Shayne Wissler
“How far into the foundations, when it comes, must the revolution penetrate?” – Thomas E. Phipps, Jr.

COVID-19: Bad Leadership Kills

March 16 2020

Of course it would be a pandemic. Something that those who think “I don’t want to think about politics or philosophy, I just want to live my life” can’t ignore.

It’s clear to many now that our leaders and institutions have failed us. To point out just one obvious way among many: Testing for the virus is the foundation of any reasonable plan to contain or mitigate its spread. The United States has been woefully behind other countries, but we should have been the first country to step up and, for our own sake, help the rest of the world. We should have urgently, rapidly scaled up testing capacity much earlier than we did. This was not a technology or expertise problem, we have the people who know what to do. The problem was an abysmal lack of leadership[1], which is necessary to activate this expertise and manage it at scale.

While this new pandemic reality is different in degree from the one we lived in before, for those of us who don’t lack a moral imagination, it’s no different in kind from the one we were already living in. Unnecessary mayhem and death already abounded. Individuals who were one day living their life could the very next be snatched by unnecessary death due to hospital mistakes (up to a half a million deaths per year), traffic accidents (around forty thousand deaths per year), and flu (eighty thousand deaths in a bad season).

As a very rough estimate, I think that if we added up all the unnecessary death and mayhem that was already going on year after year, then it is of the same order of magnitude as the deaths that COVID-19 will inflict in one year (a million or so unnecessary deaths in the US)[2]. So roughly speaking, this disaster is really just an extra year or so of the standard disasters we have year after year while our institutions regularly ignore them year after year.

Our leaders failed us long before this crisis. Imagine if we had believed twenty years ago, as I did, that death by flu was unacceptable, and had incrementally instituted containment protocols, locally, nationally, globally, that would eventually eradicate its spread. If we had created such, not only would we have eliminated unnecessary death by flu, we would have no worries about COVID-19 now. We’d simply enact the protocols we’d already created for handling the flu.

To those who regard this as “impractical idealism” – how practical is it to live with the uncontrolled pandemics that we know will come from time to time? The fact is, we don’t know how difficult these protocols would be economically, because we don’t even bother trying to find out. So we can’t even do a cost-benefit calculation to decide whether the trade-off is worth it. What would the costs be? How much are we selling grandma’s golden years for?

The flu was Nature’s way of saying “learn from this.” But our institutions never learn.

I’m not a pessimist. I think we can fix this. Granted, I don’t see any particularly strong signs that we will, but we do have that choice. In particular, the very brightest individuals among us have the choice. What choice?

We have to do what we can in this emergency. I myself don’t have a full answer, here are a few thoughts:

We are not a homogeneous nation, we are localities. Just because one part of the country has succumbed to mere mitigation, that doesn’t mean we all must give up on the goal of containment and eradication. Clearly though, we must focus on slowing down the spread while we urgently seek to expand our medical technology and capacity.

We must drop the scarcity mindset and focus on unleashing the productive capacity of our brightest fellow citizens, to create more hospital beds and equipment, more people to assist doctors and nurses tend to patients, more companies to fill in the general production gaps that will emerge. We need to radically deregulate while also policing fraud. And we need to get our politicians to permit all this to happen.

But more importantly over the long term, we need to look past this emergency and get to the root of our leadership problems. This itself is a multifaceted problem with historical roots stretching long into the past and deep into our culture and institutions and individual psychologies. I have already elaborated on much of this in my other writings, in particular in my book REASON and LIBERTY.

I would single out one critical element of the status quo that must change: the morally-neutered technology nerd. These are the ones who have the wits to lead humanity, but they lack a moral vision and backbone. Many of them are apathetic cynics (see the first paragraph of this article). In the rare cases where they do have a proper moral understanding, they lack the courage to clearly, boldly, and openly state it. They have every manner of excuse for why they don’t, but the end result is the same: a culture of feeble mice instead of robust men and women. That’s precisely what the status quo wants, but not what humanity needs.

  1. I don’t mean President Trump or his administration, I mean all the institutionally-recognized health experts, who should have been publicly sounding this alarm in chorus. A President is not a god, he can’t be expected to know and do everything, he has to rely on the expertise of our society’s institutions, just like we all do.
  2. Leaving aside the cost of our reaction to COVID-19, which is difficult to guess.