Governance in the time of COVID-19

How states around the world respond to the pandemic could reshape politics long after the emergency ends

What will our lives be like after coronavirus?

Will we be kinder and gentler? Will we care more for the activities and people that enrich our lives, and learn to dispose of, or change, what does not please us?

Will our governments learn from their errors, becoming more responsive to human needs, and rebuilding critical institutions? Or will changes made under cover of the COVID-19 crisis take choices away from ordinary citizens, adapting us to new ways of living and working that are more amenable to corporations and their political allies?

These issues lurk behind the slow progress of the economic relief package now stalled in the United States Senate.

What happens now could change the course of history, and everybody knows it. The notion that a bill of this magnitude could enact policy changes that could not otherwise be passed, absent an emergency, is real because it has happened before, and there is a theory that explains it. One of the ideas that most reshaped my thinking as a young historian writing a book on the New Deal was the concept of the "ratchet effect." A theory about the effects of state expansion at moments of crisis, it was most influential in the fields of economics and political economy in the 1980s and early 1990s.

The "ratchet effect" describes a process of state formation driven by emergencies such as war (or pandemics, in our case), events that create significant and sudden expansions of capacity that do not then return to a pre-crisis normal. If you don't usually read such things, here is the principle: to ratchet is to move an object or social dynamic up or down by measurable, discreet steps. Go to your toolbox, and you will see what I mean. A "lamb ratchet" is a kind of wrench, most commonly used by plumbers, with a set of tiny, fixed gears that, with a series of brisk clicks, quickly fits the wrench head to the job it must do. Importantly, the ratchet wrench is also equipped with a firm brake so that it doesn't suddenly come loose before the worker has completed the job.

This parable illustrates the essence of the ratchet effect when applied, say, to the government or industrial production. When governments expand to do a job they have never done before, they tend not to contract. And during an emergency, the public pressure on legislators and political parties to act may temporarily override ideological objections to policies that then become difficult to reverse.

A ratchet effect can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your ideological perspective. Emergencies teach us something about what citizens want and need, and they teach us how to safeguard our economic system from grifters and market dynamics. The Great Depression, and then World War II, pushed countries like the United States and the United Kingdom to recognize social needs and respond to them. What progressives refer to approvingly as the welfare state, and conservatives as "creeping socialism" are the same ratchet effect regarded from two different political perspectives.

But, as Laszlo Bruzst, a contributor to our Democracy Seminar, points out, a crisis might also be an opportunity to empower the state to expand, not the rights of people, but the rights of corporations and financial institutions. In Hungary, Bruzst writes, "The government of Viktor Orban is using the Covid 19 pandemic to drastically weaken the position of the most vulnerable class of employees."

As Bruzst points out:

With reference to the aim of alleviating the “effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the national economy,” the government is returning to the idea of state-enforced freedom of contract, the pet idea of Spencerian libertarians. This idea is based on the claim that the undisturbed market distribution of wealth and opportunities is the only system that serves the public good. Besides drastically deviating from the post-second World War continental law, the decree diametrically opposes the related key principles of the post-New Deal American constitutional doctrine that defines the role of the state in regulating labor relations as the defender of the rights of weaker parties in labor contracts. It also raises concerns about the effective implementation of EU Labor Law Directives in this “period of emergency,” since the parties may put aside provisions of the Labor Code implementing EU secondary law.

You can read the rest of Bruszt's essay here.

This thoughtful essay has been our most popular post of the past week. We at Public Seminar consider it an encouraging sign that our readers are thinking about the future, even as they struggle to live their daily lives in new ways.

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