... a shot in the arm to many who have watched their public administrations struggle with the challenges of the modern world ... From two noted internationalists, the picking apart of the international response, including that of the EU, is welcome. The portrait they paint is sobering and demands solutions ... It would be easy to challenge some of their presumptions about the losers of the Covid-19 crisis, given the recent resurgence of the virus in places that are declared winners in the book. It is also tempting to pick holes in the solutions their 'President Bill Lincoln' advocates, too many of which could have been drawn from the pages of The Economist magazine over recent years to be considered original. But the framing of the problem is powerful, particularly given the speed with which the book has been brought out — a credit to both the writers and the publishers ... there is one area that could have been considered more deeply — the analysis of the way technology has changed society. Although the authors touch on the challenge, the structural difficulties that rapid technological progress pose to democracy goes much deeper than is addressed here ... Solutions for how to fix the future require more than the old liberal internationalist ideas polished up. We need to think about the inequality that technology is accelerating and the isolation that makes authoritarian solutions look tempting ... It’s also worth being wary of the atmosphere of defeatism that some may draw from this brief book. Democracies have a capacity for innovation and reinvention that authoritarian states struggle with. The kind of fear that China’s rulers need to instil in order to exert control leads to a structural weakness that the Covid-19 crisis also revealed — false reports, corruption and cover-ups. That should be a wake-up call for other societies, too.
The pandemic has prompted an outpouring of works by public intellectuals purporting to draw meaning from the crisis, and to prescribe the necessary solutions. But as with so many entrants in this growing genre, the virus is more visible in Micklethwait and Wooldridge’s account of the problems than in their menu of solutions. Covid-19 may be a wake-up call, but it is apparently no reason to reconsider longstanding political views ... offers an executive summary of modern political history studded with sweeping assertions and telling anecdotes, a style that will be familiar to readers of The Economist ... Supporters of such ideas don’t really need a wake-up call, however. What they lack is public support for their proposals. Micklethwait’s boss, Michael Bloomberg, spent more than $1 billion on a fruitless presidential campaign advocating a similar combination of fiscally conservative and socially liberal ideas. It’s a common worldview among affluent and well-educated Americans. Bloomberg’s mistake was in thinking it would resonate with large numbers of voters ... Micklethwait and Wooldridge treat the failures of government as essentially failures of execution. But many Americans have become convinced that technocrats are pursuing the wrong goals. There is no reckoning here with the weaknesses of technocracy — for example, its tendency to favor the prosperity of the technocratic elites themselves ... Gladstone’s Liberal Party ultimately disappeared as a major political force because it did not fight hard enough for the needs of ordinary people. There’s a wake-up call in that story too.
Sometimes instant books can be too instant ... Like a charismatic but intellectually arrogant schoolmaster, the Economist tutors hand back their homework to western leaders and it’s red ink everywhere ... Only this time it doesn’t really work. The book is just too cartoonish, too scatter-gun, and fails to offer an explanation for half of the thesis: why the East survived so relatively unscathed ... It is also a case study in Covid Confirmation Bias, slotting recent events into their own previous work on state failure in the West, including the more extreme failures of populist-inclined ones ... Who can disagree that many western countries, led by the US and UK, failed the Covid test? Yet scratch the surface and you find a host of anomalies: why did Quebec and Belgium do so badly and Greece so well? And the book swings between attributing all national differences to the politicians in charge and then claiming that it is 'lazy' to blame poor performance on a particular set of leaders ... The idea that relative death figures are a measure of government competence is surely too simple ... In terms of the West-East comparison the analysis is even more threadbare. The authors clearly have no idea why the East performed so much better ... An investigation of those two factors would have been illuminating; instead we are left with a couple of pages on Singapore and its brilliant bureaucracy and highly selective education system as a model for the rest of Asia. Yet Singapore is a city state usually described as an illiberal democracy with a collectivist ethos, surely not something Economist writers would recommend for the more individualistic West ... This short book has some compensating virtues ... instead of investigating whether, say, more federal states did better in the crisis than more centralised ones (Germany says yes; the US no), they throw out random ideas ... And after all the huffing and puffing about state redesign, their three big ideas are anything but ... Also missing is a close-up analysis of the UK’s failures.