Monday 2 November 2020

The Political Economy Of Risk: Covid Edition

Covid-19 reminds us once again that we can’t do without politics, or, to put it another way, we can’t do well without doing politics well.

‘Science’ can’t decide the right thing to do about Covid, however appealing it might be to imagine we could dump this whole mess on a bunch of epidemiologists in some ivory tower safely beyond the reach of grubby political bickering. This is not because scientists don’t know enough. The scientific understanding of Covid is a work in progress and hence uncertain and incomplete, but such imperfect knowledge can still be helpful. The reason is that since Covid became an epidemic it is no longer a merely scientific problem. Dealing with it requires balancing conflicting values and the interests of multitudes of people and organisations. This is an essentially political challenge that scientists lack the conceptual apparatus or legitimacy to address.

Epidemiologists can inform the political process but not replace it. In particular, they can advise governments on the sources of risk and the projected levels of risk associated with different Covid policies. However, as we have seen in the various approaches to lockdown and rollback around the world, how governments address Covid does not follow directly from their different epidemiological circumstances. Governments make two specific political choices well or badly: how much Covid risk to tolerate and how that risk ‘budget’ should be allocated between competing social needs and interest groups.

First governments must decide how much Covid matters to them, i.e. how far to prioritise controlling the epidemic relative to their other priorities, such as economic prosperity, other aspects of public health, and their own political survival. The health of the general population will never be the only concern, and this is entirely reasonable and moral in a world of trade-offs (or we would all demand a speed limit of 10 mph on our roads). This does not mean that we cannot criticise the specific trade-offs a government chooses to make ‘on our behalf’, for example if it seems to value its own political survival far above the lives of citizens. Closely connected to how much to care is the question of how rosy a view of the risks to take, i.e. whether to plan for the best or worst case scenarios posited by epidemiologists. Together this exercise generates what may be called a ‘risk budget’.

Second, governments must decide how to allocate their risk budget among a society’s competing needs and interests. Whatever precautions individuals follow, all physical interactions carry some risk of transmission and hence of raising R nought. Which interactions are worth that risk? For example, should the airline industry, the hospitality sector, or schools get to resume something like normal services, and thereby resume serving those who depend on them (such as children and working parents), while imposing risks on those who work in them (such as teachers)?

Because there is a limited amount of normality to go around, who gets to enjoy its benefits or suffer its consequences is a matter of intense political competition. One would hope that the political system would prioritise those whose interests have the greatest moral claims and/or generate the greatest net beneficial impact. For example, in person schooling is of great direct and indirect value to children, and also frees up working parents to do all the things we would like them to do, like run ICUs. In contrast, in person university teaching is entirely dispensable except for a handful of vocational subjects like nursing.

However we all know that even in the best of times and the best democracies, risks are distributed rather more according to a political than a moral logic, i.e. those groups least able to resist end up with the shortest straw. Hence the fact that noxious and dangerous facilities like highways, refineries, incinerators and so on are much more likely to be sited in poor and minority neighbourhoods. So it is not surprising that even democratic governments who can legitimately appeal to the public interest are vulnerable to political resentment from those who lose out from Covid risk rationing, especially as time passes and their costs mount. Governments pass from being seen as saviours into callous and arbitrary gatekeepers controlling who gets access to the suddenly precious domain of business as usual. People lose their jobs and fear losing their homes; business owners lose their shirts; families lose the chance to say goodbye to dying relatives; and so on, and it appears to them that all these losses have been caused by the rules set by the government. Set us free! they cry. Covid can’t be worse than this! 

(Ironically, this challenge is only possible because of the success that Covid risk rationing achieved in preventing far more infections and deaths. It thus invokes the paradox of expertise in which the absence of catastrophe counts as evidence that there was no real catastrophe to evade, rather than as evidence that it has successfully been evaded by following the experts’ advice (elsewhere).)

The basic problem is that, except in a few lucky island states, there is not enough normality to go around to satisfy enough of the people who matter. Hence governments revisit the fundamental constraint. If they can’t solve the political problem by persuading everyone to accept their fair share of a reasonable level of risk, perhaps they can wish themselves a higher risk threshold to work with. Around the world we have seen supposedly scientifically informed governments do this, for example by choosing to listen to those experts and scenarios whose optimism best fits their present political needs. This is where catastrophe starts looming again. It’s as if 100,000 fans showed up for the World Cup Final but the stadium only had room for 15,000, and then, after some pressure from fans angrily waving the tickets they had paid for, the stewards decided to let them all in after telling them to ‘be careful’ and ‘stand very quietly’.

In more polarised political cultures, where the government is perceived only to care about the interests of some part of the population, this political car crash unfolds more rapidly. There people already exhibit much less trust in government claims about the public interest and are primed to suspect their rulers of cynically expending their lives to the benefit of some other, more politically significant groups. They are unwilling to follow orders to sacrifice their interests for the good of society and evade them wherever possible: risk rationing can hardly get going before it breaks down. In America, for example, even the reopening of schools became controversial, with teachers in many states (whose unions are noted supporters of the Democratic Party) fighting furiously against being conscripted into providing the stake in the Republican party’s election gamble. In non-democracies like Russia the trust problem is yet more acute, since such governments are entirely beholden to narrow vested interests for their survival rather than the general public and have no stocks of legitimacy to draw on. 

Interestingly, totalitarian countries with mildly competent governments - such as China is returning to being - have shown that they can subdue Covid rather effectively. In such countries, the utter subjugation of the people to the state is a core principle of governance and so the political problem is greatly simplified: the values and interests of the people don't matter to the government, or only strategically. Indeed totalitarian regimes see increased subjugation of their people in the name of the national interest as a wonderful opportunity rather than a ghastly necessity. Both China's draconian shutdowns and also the enormous uncompensated hardship they caused were an exercise of totalitarian power intended not only to suppress the Covid pandemic but to remind the Chinese people of their utter helplessness and dependence on the state. 

There is another level to the political economy of Covid risk that is important to consider: the relationship between the individual and the organisation. Like sovereign governments, individuals can be said to have a personal risk budget based on their tolerance for danger and their personal risk factors (such as age and employment). Again, their task is to allocate this budget between competing priorities such as work, shopping, visiting friends, exercising, and so on. Unfortunately as with so much else in life, individuals have limited power to make this very personal choice for ourselves. For example, if your work can only be done in person then it may well soak up your entire risk budget or even force you into a risk deficit.

Is the work worth doing, and hence, is there some superior value achieved by your sacrifice? You are not consulted on that question. You don’t even get to determine whether the job really has to be done in person or whether it could be done well enough from a computer screen at home. Government pronouncements to ‘work from home wherever possible’ are effectively meaningless so long as it is organisations rather than workers that get to decide those questions. Customers can usually choose to leave without notice and take their business somewhere else. In the long-run in normal times, the same may go for employees - but these are not normal times. In the short-run, we are stuck in command hierarchies.

So long as organisations do not pay a price for the Covid risk they impose on employees in line with our own valuation of its costs, they will over-consume it. For example, they will identify customer convenience with business needs and business needs with actual objective significance. The result is that hundreds of millions of workers are systematically vulnerable to exploitation. Our risk of contracting a deadly disease as well as the moral risk we bear of passing it on to others matters a great deal to us, but in all too many cases this risk will be casually expended on behalf of unimportant company goals by managers who are held accountable for failing to meet those goals but not for the moral exploitation it takes to reach them.


Many countries are facing extended or second waves of Covid infections. In response, many citizens are blaming their governments for not following the science. This is a misunderstanding of the essentially political character of the problem. Although it is true that many governments have been guilty of taking a wishful thinking approach to the science of Covid, they were responding to the equally unscientific and self-serving political demands of their constituents wanting things to go back to normal. On the other hand, many governments have been blaming their citizens for irresponsibly failing to keep to the rules. This is disingenuous. Many people cannot afford to keep to the rules that have been set. Threatening us with bigger fines is exactly the wrong way to go. Financial safety nets and compensation schemes have to be retained to keep the sacrifices demanded at a reasonable level, and priority in the risk budget given to those with the greatest moral claims (such as carers) rather than serving economically significant and hence politically influential groups like the hospitality industry. Moreover, most people lack the power to make the organisations we work for comply with the government’s rules, which in turn makes it impossible for us to comply with them. If governments want the rules they set to be followed, they should empower employees to demand that their organisations follow them too.

This essay was previously published on 3 Quarks Daily

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution: Thomas R. Wells is a philosopher at Leiden University. He blogs on philosophy, politics, and economics at The Philosopher's Beard.