COVID’s Wakeup Call: The Weaknesses of Western Governments

In their new book The Wake-Up Call, top journalists at Bloomberg News and The Economist study different government responses to the pandemic. The winners and losers may prove surprising, with many states in Asia-–including authoritarian China-–faring better and saving more lives than their wealthy western counterparts. Walter Isaacson speaks with the authors about their findings.

Read Transcript EXPAND

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: And now COVID is making us all rethink our priorities and ask hard questions about how we can build better societies. “The Wake-Up Call” is a new book by top journalists at Bloomberg News and “The Economist.” It studies different government responses to the pandemic in order to find answers. The winners and losers have proved surprising, with many states in Asia, including authoritarian China, faring better and saving more lives than their wealthy Western counterparts. Here’s our Walter Isaacson speaking with John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge the lessons in good governance that we can take from these challenging times.


WALTER ISAACSON: Thank you, Christiane. And, John and Adrian, welcome to the show.


ISAACSON: So, why did China handle COVID so much better? John?

MICKLETHWAIT: Well, I don’t think it’s China. It’s most of Asia. You look at the numbers, they’re pretty extreme. America has going on for 600 deaths per million. Britain’s a bit above that. You go to Asia, and you find places like Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea all around sort of 10 or 20 deaths per million. China claims a number of 3.3 deaths per million. They’re probably fibbing about that, but you can imagine that they’re — they have got it wrong by a factor of 10, that, in fact, they’re hiding 90 percent of the deaths. That would still mean that they have only got 30, which make them 20 times better at protecting their people than America. And I think it’s a mixture. I think, to begin with, China certainly looks faulty when COVID first appeared. But, after that, it began to work out quite quickly how to get testing equipment, how to do lockdowns. And you compare it with the chaos in America, I think we had a year that people began by talking about this being China’s Chernobyl, and I think, at some extent, it’s ended up being Washington’s Waterloo. It’s one of those things where people will look back at this year, and they will ask themselves the question, did the West react to this sense that Asia actually did these things incredibly well? Is it something that really goes back over 40, 50 years of Asia gradually getting better, led by China, and whether that really is going to change? And is America particularly going to do something about this?

ISAACSON: Adrian, is there something about the Asian mentality, the Asian way of doing things, the Asian governance system that’s inherently better at something like this?

ADRIAN WOOLDRIDGE, CO-AUTHOR, “THE WAKE-UP CALL: WHY THE PANDEMIC HAS EXPOSED THE WEAKNESS OF THE WEST AND HOW TO FIX IT”: I would say no to the question of mentality. I think, if you look at the mentality of the Chinese rulers, that’s a sort of rather dictatorial mentality. If you look at the mentality of people in South Korea, that’s a much more liberal, anarchic mentality. So, I don’t think there’s any common sort of Confucian outlook there. I do think there is a question of governance or government. And that is because, today, if you go back to 1500, China was ahead of the rest of the world in terms of the quality of its government. It has the biggest city in the world. It has the best civil service in the world, the biggest, largest civil service, selecting people from all over the country. And the West, at the same time, is really a backwater. And what happens over the next few hundred years is, the West gets better at government. It keeps innovating and inventing, so invent the nation state, the liberal state, the welfare state. And all that time, China atrophies. Its government remains fixed in time. And what’s happened in the last few years is, that process has begun to reverse. The West has sat on its laurels. Its atrophied. And the East, starting with Singapore, spreading to China, has really taken government seriously. It’s got better and better and better with government. So, what we see with the coronavirus pandemic is really a test that’s measuring something that’s happened over many, many decades.

ISAACSON: Adrian, do you think that systems based on individual liberty, the way Locke and Mill and Hobbes helped create a contract there, are really good at innovation, but not very good at organizing themselves for grand purposes?

WOOLDRIDGE: Well, we have had one test, which is how you respond to COVID. And it does seem that centrally directed countries have done quite well at that. Certainly, China has done quite well at that. We have another test, which is how good you are at producing vaccines. And it may be the case that the West actually demonstrates its virtues and does produce the best vaccine, the earliest vaccine, and we solve this appalling problem of the pandemic. But what we’re trying to argue in this book is that you need a bit of both. You need to have liberty, you need to have a society based on entrepreneurialism and innovation, but you mustn’t forget about the collective problem of government. How do you govern society? And if you’re too much reliant just on entrepreneurship and just on innovation, if you regard government as irrelevant, you are missing a very, very important truth. And I think the Anglo-Saxon countries, in particular, the United States and Britain, that have been really keen on entrepreneurship, really keen on business, have got a bit of a wakeup call. They have realized — they should be realizing they need to put a little bit more emphasis on government, on the collective, on how to make society cohere together.

ISAACSON: John, in reading your book, the Singapore model stands out. How have they gotten a balance more right than other places?

MICKLETHWAIT: I think what’s interesting about Singapore is that it answers two different bits. It answers firstly that idea that you want to have more government. There is no Republican in Congress who comes remotely close to advocating a government as small as Singapore or — they all talk about it, but they do absolutely nothing. They finance tax breaks for the rich and all those sort of things. Singapore doesn’t have those. It just tries to keep the state as small as possible. And there’s a second lesson for the Republicans, I think, particularly. If you just blather on about wanting a small government, or the small as government as possible, you end up with Congo. The point about Singapore is that it takes its public sector and it pays it well. So, if you’re a civil servant at the top of Singapore, you get paid a million-dollar salary. The right wing in Congress would never dream of doing that. And they’re wrong, because the other part of the Singaporean model is, you get rid of bad teachers. You get rid of bad performers. You try and bring clever people in. Yes, there is a little bit of authoritarianism with this, but you look around the rest of Asia, I think it’s hard to make that call. If you look at South Korea, a country, Seoul is a place where I think there’s been — I think 30 people have died at COVID. Go to London, 6,000 people have died. Go to New York, 20,000 people have died. Seoul is big, indeed, bigger than London or New York. It has an amazing kind of nightclubs. It’s the center of K-pop. It won the Oscar last year. You cannot sort of stereotype it as just being a question of sort of Asian that’s (AUDIO GAP) happened. These are big, bustling cities. And most of the things they did — and Singapore shows this — most of this had nothing really to do with issues of liberalism or whatever. It’s just simply making government work. If you’re going to make education good, you do it the same way as you make business good. You bring in good people, you get rid of bad people, you promote people who do well. And it’s not actually that much more complicated.

ISAACSON: One of the themes in this book is that government had gotten too big, gotten too flabby. But do you think, or do you fear, or do you hope that, in the wake of COVID, we’re going to end up with more government, rather than less? Adrian?

WOOLDRIDGE: I would say it’s very important it shouldn’t just be more government. I mean, a lot of people on the left have seized on this idea that we just obviously need to expand government. Government has to take a bigger role in steering the economy. Government has to step into people’s lives to regulate them more. What we argue in this book is that, in some cases, we need more government. In some cases, we actually need less government. The government is doing all sorts of unnecessary things, like creating mortgage tax relief for people who are already fairly well off or intervening in the economy in fairly targeted ways to support lobbyists and lobbying groups. What we actually need is smarter government, government that is really thinking in the long term, government that is willing to invest in long-term growth, government that looks after education, after innovation, rather than being very biased towards the elderly, which I think the American — the American government is. One of the many thinkers that we try and talk about in this book is actually Plato. And Plato says two things, really, that we were very struck by. One is that government really matters. He likens it to his ship, and says, the quality of the captain of the ship is very important. If you don’t have a good captain, you hit the rocks or go in the wrong direction. And, secondly, that you need a sort of a leadership class, a guardian class, people who are committed to government, people who committed to thinking in the long term, want to make sure that the stage isn’t captured by special interests, that the stage isn’t too short-term. A very good example on this, I think, would be climate change, that you need people willing to think about what’s happening in 100 years’ time, rather than just responding to this or that headline or this or that lobby.

ISAACSON: Do you think, John, that there’s an inherent flaw in the 400- or 500-year-old notion of basing things around individual liberties and markets, and that that’s a system that has to be revised for the 21st century?

MICKLETHWAIT: No, I think — I don’t think that. I think that the system of basing things around individual liberty is still crucial. And, overall, there’s no doubt in our mind that the democracies are stronger. This particular — and the reason why COVID matters is because China, as we’ve said, did better generally, despite its very shabby beginnings, than America. But you mustn’t draw a kind of false positive from that that means autocracies are better than democracies. There are a lot of democracies that did well. In fact, most of the countries of Asia that we celebrate, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, are democracies And, by contrast, most autocracies — I don’t think anyone is rushing to go and live in Russia, which has done very badly, Iran, which has done possibly worse, or North Korea, which I think claims it’s had no COVID at all, that doesn’t want it. And I think there’s a danger. One of the dangers now is, the West has done so badly, that a lot of people looking around, especially other countries are going to look and say, do you want the American model, where so many people die, or is there something about autocracy? And that is, I think, a dangerous path to get out. We need to sort of educate people that democracies can work.

WOOLDRIDGE: I would add a word to the word liberty, and that is the word accountability. I think there are certain occasions during a COVID crisis, a pandemic, when we do have to surrender liberty. You know, we surrendered our liberty to move around. We had a lockdown. We surrendered our liberty in the sense that we are watched much more by the government. We have now introduced in this country a rule of six, where you can only have six people gathering and meeting together at one — at any one time. And I think most reasonable people would agree that we sometimes do have to surrender our liberty in order to preserve life. But the important thing is that you should have accountability, that this should be — the government should be watched over by a parliament, and that parliament should be able to call the government to account, force it to stop intervening with people’s lives if it’s gone too far.

ISAACSON: What other remedies do you all suggest in the book? John?

MICKLETHWAIT: What we actually do is, we retract into history and we drag the two people from the 19th century who were best at reforming government in our book. One is Abraham Lincoln. There other is William Gladstone, who was four times British prime minister, great sort of champion of what was then known as liberalism. And they both believed in roughly the same things. They wanted to empower, help the poor. They had very little truck with rich interests. And they wanted to keep government as small as possible. Both Lincoln and Gladstone hated the idea of taxation. They wanted to keep it as small as possible. So, we look at — we look across — we look at America and imagine what a fictitious President Bill Lincoln, as we call him, would so, and, in some cases, yes, we think America does need more government. We think it’s a disgrace that the country as big and as powerful America does not have a universal health care system. We look around America — look around the world and say, look, you can cherry-pick from Germany, from Canada, from Singapore. All these places manage to look after people better. We look at education and look at the things that other people are doing well. We do, yes — we say that it would be essential or a good idea would be to try and reunite the elites with the public sector, introduce some kind of non-military national service to bring countries together. But, above all, I think a lot of it is about ripping out these exemptions. There is $1.6 trillion worth of exemptions in the U.S. tax code. You have — we a system where nine out of 10 people require accountants to fill this out. If especially the right, the Republicans, were brave, they would get rid of all that, reduce the rates, have a much simpler government. People cannot understand government. And the only people who really gain are special interests. And if you look at the American tax code, it is riddled with things that should be hidden from voters as a whole. And I think, if you were a Gladstone, or a Lincoln, or, in our case, President Bill Lincoln, you would begin by dismantling those and spending that money on the poor. And, again, there is another inequality in America to do with the fact that most of the money — and you saw this with the health service with COVID — most of the money goes to the old, rather than necessary to the poor. It is surely wrong that Warren Buffett and Bruce Springsteen should get Social Security. There is no reason for it. And the same would apply to Mick Jagger in the U.K., if anyone queries that. It is simply the wrong thing. This was set up to provide security for the poor. It’s not meant to be something that goes to the rich.

ISAACSON: One of the great tectonic shifts in the past 20, 30 years has been the rise of populism and the revolt against elites, which is coming back to haunt us in the days of COVID, where people are distrustful of any scientific or government elites. But you write in your book that one of the reasons for this populist role was the flabbiness of government, that it didn’t work, that it got red tape, it got bureaucracy. But isn’t there another major reason, which you both and myself are probably implicated in, which is what I will call the Davos, “Economist” magazine syndrome, which is that free trade is just great, and that free movement of people is just great, and that it’ll help benefit the economies? And that turned out to be wrong for most of the people in the West.

MICKLETHWAIT: Yes, you are right. I think we all should face up to that. There was an element whereby — we’re all guilty of this — we went and trumpeted the advantages of free markets. We pointed out that they were altogether opening the world, was making the world a richer place, which was true. It was also bringing an enormous number of people out of poverty. There’s no doubt that if you were, say, in the poorer white middle classes in America, you didn’t gain a great deal of it. And I think, when you look at the Trump, you look at Brexit, you see a group of people who are angry and cross out a message. And no doubt we would come back and argue it wasn’t as well — it wasn’t as well-enforced as it would. There’s nothing terribly liberal about having $1.6 trillion worth of tax exemptions. And there was a lot of incredibly bogus favoritism within it. But, yes, you’re right. I think people — that was another reason why people got cross with internationalists. I would still say, actually, the bigger problem was just simply the fact that we neglected the public sector. I think there was more — it was more the fact that we all took the attitude that the private sector was the answer to everything. But, on the other side, the public sector has been getting worse and worse and worse. It’s the public sector which tends to look after the people who’ve been left behind. And it’s been very bad at doing it.

ISAACSON: Adrian, how will COVID change the world?

WOOLDRIDGE: I very much hope that COVID will be the wakeup call that we think that we argue for in this book, that people will look at COVID and see that it has revealed that Western government is really much less good than we thought it was, and that governments in the East, particularly China, is much better than we thought it was. And that’s — there is a short-term panic about COVID, but that we will get beyond that short-term panic and start asking some really, really big questions. And we really, really passionately believe that one of the things that it means is that government matters, and that we haven’t been doing anywhere near as well on that front as we should have been.

MICKLETHWAIT: I have one. If you — we look back through history, plagues and pestilences have had an amazing effect on these big empires. You can look at things like Athens, what happened there in the plague, which eventually led partly towards its defeat by Sparta. Rome, when it was descending, had several times plague intervened. Spanish Flu 100 years ago in some ways spurned people to do better things. So, it’s not so much the reverse you suffer when you have the kind of COVID problem. It’s what you, as a power, you, as a society, do about it, whether you react to it, which is the important thing.

ISAACSON: Adrian, John, thank you all so much for being with us. Appreciate it.

WOOLDRIDGE: Walter, thank you.

About This Episode EXPAND

Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of The Young Vic, discusses the Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic’s effect on the arts. Former Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) gives his thoughts on President Trump’s first televised town hall of this election cycle. Journalists Adrian Wooldridge and John Micklethwait explain how the pandemic has highlighted weaknesses in Western governments.