COVID-Policies that fit your values — Part I.
Being December, it’s a little late now, but I am a slow thinker. I made an attempt at this piece end of January 2020 but didn’t push through; my thoughts weren’t fully formed, and thinking takes free attention, which I am in short supply of lately. I am not going to spend more than 40 minutes right now, so we’ll see where it goes.
The thought behind this piece in February was that governance, rather than epidemiology, would be the determining factor. We — the public — would learn more about how countries run themselves than about viruses. That proved true. My other expressed thought at the time was that in the face of harm of this potential, one shouldn’t wait for more data to pile up but prepare and nib the harm in the bud — a thought I have repeatedly impressed with a sledgehammer into my brain after reading Nassim Taleb more than a decade ago (the rest of the brain has recovered since, thank you). And finally, I had already learned long ago from studying policy-making in different countries in the world that values govern attention and institutions entrench values that settled early at their core. Policies take shape in line with, or at least not in contradiction to, long-standing societal values; there are no one-size-fits all approaches.
As I had learned before (from experience and later from authors like Mary Douglas) the single most important thing in policy-making is not knowledge but self-knowledge. What deep history had settled in terms of culture and institutions governs people’s attention and inference — especially in technocratic domains, where social rules and norms are quite strict on inference, even if its practitioners may believe they’re led in action by value-less evidence on objective phenomena. Within the constraints of culture and institutions, a person can make different policies and some will be easy to implement and others difficult. Those that are easy will be easy because people will recognize precedents for them, or at least for the thoughts and habits they require. And if a policy is entirely novel (rare) it must run alongside and not against precedent. The weight of tradition is not to be ignored in explaining policy-fit. Policies that are difficult to implement don’t fit well with settled values and can result in tremendous eruptions of affective push-back in perception and action of aggregations of people.
Every policy is a response to something that disturbs something else that we deem essential, something that we value. The response should keep those essentials within acceptable bounds and not become a disturbance itself to other essentials. The latter part of that phrase is crucial. When we look at policies, they roughly, I think, may be divided into the following five types:
Inform — providing signals that can alter the inferences of sovereign agents, who then prevent the essentials from being disturbed too much.
Limit — limiting the degrees of freedom of agents, who then in their aggregate behavior lower the exposure of the essentials.
Modify — reshaping the environment so that the vulnerability against the disturbing event is lowered.
Control — limiting the degrees of freedom of the disturbance, so that it cannot disturb the essentials outside of accepted bounds.
Recovery — leaving the disturbance to occur, and making policies in advance to restore the essentials into their accepted bounds.
For COVID-19, INFORM is self-evident: policies that provide information on anything COVID-19 related, such as keeping a healthy diet, washing one’s hands, keeping one’s distance, or wearing one’s mask appropriately. Providing free testing too is an example of INFORM. LIMIT is clear too: one prohibits agents from coming within a certain distance or asks them to do so; one prohibits groups above a certain size; one opens one’s shops just for the elderly in the first hour of the day. And if one makes testing mandatory before granting access, it would be a form of LIMIT instead of INFORM. The clearest and most thorough form of LIMIT is the lock-down of a country or a region of a country, although it also has the label CONTROL (just as one can give a song in iTunes different genre-labels). MODIFY is less evident, and yet every mask one puts on one’s face is an example, changing the physical environment of the virus particle to lower vulnerability. Replacing the terraces of a cafe so people sit at a distance is another example of MODIFY. CONTROL would be a vaccine, which targets the disturbance head-on. And a Lock-down would, in limiting people’s actions so thoroughly, aim to limit the degrees of freedom of the disturbance below its threshold of being disturbing. A RECOVER policy would be to go for herd immunity or to provide people and businesses enduring financial hardship with aid.
I made this typology after I studied flood policies. INFORM might include a policy to inform people about a storm or heavy rainfall. LIMIT, for example, includes a policy of forced evacuation. MODIFY: the changing of urban development so as to minimize vulnerability — say, building one’s house on stilts. CONTROL: the building of a flood defense system. And RECOVERY could include the settling of contracts during normal times with NGO’s and private companies for tents and aid for the sake of a swift response in the aftermath of disaster. Many different policies would slide neatly into this typology and I couldn’t see an extra category (there might be one, of course). Since thinking this up, different phenomena were a breeze to think about. The disturbance-response-essentials part of it this way of understanding policy comes straight from Ross-Ashby, the cybernetician. My added typology isn’t anything as rigorous as that. But it did help me to distinguish things a bit better, so it might help you.
The ideal policy against COVID-19 in the absence of a vaccine would have been a short, global closing of borders and targeted lock-downs, at the very start of the pandemic. Pull off the band-aid at once, and the pain is over quickest. The virus would be eradicated. But only someone reasoning from fictions would conclude that this is possible: we are, taken together, an anarchic bunch. It is every country for himself, and even that is a tall order. After all, the second-best policy against COVID-19 would be for each nation to lock-down at the start of an outbreak and then tightly control the border, just as New Zealand did, but very few countries have succeeded in that. And this is because governing is like musical improvisation, but governing stuff like COVID-19 is like a classical music piece where there are not just many musicians, but many conductors as well. It requires a ‘concerted’ culture to synchronize, and few countries have those (being an Island may help, but doesn’t suffice).
A benefit of making particular policies a little more abstract and giving them verb-names is that it is easier to see that whole types of policies sit more or less easily with the values that have settled throughout history in a society and in the governance mechanisms that such a society uses to prevent its valued things (its ‘essential variables’) from being disturbed outside of acceptable bounds. Such settled values are a whole lot more sturdy than the whims and fads that circulate in societies, and thus give us some information on whether a particular policy will be implemented with success or not.
In my country, the Netherlands, we value deliberation in a pluralistic society and the voluntary assent of groups of people. Social norms are important tools to govern ourselves, but we don’t like to be told what to do, in particular by groups of people who we don’t identify with. Hence LIMIT and CONTROL policies are possible, but not after being in long deliberations about it, and as soon as it feels enforced, people start to grumble and some stop following the norm. It took quite some time, I observed around me, for masks to not look foolish for people, or to even accept the virus as something to take seriously, but suddenly — a tipping point — the dominant social norms flipped, and wearing masks (MODIFY) is a normal thing to do and the virus is seen as a serious thing. INFORM is enormously valued. The government takes the tone of a parent that tries: there are imposed limits, but everything is explained, and the limits are not too strict. This doesn’t mean that the information is always accurate, and it often means it is paternalistic — indeed, the health officials advising the government proved oblivious to the biases and shortcomings within their messages, something that frustrated me to no end. Yet the truth or falsity of INFORM is not important — its the pragmatics that matter for a fit with values. At the same time, being group minded and reason-giving, people in society vacillate as they move between different peer groups that have developed different sets of reasons honed for their in-group persuasiveness, being earnest one moment and then a bit looser in adhering to the things government asked of them. We go up and then a bit down and then up again in the COVID-numbers. There are many more policies in existence that we could typify in the Netherlands and cohere with the above, but I want to move to different countries.
In China, people were welded into their houses, and the government pulled no punches, quite literally, in LIMITING and CONTROLLING the virus. The values within their governing mechanisms were entirely in accordance with these policies. In South Korea, INFORM in the form of ubiquitous signs and testing and of tracing of the infected were massively successful, in part because people cooperate and accepted the privacy incursions as normal. In England (Scotland’s another matter) and in the US, two countries with a liberal-democratic tradition like the Netherlands, but more individualistic, COVID-19 pulled a mask of competence that was already dangling from the face of government. For both countries, I’ve made this analysis in the realm of flood policies, but COVID-19 is a little different. It’s clear that its an emergency and it will thus be over after some time. That’s important because, for the US, more government or permanent bureaucracies are often a nono, and some policies in flood management imply it. For COVID-19, that should be less of a problem outside the red states, given the fleeting nature of a pandemic. In the US, it is no secret that policies became hijacked by politics in this election year — an odd thing to see from abroad. This was an odd four years for that country and if everything becomes something to fight over it is hard to see if there is a more systemic reason for it. But it is equally clear of course that the US population will not accept far-reaching LIMIT policies. And CONTROL policies will be difficult to implement if they cost many tax-payer dollars. As for England. I’ve always regarded England as moving between different equilibria — between a Lockean one of sovereign individuals who demand a permissive society and a Hobbesian one of a doctrine-led top-down style of government led by Etonians who nevertheless regard themselves as the individuals of the Lockean kind. And here, indeed, we see the shift from herd immunity to lock-down as the leitmotif of the English COVID-19 story.
I’ve reached the end of my writing impulse, so I’ll have to continue later. A next piece will be on figuring out policies that work with one’s values. Whether such policies are effective is really not a question I want to deal with, because there just will not be a policy implemented at all if you don’t target the first question.