/ 12 May 2020

Political pragmatism is required to survive Covid-19

Cuba Andorra Health Virus
Doctors and nurses of Cuba's Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade take part in a farewell ceremony before travelling to Andorra to help in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, at the Central Unit of Medical Cooperation in Havana, on March 28, 2020. (Photo by Yamil Lage/AFP via Getty Images)


The Black Plague is thought to have sparked the Renaissance by focusing people’s thoughts on their own mortality and away from grandiose metaphysical notions of heaven and hell. The thing about a crisis “is that it exposes realities for what they are, as opposed to how the political class would wish to present them”,  as the former prime minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, said in his article for The Economist on life after Covid-19. 

Today, the coronavirus crisis might lead us to the similar conclusion that, as environmentalist and author Bill McKibben has put it, “the world is a physical place”. Reality need not and, for the most part, does not conform to our conceptions of it. What matters in the world is what happens and not what we expect. As journalist and author Janan Ganesh said in relation to the current crisis: “The realm of ideas matters less now than the tangible.” He continues: “The principle of falsifiability … is the scourge of the political ideologue as much as the shaman or the quack doctor.”

Somewhat ironically, it takes the figure of a philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, to put the point at its most forceful when he observed that “the world is all that is the case”. Indubitably — and obviously. 

And yet we are apt to forget. Humanity has constructed ingenious, yet ultimately non-referring, political ideologies that purport to explain the world, but succeed mostly in revealing certain awkward psychological facts about the human mind, such as our predisposition for pigeonholing.  (That they are non-referring, incidentally, is conveniently captured by Karl Marx’s famous taunt that “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism.” What is a spectre if not non-existent?).

By forcing us to confront the physicality of the world, the current crisis represents a Renaissance-like opportunity to expel the pernicious influence of political ideology from our collective philosophical, political and economic landscape. 

What might our Renaissance consist of? We already have the methodological tools needed to embark on this project. It is there in the scientific method: in the methodological principle that every proposition must be tested against the best available evidence; that experimentation is the only way to find the truth; in falsifiability, that only those propositions that can be disproved are worthwhile discussing; and in fallibilism — that a proposition is to be regarded as true for only so long as the best available evidence does not contradict it. Call it political pragmatism. 

Thus conceived, political pragmatism consists solely in methodological commitments and should remain substantively agnostic, in particular regarding the set of political desiderata worth pursuing. The choice of political goals, therefore, remains up to political discretion. The only methodological constraint that political pragmatism imposes is that it should be representable as a set of quantitative values to be maximised or minimised, as the case may be. 

To the extent that political pragmatism is substantively agnostic, it is a modest project that does not claim it is a sufficient condition for good governance. Only that it is necessary.

Ideology, by contrast, can be understood as any set of substantive political commitments about (1) which political desiderata are worthwhile pursuing and (2) how best to pursue them. 

Whereas (1) is supposed to guide the application of (2), ideologues have it backwards, with the policy prescriptions often taking precedence over the goal they were originally intended to pursue. Whereas Marxist communism is concerned with minimising inequality, its economic prescriptions have often magnified them. Whereas capitalism is concerned with maximising output its prescriptions sometimes lead to steep drops. And whereas liberalism is concerned with human well-being, its prescriptions occasionally, as now in the coronavirus crisis, lead to avoidable suffering.

The problem with political ideology — any political ideology — is that it ignores that the world is simply too complex to be responsive to any single set of policy prescriptions. Marxist communism infamously does not account for the reality of human nature and liberal capitalism cannot account for the essentially communal nature of human society and neither, therefore, for tragedies of the commons. 

Capitalism’s blind spot, in particular, is made all the worse in the current crisis. Because the coronavirus spreads through people doing mundane everyday tasks such as shopping, hugging friends or going to work, it is a tragedy of the commons on a grand and systematic scale.

It is for this reason that governments have chucked away their copies of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and have yet to replace them.  

There are some who think that governments have replaced Smith with John Maynard Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money — that the current influx of state aid into the global economy, in other words, can be justified on the basis of Keynesian economic thought. 

They would be wrong. As Rana Foroohar, global economic analyst at CNN pointed out, this isn’t “some sort of productive Keynesian spending programme, but a full-scale bailout of everything”. 

No guidebook exists to guide governments through the current crisis. 

President Emmanuel Macron of France put it most starkly: “We are going to nationalise the wages and the P&L (the financial accounts) of almost all our businesses. That’s what we’re doing. All our economies, including the most [economically] liberal are doing that. It’s against all the dogmas, but that’s the way it is.” 

That is just what a crisis demands: a wholesale rejection of dogma. 

That the current rejection of political and economic dogma is forced upon us by the unignorable reality of the world suggests that political and economic dogmas survive only for so long as we are able to ignore reality. Crises, then, are not unique because they represent a failure of ideology; they are unique in that the failures of ideology can no longer be ignored. 

The problem, of course, is that political ideology is pervasive and nigh-omnipotent. 

Political leaders who have been guided by ideology more than reality span the gamut of the political spectrum and are united only in the incalculable damage they have wrought upon their populations. Think of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong who, guided by the narrow worldview prescribed by Marxist communism, felt justified in leading millions of their citizens to untimely deaths. Or, more recently, Hugo Chávez, who died before he could witness the destructive consequences of his socialist policies for Venezuela. Or think of Robert Mugabe, who was guided by the ipse dixit of African socialism but whose policies could just as well be ascribed to the goal of radical decolonisation. 

On the other side of the political spectrum there is Ronald Reagan who, on the basis of the ideology of conservatism, argued for and largely got the liberalisation of vast swaths of the economy, thereby leading inexorably to the United States’ current twin crises of democracy and inequality. As Kishore Mahbubani, a Singaporean academic and former diplomat put it: “Ever since Ronald Reagan declared: ‘Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem’, in his inaugural address in 1981, there has been a progressive delegitimisation and consequently, demoralisation, of public services in America.” 

It is a trend that helps to explain the US’s current failure to deal with the coronavirus crisis. As David Kennedy, a historian at Stanford University argues, the coronavirus crisis lays bare the extent to which the US has “starved the public sector”. 

Or consider the unbridled capitalism of the Washington Consensus — a set of policy prescriptions according to which countries should lift capital controls, balance budgets, limit taxes and social spending, and aim to sell more goods abroad — forced onto those countries desperate enough to go to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for help. As Nobel laureate and former chief economist at the World Bank Joseph Stiglitz argued in his blockbuster takedown of the IMF, Globalisation and its Discontents, “decisions were often made because of ideology and politics. As a result many wrong-headed actions were taken, ones that did not solve the problem at hand but that fit with the interests or beliefs of the people in power.” The result has often been marked suffering in those countries with IMF programmes, such as that which occurred after the IMF prescription of “shock therapy” following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But the strongest case for political pragmatism does not rest on the failures of political ideologues. Most failures of ideology are not so spectacular as the aforementioned. The strongest case for political pragmatism rests on the success of those rare leaders of whom no ideologue can claim to be representative of their position. The failure of ideology, in other words, can be seen by its converse: the success of those who do not succumb to it. They are few and far between, but I consider the three greatest leaders of the past half-century all to satisfy the methodological constraints of political pragmatism: Deng Xiaoping of China, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and Angela Merkel of Germany. 

Consider first Deng Xiaoping. When he became the de facto leader of the People’s Republic of China he inherited a country devastated by the catastrophic decisions of his predecessor, Chairman Mao Zedong. Deng had the remarkable courage to admit that the policies of the previous decades had failed. So he changed course. His first major policy announcement, in 1979, was the creation of special economic zones through which foreign trade and investment could flow. 

This policy, of special economic zones (SEZs), is noteworthy for the fact that he did not open up the whole of China at a single stroke. He opted instead for an incremental approach. By doing so, Deng adopted a thoroughly scientific methodology, experimenting to see whether his policies were successful before abandoning or expanding them. If the evidence was that a policy did not work, Deng had the singular temerity not to continue with it. 

This political philosophy is neatly encapsulated in his aphorism that one should “cross the river by feeling the stones”. 

The success of that policy is manifest in one of the original SEZs, Shenzhen, which today is a city of profound dynamism and wealth. More broadly, it is manifest in the remarkable economic success of China, which since Deng’s reign has undergone nothing less than the greatest social and economic transformation in the history of this planet. 

With the coronavirus crisis all but shutting down the economies of the US and Europe, China now has the largest effective economy in the world.

Naturally, one of the biggest obstacles that Deng faced was the ideologues in the Communist Party. To appease them, Deng labelled his system “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, a name by which the Chinese still refer to their system. 

But the truth is that Deng had no ideology other than the one that does not conform to neat encapsulation: reality itself. China is communist in name only, but neither is it capitalist, as seen by the expansive role that its state-owned enterprises continue to play in the economy. It is its own beast and has followed policies not because any ideology prescribes them but because they have worked. 

Nor is liberalism reconcilable with China’s remarkable success in containing the coronavirus, which required an aggressive limitation of liberties. As Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, has argued, one of the lessons of China’s response to the pandemic is to “enforce measures that are based on science, including the principle of early quarantine and treatment”. One of China’s key policies is the lack of home quarantine: people who are either known to be infected or suspected to be infected are taken to state-provided isolation areas. In some cases, children were separated from their parents. But there was good reason to do this, as between 75% and 80% of all the infections in China were within family clusters. 

And the evidence that it has worked is compelling. As Dr Bruce Aylward, who led the World Health Organisation’s observer team to China, has argued, if he was forced to select only one intervention for countries battling the coronavirus, it would be “the rapid isolation of all cases”. 

Next, consider Lee Kuan Yew. When he became the first prime minister of Singapore in 1959, the country faced formidable challenges. Its lack of natural resources and its tiny size coupled with a belligerent neighbour in the form of Indonesia threatened the continued existence of the nascent city-state. 

Lee’s political method informed the one that Deng would later use. In a speech, Lee said that Singapore succeeded because they “have open minds and common sense. A lot of analysis, careful weighing of the odds, make a firm decision, implement it, monitor it, modify it as it goes wrong. Abandon if it is no good.” Again we can see a scientific methodology at work, with Lee willing to abandon government policies that the data indicated did not have the desired effect. 

After years of trial and error, Lee settled on a policy of aggressively wooing foreign direct investors and multinational corporations to Singapore. The result was that foreign capital flew into Singapore, which was seen as a safe-haven in a politically and economically tumultuous, but nonetheless lucrative, region. The Singaporean government did all they could to assure their investors that they would follow sound macroeconomic policies, thereby convincing them that the Singaporean state would not capitulate to populist demands to seize their assets. 

The result, today, is a whole-of-society transformation within a single generation. In Lee’s words, Singapore transformed from “third world to first”. 

But Singapore’s success cannot be ascribed to any political or economic ideology. For one, it has rejected unconstrained capitalism: Singapore is a paradigmatic case of state-led growth, and state-owned enterprises still play a substantial role in Singapore’s economy. For another, it has rejected liberalism, with one of liberalism’s central tenets, freedom of speech, soundly rejected: in 2018, Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore 151st in the Worldwide Press Freedom Index. 

And yet it cannot be contended that Singapore is not a roaring success. It is ranked ninth on the United Nations Human Development Index and has the seventh highest gross domestic product per capita in the world. Perhaps most remarkably, it has a peerless home-ownership rate of 91%. 

Kishore Mahbubani put it best: “Today the quality of governance in East Asia sets the global standard. The leaders who turned their countries around, such as Deng Xiaoping in China and Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, planted the seeds of knowledge, internationalism and order in their societies. These have blossomed into a respect for science and technology, a culture of pragmatism, a willingness to learn best practices from around the world and a desire to catch up with the West.” 

The result of this culture of pragmatism can be seen most clearly in the coronavirus crisis, with Mahbubani arguing — I daresay accurately — that the competent response of East Asian countries in confronting the pandemic as compared to the incompetence generally displayed by Western governments marks the end of Western domination and the start of the Asian century (the end of Western domination was echoed most brutally by Mohamed El-Erian, chief economic adviser at Allianz, in his terrifying comment that “those of us who have had the privilege of studying failed states have seen this before, but never in a big country like the United States, let alone a global economy”).

Finally, Merkel’s personal history — she is a trained scientist and has a doctorate in quantum chemistry — makes her particularly predisposed to applying the scientific method to political problems. No wonder, then, that her political style is so aptly characterised by Deng’s injunction to “cross the river by feeling the stones”.

Nowhere has her training as a scientist stood her in better stead than the coronavirus crisis. A good scientist is forthright about their own fallibility, and forthright, therefore, about what they do not know. On this score, Merkel has performed admirably. As Axel Radlach Pries, the chairperson of the Berlin Institute of Health put it, because Merkel “shares information about what she doesn’t know”, the information is seen as credible. 

Just as remarkable is that, throughout the crisis, Merkel has remained characteristically measured in her rhetoric. Despite Germany’s remarkable success in containing Covid-19, she has stressed that there is no room for complacency, emphasising that what they have achieved is a “fragile intermediate success”, adding that Germany “does not have a lot of room for manoeuvre”. No political rhetoric here, just clear and calm communication. 

She has even used her background in science to concisely and illustratively clarify the importance of r-nought, the basic reproductive number at the heart of the novel coronavirus’s spread. It is for this reason that journalist Saskia Miller described Merkel as the “political leader who executed, celebrated, and personified evidence-based thinking when it mattered most”.

What unites these leaders is a shared appreciation of the physicality of the world and of the consequent importance not to let our conception of its mechanics override our observations of those very same mechanics. Charles Sanders Peirce, the founder of pragmatism, described it thus: “Consider the practical effects of the objects of your conception. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object.” 

By explicitly questioning our understanding of the relation between cause and effect, Enlightenment philosopher David Hume led Immanuel Kant to credit him with waking Kant from his “dogmatic slumber”. The coronavirus crisis, far from showing us that we do not understand cause and effect, reminds us of how much it matters: how much we should pay attention to the real-world effects of the policies we put in place. To this extent, the novel coronavirus is an alarm bell, urging us to wake from our collective dogmatic slumber.