More Than Enough Blame To Go Around

REVIEW: 'Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe'
May 2, 2021

In a famous chapter of War and Peace, Tolstoy takes aim at the "great men" theory of history. Why did France invade Russia, his narrator asks? "The historians tell us with naïve assurance that its causes were … the ambition of Napoleon, the firmness of [Czar] Alexander, the mistakes of the diplomatists, and so on." But in reality, it was the "millions of men in whose hands lay the real power"—the "soldiers who fired, or transported provisions and guns"—who let "these weak individuals" carry out their will. A king, Tolstoy concludes, "is history's slave."

Like all intellectual fads, the great men theory eventually fell out of style—only to return with a vengeance on June 16, 2015, when Donald Trump rode down that escalator. In the campaign and presidency that followed, "experts" saw all manner of dire portents, each presaging a unique calamity. Trump enjoyed cult-like support among 30 percent of the country; fascism was around the corner. Trump did and tweeted impulsive things; he would start World War III. Trump was mercurial and inexperienced, with a documented disdain for experts; should some unforeseen crisis strike—a terrorist attack, say, or maybe a pandemic—the United States would be screwed.

So it was that when COVID-19 arrived on our shores, the great men theorists claimed vindication. Having downplayed the virus with no near-term plan to contain it, Trump was easily blamed for its tremendous toll; one New York Times column argued that "a large majority" of coronavirus deaths would have been averted by a more competent administration. The former real estate mogul became to COVID what Napoleon became to the 1812 invasion of Russia: a great man responsible for everything that went wrong.

It's a shibboleth ripe for a Tolstoyan takedown. In Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, Niall Ferguson has provided one.

The book is a history of disasters and our increasing impotence in the face of them. From the Titanic crashing to the Challenger exploding, from the 1918 flu to the 2019 coronavirus, Ferguson argues that "all disasters are in some sense man-made"—or rather men-made. For Ferguson, leaders matter less than the human networks they preside over, and it is the growing complexity of those networks that caused our COVID-19 debacle, and many others before it.

In fact, Doom suggests, the main culprits of that complexity are familiar Trumpian punching bags: globalization and bureaucracy.

Whenever the world becomes smaller, the threat of contagion becomes bigger. Long before flights from Wuhan spread SARS-CoV-2 across the globe, trade and war spread the Black Death across Europe. That pandemic also originated in Asia, Ferguson notes, but ripped through Europe much more rapidly, in part because the West had just gone through a period of sustained commercialization. More trade meant more networks for the virus to transmit, and it was the cities at the center of those networks—Siena, London, Paris, Avignon, Venice—that saw the most deaths.

To be sure, globalization can help solve the problems it creates. European imperialism (one of the greatest globalizing forces in history) heightened the impetus for medical breakthroughs by making pandemics a permanent threat. Exposed to new tropical illnesses from around the world, colonizing powers had to work fast to keep their people—and thus their empires—alive. The resulting medical revolution, Ferguson writes provocatively, "is intelligible only in an imperial context." Africa and Asia became "giant laboratories for Western medicine," which soon improved life expectancy across the world, including the colonized regions. "The COVID vaccines are a triumph of globalization," CATO's Scott Lincicome declared in November. So were the yellow fever vaccines, invented by colonial powers with outposts in the tropics.

Many of these inventions came about through trial and error, the kind of educated guesswork at which bureaucratized science likes to scoff. Yet today's medical mandarins owe that guesswork a huge debt. The main technologies they insisted would control COVID-19—lockdowns, social distancing, and even contact tracing—all date back to 14th century Florence, where officials learned to control disease without any help from germ theory. "None of this could be said to be based on science," Ferguson notes. "It was more the product of intelligent general observation and a growing reluctance to leave one's fate in God's hands."

The capacity for "intelligent general observation" seems to have eroded in the six centuries since. February 2020 marked a low point, with public health officials insisting that masks would increase the risk of a virus spread primarily through respiratory droplets. But Ferguson doesn't see the pandemic as a one-off. We have gotten no better, and have arguably gotten worse, at responding to disasters, viral and otherwise. Why?

Doom's answer is bureaucracy. The administrative state, Ferguson writes, "has produced pathologies every bit as harmful, and perhaps in the long run more so, than the virus SARS-Cov-2." One such pathology is the diffusion of decision-making. Because so many federal agencies had developed plans for a pandemic, it was paradoxically unclear "who was in charge when a pandemic actually struck," which caused deadly delays in testing and travel-monitoring.

Leadership matters too, of course, and Ferguson hardly exonerates Trump, whose gaffes come in for appropriate criticism. But in the last analysis, "the problem is clearly systemic," much bigger and "harder to remedy than one president's personal shortcomings."

Bureaucracy can also cause disaster by incentivizing recklessness. Ferguson offers several examples, but the most engaging is the Challenger space shuttle, which exploded after NASA lied about how safe it was. Had the agency given Congress the correct figure—a 1 in 100 chance of failure, rather than the reported 1 in 10,000—the project might have lost funding, and NASA's bureaucrats might have lost their jobs.

Such decisions happen "far from the presidential conferences and cabinet meetings that historians tend to study," Ferguson writes. "The point of failure, if it can be located at all, is more likely to be in the middle layer than at the top of the organization chart."

To these two pathologies, I would add a third: the mathematical mindset bureaucrats often adopt. When a disaster like COVID-19 hits, officials perform cost-benefit analyses on various possible responses, then choose the one with the highest expected value. But some costs can't be quantified mathematically. How many lives is face-to-face human interaction "worth"? There's no way of measuring this, so bureaucrats tend to exclude it from their calculations. Yet the answer obviously matters in assessing our response to COVID-19—or, for that matter, Florence's response to the Black Death.

Did America strike the right balance? Ferguson thinks not. The lockdowns, he says, were probably overkill.

But this too is a subjective judgment, one that points to the limit of an otherwise capacious book. Individuals do not make history, Doom suggests. Unfortunately for Ferguson, they also do not write the last draft of it.

Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe
by Niall Ferguson
Penguin, 496 pp., $30