22 December 2021

COVID and the West:
how to destroy capitalism

Workers in the West are leaving the labour market, possibly permanently, a phenomenon that has been termed the great resignation. The reasons are unknown but there is of course plenty of theorising. Given the phenomenon roughly coincides with COVID, and with a massive increase in state intervention, it's worth considering workers' possible attitudes to what has been going on. As is often the case, however, the considering we get from our paid intellectuals (many of them remunerated, directly or indirectly, by the state) seems to have a pro-state bias. Theories include 'workers are dissatisfied with too little employer support for sickness', or 'workers are fed up with the political status quo' (in the Marxist sense), but not 'workers are fed up with a workplace that has become over-regimented in terms of state-imposed policies'.
   Microeconomics tells us that mass phenomena can be generated by changes at the margin. Workers choose to work because the benefits (money, work satisfaction) exceed the costs (negative aspects such as stress or regulations). Increase the negative effects for all employees, and the overall incentive to enter the workforce drops. Small changes, if universal, can have big effects, though inertia means it may take a crisis or other trigger to shift behaviour. Employers have to compete to attract workers, and so have to make some attempt to make things attractive for them, but they have little control over what the state forces them to do.
   It's not inconceivable that the gradual rise in state control over the workplace, including the increasing intrusion of ideology (e.g. sensitivity training, quotas, widening definition of 'harassment'), is part of what is turning people off formal employment. The threat of compulsory medical intervention, mediated via the workplace, may be functioning as the straw that breaks the camel's back. This explanation is as plausible as any other, but is unlikely to receive meaningful attention. It conflicts with the preferred worldview of humanities professors — who, as a rule, favour state intervention and are hostile to markets and capitalism.

The hospitality sector is in deep trouble. It's not clear how much longer the hotel and catering industries can endure the current restrictive environment, before they suffer a collapse that could take years if not decades to recover from. Markets generally work well even for things that require long-term investment, but that depends on a relatively unregulated and predictable environment. Technological business may be semi-instantaneous in some respects, meaning it can bounce back quickly after a hiatus. By contrast, businesses that facilitate communal leisure activities generally depend on expensive infrastructure, and on building up reputations and consumer habits, both of which require long time horizons. A prolonged disruption, with an uncertain terminus, can play havoc with the sophisticated mechanisms on which this process depends.
   The sector was already having to deal with above-average change and uncertainty before COVID hit, due to more rapidly varying social behaviour patterns, and a ballooning regulatory regime including smoking bans and dietary red tape such as trans-fat bans.
   Your local pub or bar may well be on its last legs.

Lockdowns, travel bans, mandatory vaccination. These measures seem severely short of democratic legitimacy. I am not just referring to parliamentary debate/voting, though there has been little enough of that. The Brexit issue revealed that a parliamentary democracy may easily exhibit major divergences between (A) majority wishes and (B) the preferences of elected representatives as expressed in parliament. Doubtless this phenomenon is not unique to the UK.
   In early 2020 when the COVID crisis first hit, there was some basis for proceeding undemocratically given that any action had to be taken quickly. Now that many countries have had nearly two years of quasi emergency powers, and we are used to COVID — new variants notwithstanding — the fast-reaction argument is no longer adequate to justify the mild authoritarianism that seems to have become the new normal. Government policy in the West (health policy, education policy, economic policy, tax policy) is in effect being driven by what medical professionals say is good for us. Perhaps a new political term is called for — medico-cracy?
   Science in itself cannot make policy, it can only inform it. Policy is a question of preferences and trade-offs. Someone has to make a decision about the relative priority of (say) saving lives using increased state powers, versus the civil rights of individuals. This decision can be made either by the majority or by a minority. If it's a minority, the fact that the minority is relatively knowledgeable doesn't prevent it being anti-democratic. 'Research shows that policy X is correct because it saves lives' is a fallacious type of assertion we have frequently heard over the last two years. Just because something saves lives doesn't mean it should be imposed on the citizenship by a technocratic elite, however well informed that elite may be.

The Trump era generated extraordinary levels of combative rhetoric among Western (especially American) intellectuals, much of it based on emotiveness rather than sound arguments. Supposedly, Trumpism was anti-democratic and authoritarian, though these accusations were supported by little evidence. Where are those vociferous defenders against anti-democracy and authoritarianism now, when there's a genuine call for them? Judging by a quick Google search they're invisible as far as COVID policy goes, or confined to the marginalised. More evidence for the thesis that what Western intellectuals disliked about Trump had little if anything to do with pro-democratic or anti-authoritarian convictions. They didn't like Trump because he cocked a snook at them, refusing to give them and their preferred ideology the level of respect which they'd got used to receiving from politicians, and which they clearly believe is their due.
   For many intellectuals, 'democracy' seems to mean what they want it to mean — in other words, whatever fits with their ideas of rationality, social justice etc. The question of popular mandate is regarded as of secondary importance. Similarly, 'authoritarianism' is used to mean whatever doesn't fit with their ideas.
   If anything among recent Western policies should be described as authoritarian it's compulsory vaccination. It isn't described as such, presumably because most intellectuals either approve of it or feel they ought to approve of it — it doesn't tick any of the inequality boxes, so it 'must be ok'.

If one leaves aside what intellectuals think people want, or what they think people ought to want, the question naturally arises of what people actually want, in relation to e.g. COVID policies or the changing nature of the workplace. It is clear that elected representatives don't necessarily deliver what the majority wants — or necessarily even care what it wants — but is there some other way of ascertaining people's preferences? Polls and surveys used to provide some information, but seem to have become subverted by the pressures of political correctness. There are now numerous positions deemed (by intellectuals) to be ideologically unacceptable. Both before and after the popular votes that produced Trump and Brexit, intellectuals were telling people that some choices were simply wrong. It's no surprise then if individuals are no longer willing to be open about their preferences to strangers, or prefer to massage what they say in directions they suspect are more likely to receive positive acknowledgment. The result is that, as with most other 'research' in the humanities, surveys have become subject to ideological bias and hence effectively useless.
   Anonymous voting is still the best we've got, but to function properly this needs genuine diversity among politicians and their ideologies, which in turn requires that intellectuals stop trying to impose their preferred values, ganging up to making dissenting positions unacceptable, or thinking it's their job to second-guess voters by putting a spin on results. It's clear, for example, that liberty is now a value to which the intellectual elites give zero weight. Their spin on the surprising 2016 US election result — after their initial reaction of simply dissing voters — has been to argue it represents a reaction against inequality. (Their preferred narrative having been restored, pseudo-intellectual debate could go back to normal. Hence the result has had minimal effect on elite thinking.)
   Even when citizens try to express their rejection of control by elites in the form of demonstrations or other direct action, the dominant narrative has sufficient inbuilt stabilisers to allow it to remain intact. (The phenomenon is similar to what happens under communism: any signs of popular dissatisfaction are taken as evidence that the evils of capitalism have not yet been sufficiently eradicated.) Thus the gilets jaunes, like the blue-collar workers who voted for Trump, were merely 'motivated by economic injustice'. And when Belgian or Austrian citizens protest against COVID authoritarianism, the elites' primary reaction is: 'perhaps we should consider the possibility that there may be a downside to coercion — it might discourage vaccine uptake!'

The UK government's stance on COVID may seem ambiguous and hence confusing to many, but this probably reflects the difficulty of trying to maintain a relatively non-interventionist approach in a world dominated by those with a strong desire to 'manage' the crisis. Boris Johnson's apparently preferred approach conflicts with that of other major Western states (the USA, Germany) and of other professionals (medics, journalists, academics). The 'sensible' option, globally, is evidently seen as being more interference rather than less. To maintain opposition to a global intellectual establishment is as precarious for the current Tories as it was for Thatcher's government. The result is mixed messages and a somewhat inconsistent policy, though overall (so far) Mr Johnson has managed to keep his crew reasonably together, and perhaps as much on the right side of the liberty-vs-statism spectrum as can be expected.
   The US's recent behaviour, incidentally, has reinforced the impression that the country has moved from the role of leader in pro-individualist thinking to that of being in the vanguard of statism and Marxist ideology. The relatively anti-state position implicit in Trumpism is thus more likely to have been an aberration than — as some politics professors were insisting a couple of years ago — an indication of a change in hegemony.

If a foreign power had wanted to use germs to accelerate the West's shift away from capitalism and towards statism, it could hardly have done a better job.