Authoritarianism in times of the corona virus

An anonymous reader muses upon the following question, and asks that I do so as well:

“This pandemic also brings out a clear cut difference between an authoritarian state and democratic state. For Authoritarian states, it is much easier to control the pandemic for they have surveillance over every movement of their citizens, which can’t be in a democratic state
So, this might also lead to states assuming more power and control after the pandemic gets over”

First things first, let me tease out two separate aspects of this question:

  1. Is there a case to be made for a state to be authoritarian while tackling the crisis?
  2. If the answer to the first question is in the affirmative, might it be likely that said authority will want to remain in power after the crisis is over?

Let’s consider the evidence at hand in terms of authoritarian governments being better at tackling the crisis:

Danielle Pletka, writing in The Dispatch, begins and continues her essay arguing against the idea that authoritarian regimes will  do a better job in these times:

Dictatorships make you sick. Not spiritually, not morally (though both may apply), but actually sick. Consider the responses to coronavirus by China and Iran, two authoritarian regimes whose rank mismanagement and compulsion to cover-up have driven the world to a full-blown pandemic.

She also shows this figure:

and quotes from The Economist:

Using data from the International Disaster Database, maintained by researchers at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, we analysed all recorded epidemics since 1960, from an outbreak of smallpox in Nepal in 1963 to more recent threats such as Zika and Ebola. The results were highly dispersed but a distinct trend was apparent: for any given level of income, democracies appear to experience lower mortality rates for epidemic diseases than their non-democratic counterparts (see chart). In authoritarian countries with China’s level of income, for example, we found that past epidemics have killed about six people per 1m population. In democracies with similar incomes, they have killed just four per 1m.

The key takeaway is this:

Authoritarian regimes are much more likely to be concerned with their image, and with keeping bad news down, because that is important to the perpetuation of said regimes. A media clampdown, in fact, is all but guaranteed if you are in an authoritarian regime. And I hope I don’t speak for myself when I say that is the last thing one could want.

We cannot fully test the counterfactual and know whether conversely regime support would have further eroded under restrictive media policy. However, our matching (quasi)-experiment strongly suggests that the authorities failed to reap obvious benefits from this strategy. Indeed, later restrictions on access to and reporting from the epicenter and the arrest of several activists seem to confirm our finding that the benefits of openness and transparency are tenuous at best. For better of worse, media control is key ingredient of authoritarian resilience.

The Atlantic argues that public trust, transparency and collaboration are key at such times:

Yet good public-health practice doesn’t just require control. It also requires transparency, public trust, and collaboration—habits of mind that allow free societies to better respond to pandemics. Democracies’ ability to cope with COVID-19 will soon be tested; after a proliferation of cases in South Korea, Japan, and Italy in recent days, officials are weighing how to respond. But citizens of democratic nations can reasonably expect a higher level of candor and accountability from their governments.

For these reasons, I find myself arguing against the idea that an authoritarian government will necessarily be better.

In addition, it is worth noting that Taiwan and South Korea – to the best of my knowledge the countries that have dealt with the crisis the best – are anything but authoritarian regimes today.

A better way to think about this issue is to ask if a country has the state capacity. Read this article by Gulzar Natarajan, and this review of In the Service of the Republic by me (preferably the entire book) to get a better idea about state capacity.

Now, the second question:

If the answer to the first question is in the affirmative, might it be likely that said authority will want to remain in power after the crisis is over?

Hungary has already succumbed:

On Monday, Hungary’s parliament passed a controversial bill that gave Orban sweeping emergency powers for an indefinite period of time. Parliament is closed, future elections were called off, existing laws can be suspended and the prime minister is now entitled to rule by decree. Opposition lawmakers had tried to set a time limit on the legislation but failed. Orban’s commanding two-thirds parliamentary majority made his new powers a fait accompli.

And this Twitter thread makes for depressing reading:



Might some leaders, and some citizens (from countries the world over) wish for a more authoritarian regime in the hope that the corona virus is better tackled than at present?


But it will almost certainly make a bad situation worse, and the regime will almost certainly outlive the crisis.

And so, to me, it is an unreservedly bad idea.

To be clear, I know for a fact that the anonymous reader does not want such a regime: they simply wanted to air the question – and so, dear anonymous reader, thank you for helping make my thinking about this clearer than it was before!


Etc: Links for 14th June, 2019

  1. “But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.”
    Ezekiel J. Emmanuel on how long he wants to live. Worth reading to ponder questions of mortality and what it means to each of us. Also worth reading up on: memento mori.
  2. “Indeed, the German hyperinflation was not even the worst of the twentieth century; its Hungarian equivalent, dating to 1945-46, was so much more severe that prices in Budapest began to double every 15 hours. (At the peak of this crisis, the Hungarian government was forced to announce the latest inflation rate via radio each morning, so workers could negotiate a new pay scale with their bosses, and issue the largest denomination banknote ever to be legal tender: the 100 quintillion (1020) pengo note. When the debased currency was finally withdrawn, the total value of all the cash then in circulation in the country was reckoned at 1/10th of a cent. [Bomberger & Makinen pp.801-24; Judt p.87])”
    I wasn’t aware of what the topic of this essay is about – which is not contained in the excerpt above. Somewhat shamefully, I wasn’t even aware of the Hungarian episode quoted above! Read more, sir, read more!
  3. “Consider the first time a right-handed player tries to dribble with the left hand. It’s awkward, clumsy. Initially, the nerves that fire off signals to complete that task are controlled in the front cortex of the brain. Over time, with countless repetitions, those nerve firings become more insulated. The myelin sheath builds up. Eventually, less effort is required to use that left hand, and the brain processes it as second nature.The same is possible with pressure, according to neurologists. With repetition, stress can be transformed into fortitude.”
    Put yourself in pressure situations, and repeatedly. That’s the only way, this article says, to handle pressure. Lovely read!
  4. “The project in Colombia, a partnership with the nonprofit Conservation International, involves protecting mangrove forests, which can store 10 times as much carbon as terrestrial forests. In its first two years, the program is expected to reduce carbon emissions by 17,000 metric tons, roughly equal to the next decade of emissions from the lidar-equipped survey vehicles that update Apple Maps. “This is rare for Apple to say, but we are telling other companies to copy us on this,” Jackson says.”
    I have only glanced through this article, and haven’t come close to reading all the entires (a true rabbit hole), but there’s lots of small interesting snippets here about creativity. Not so much, based on what I’ve seen of the “how to be creative”, but rather descriptions of folks who are creative.
  5. “The (c)rapture I felt was likely a case of “poophoria,” explains Anish Sheth, the gastroenterologist and coauthor of toilet-side staple What’s Your Poo Telling You? “Some have compared it to a religious experience, others an orgasm,” he says. The exact science is unknown, but Sheth thinks the sensation may result from “a slightly prolonged buildup, an overdistension of the rectum, and immediate collapse by passing a sizable stool, which fires the vagus nerve and releases endorphins.” Lights-out pooping, Sheth adds, may “help with a proper rate of exit.””
    Truly etc., this. The Wired magazine on, well, pooping in the dark.