The primary duty of a state is to protect the people it rules. From the first days of European state-formation, monarchs justified their power by arguing that they could protect their subjects from predators — well, other predators. As states grew in sophistication various philosophical ideas were developed to justify regimes, from the divine link between God and the king to “the people” holding sovereignty. But, ultimately, protecting its people remains the central job.
Today the world is comprised of around 190 states, of all shapes and sizes, from city-states like Singapore to small nation-states like Denmark or Ireland, large nation-states such as France and Germany, and giants like China, the US and Brazil.
Some states are obviously better run than others, but many of the finer points are debate and it’s only with a real crisis that this becomes so stark. Italy’s tragic situation, in particular, appears to have been made worse by a lack of state competence in dealing with the outbreak, the latest example being the botched locked-down in Lombardy.
As The Times reports:
By the time Giuseppe Conte, the prime minister, posted his quarantine decree on Twitter, just before 4am yesterday, trains from the “red zones” were bursting with people wearing improvised masks and rubber gloves. Newspapers beat the official announcement by several hours, prompting the exodus from the wealthy north
Footage can be seen here.
Many will see this incompetence as symptomatic of a wider problem with a state that has rarely functioned satisfactorily, despite including some of the richest and most productive regions of Europe, a highly educated and sophisticated population, and numerous other advantages (including one of the best healthcare systems in the world). It’s a country lesser than the sum of its parts.
Then there is the United States, which has tested very small numbers for coronavirus despite the mounting crisis and has a healthcare system that almost seems designed to prevent people getting treatment; on top of this the American system also offers few incentives for people to stay at home and self-isolate. The US is fantastically rich, and in terms of innovation and technology is way ahead of Europe, and on same cultural levels seems far more vibrant and dynamic, but its disease response suggests some real underlying problems.
Of course it doesn’t help that the man currently in charge has some sort of narcissistic personality disorder and is pretty much the last person you’d want in any crisis. As Ross Douthat put it, there’s strong Mayor from Jaws energy coming from the White House right now, but then we have to remember that he’s still the mayor in Jaws 2.
The question is whether America is only at greater risk because they happen to have a dangerously unqualified moron in the Oval Office, or whether this reflects deeper underlying structural problems with a state not equipped to deal with crisis.
Pandemics are the ultimate stress test of modern states; Italy has been unfortunate in being the first European country badly hit, and in the next few days we’re going to see how Spain, France, Britain and Germany respond, and whether the people in charge there are up to the job.