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Valuing the Deep State IX: Lessons from the Covid Crisis

Valuing the Deep State IX: Lessons from the Covid Crisis

In his final Deep State series post, Francis Fukuyama examines the Covid pandemic and what it can teach us about balancing bureaucratic autonomy and political control.

Francis Fukuyama

The full compilation of Francis Fukuyama's Valuing the Deep State series can be accessed here.

I’m anticipating that this will be the last of my articles in the “Valuing the Deep State” series. I turned most of the previous ones into a single lecture that I delivered on March 21 to the American Society for Public Administration. You can listen to the lecture here.

I want to conclude the series by looking back at the Covid pandemic and the lessons it teaches about the relationship between political leaders and their bureaucratic agents. The Deep State series was in general meant to defend the idea of bureaucratic autonomy, that is, the need to allow bureaucrats in the administrative state the freedom to make decisions within the overall policy guidance set by Congress or the President. Both autonomy and political control are necessary: politicians can interfere in decision-making and override expert judgement for short-term political gain, but bureaucrats can exceed their authority and experts can be grievously wrong.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

The Covid pandemic provided examples of both phenomena. It is safe to say that in the early days of the crisis, there was substantial deference to public health authorities that were recommending things like hand-washing, masks, social distancing, and shutdowns of most activities. The constitution of the state of California even gives final authority to county health officers to declare public health measures, authority that cannot be overridden by even the governor or state legislature. Bureaucratic autonomy reigned supreme, at least in most blue states.

Many things changed over the next two years, however, that shifted public views. The disease itself evolved into a less deadly form, and the broad population started to get vaccinated by early 2021. Health officials learned a lot about the disease, for example that it was spread by airborne particles and could not easily be contracted by touching surfaces. The costs of shutdowns became more onerous as countless small businesses went bankrupt and the economy went into a massive and sudden recession. Parents in blue states were getting increasingly frustrated by prolonged school shutdowns, often driven by pressure from teachers’ unions, that had a disproportionate effect on lower-income families.

By 2022, the United States and other economies had largely reopened, and public opinion had begun to shift substantially on deference to public health authorities. I remember quite vividly in the first year of the pandemic how the very suggestion that there could be a tradeoff between public health and other desirable social goods was condemned as an ignorant right-wing viewpoint. Initiatives like the Great Barrington Declaration arguing that health measures should be focused on the most vulnerable and that we could accept a higher level of risk from Covid were shouted down.

Today, it is hard to question the legitimacy of this tradeoff: the People’s Republic of China, which prioritized public health above all else in its zero-Covid policy, is widely disparaged for the policy’s damaging effects on Chinese citizens’ lives. The head of Sweden’s CDC, Anders Tegnell, was condemned in 2020 for not following the strict lockdown measures of the rest of the world, but in the end Sweden’s Covid mortality was no worse than any of its neighbors.

What does this teach us about bureaucratic autonomy and political control? The first lesson concerns the nature of scientific expertise. Public health authorities changed their views on the benefits of measures like masking and social distancing (and on the origins of Covid itself) in light of new studies and evidence. Those shifts and inconsistent messaging discredited them in the eyes of many conservatives, who charged that people like Anthony Fauci were power-mad bureaucrats interested not in public health but in control. But there is no alternative to relying on scientific expertise: the pandemic saw legions of quack remedies from hydroxychloroquine to traditional Chinese medicines being touted by different groups, often with political agendas. The autonomy and authority of health agencies needs to be preserved.

On the other hand, it is clear that overall policy cannot be made by public health officials on their own. With the rare exception of people like Anders Tegnell, an epidemiologist will recommend policies that will maximize public health outcomes. But such an expert does not have the tools to weigh the costs of health policies against other social goods, or to say what level of health risk is acceptable in light of those alternatives. This is something that ultimately needs to be done by political leaders who, in an ideal world, will carefully seek to balance different goods against one another using the best available empirical information.

Unfortunately, the United States did not have such a leader during the first year of the pandemic. Instead it had a president who was uninterested in empirical evidence and laser-focused on his own re-election. This led his opponents in turn to double down on their willingness to defer to public health authorities and to condemn any questioning of the experts’ recommendations as populist nonsense.

We have learned very little from the Covid epidemic and are arguably worse prepared to meet the next one that comes down the pike. A large part of the right has demonized public health authorities and expertise in general, undermining whatever trust once existed in them. Many red states are issuing detailed mandates prohibiting health authorities from recommending measures like masking and social distancing; one draft law even seeks to criminalize prescribing MRNA vaccines. We have managed to go from excessive deference to public health authorities to excessive politicization of them in the space of three years.

A high degree of bureaucratic autonomy is absolutely necessary in this realm. The next epidemic will likely have very different characteristics from Covid: it may strike the young rather than the old, it might involve higher mortality or be transmissible in different ways. Health authorities need to adjust policies with flexibility, but instead they are being straightjacketed in ways that assume that we will be fighting the last war all over again. Political leaders need to have access to the best scientific data and judgments available.

On the other hand, future policies should not be made by public health authorities alone. They constitute one important voice in the broader debate over policy, but represent only a partial view of what is good for a given society. Whether the United States can find the right balance between autonomy and control is at present very questionable.

Francis Fukuyama is chairman of the editorial board of American Purpose and Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow and director of the Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy program at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

Image: A social distancing decal from the Covid pandemic. (Flickr: Kevin_Butz)

The full compilation of Francis Fukuyama's Valuing the Deep State series can be accessed here.

Political PhilosophyUnited StatesFrankly Fukuyama