the “importunate chink” of the “insects of the hour” is probably necessary to survive the inanities of social media. But contrarianism is not for the faint of heart or mind. If you are not careful, you can end up falling prey to delusions that are different in their specifics but similar in kind to those of the people you set out to oppose. Refusing to follow the herd, you can end up a stampeding herd of one.