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At the Socialist Liberal Nexus

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“In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” – Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the Communist Manifesto

Liberals everywhere should cheer the opening essay in Teen Vogue’s “Bread and Roses” series on the burgeoning interest in socialism. Indeed, liberals might regard Samuel Arnold’s piece as largely a capitulation of socialists to core demands of liberalism. This iteration of socialism is but the latest in a liberal-socialist revisionist tango in which each tradition is made more intelligible to the other.

Arnold abjures central planning, allowing at least some role for markets and profits. He cites the “economic and moral failures” of centrally planned economies like that of the USSR to explain the movement of today’s socialists toward “market socialism.” To a liberal capitalist, central planning is the most dangerous element of socialism, far more than worker control of the means of production. The economist Friedrich Hayek first described the “knowledge problem” that confronts central planners. Local knowledge, partial and often tacit, is leveraged by markets because of the distribution of economic actors. Such information is in part transmitted by prices, which float freely and respond to changes in local conditions that may not be well understood or well articulated by any conscious actor. Such distributed information is opaque to a central planning body. The market socialist Theodore Burczak explores the necessity of engaging with Hayek’s knowledge problem in his fascinating work, Socialism after Hayek.

Arnold also allows that “worker control” does not always mean state ownership. The move to socialism does not necessarily imply a wave of nationalizations. Socialism does mean that a firm’s autonomy is contingent on its serving the public interest. This is an important contrast with liberalism, where it is significantly more difficult for the state to justify interference in a firm, though antitrust policies offer one avenue within liberal practice to counteract accretion of corporate power.

Arnold is remarkably open about various ways socialism might be achieved in ways that may not include domination of the economy by worker cooperatives. Codetermination policies that mandate some minimum number of worker representatives on corporate boards may suffice, as practiced in Germany. As in Norway, the state may just own a significant portion of public stock. Arnold even suggests that a “universal basic income … which increases everyone’s ‘real freedom’ to pursue what really matters to them” can meaningfully advance socialism. On this view, perhaps, the socialist demands for worker control of production can be short-circuited by directly addressing exploitation and alienation of wage labor. Exploitation is alleviated by the presence of meaningful alternatives to working for Capital, and alienation is resolved by each individual being genuinely able to pursue what matters to them. These ideas were echoed in the contribution by Sarah Jaffe, who pointed to the burgeoning popularity of “socialist policies” like UBI and nationalized healthcare in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The openness to interpretation about what it means to achieve socialism in practice is an acknowledgment of pluralism and music to a political liberal’s ears. Recognizing other points of view within the socialist camp opens the door to bargaining and coalition building with reform-minded liberals who advocate for similar policies. Liberals have no beef with democratic socialists, as opposed to revolutionary socialists. Or, liberals have merely partisan beefs with democratic socialists.

There is plenty remaining for liberals to dispute in Arnold’s democratic socialism. The idea that major economic decisions should be made collectively—as in the decision of where to locate a second Amazon headquarters—ignores the very problem of concentrated power that socialists would dismantle. Amazon initiated a contest among local governments as to which jurisdiction would provide Amazon with the best advantages, especially in terms of taxes. The core problem is that a global corporate behemoth is able to throw its weight around to secure still greater advantages for itself at the expense of fairness. But this is well captured by diagnoses and solutions within the liberal tradition, such as general proscriptions against these sorts of contests or antitrust action. This is not to say that liberals have always availed themselves to these ideas.

The problem is not that the decision of where to place the headquarters was made to suit Amazon shareholders’ interests as opposed to the collective interest of society. If we decided “together where 50,000 new jobs should be created, or $5 billion in capital should be invested” then, in the best case, these decisions would focus on creating jobs in the neediest regions rather than satisfying consumer desires and innovating to anticipate the wants and needs of consumers to come. At worst, the collective body in charge of making these decisions would be yet another manifestation of concentrated economic power, subject to the same banal self-interest and corruption that enables the presiding capitalist elite to rig economic rules in their favor. If some more direct public control is envisioned, then the risk is the discordant mismanagement of economic policy by popular referendum.

Revisionism from the beginning

It’s fair to ask whether the variations of socialism described in Teen Vogue even count as socialist. Appeals to dictionary definitions (“worker ownership of the means of production”) abound in Internet discussions of socialism at all times, but they were more vivid during the recent Democratic primary contest in which the self-described democratic socialist Senator Bernie Sanders fought for control of the left lane against Senator Elizabeth “capitalist to her bones” Warren. The socialist and the capitalist proffered remarkably similar platforms for being exponents of bitterly opposed ideologies. Is Sanders really a socialist or just a progressive capitalist? Is Warren really a socialist, despite her protests to the contrary? Are one or both of these eminent leaders of the American progressive movement simply confused about their own ideologies? The answer is no. They are both right. And it’s helpful to look to the history of socialist revisionism—what would evolve into modern social democracy—to see this.

The flexible socialism expressed by the modern Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), aiming not to destroy the capitalist order by revolution, but to improve its humanity, has been around for at least a century. Socialist revisionists like Eduard Bernstein and Carlo Roselli saw socialism as continuous with liberalism, paving the way for the social democratic parties of the 20th century. Bernstein was a German socialist, a personal friend of Friedrich Engels, and steeped in the Marxist tradition. No one could claim Bernstein just didn’t properly understand Marxism. And yet he grew frustrated with the dogmatism of the Marxist political party (the SPD) that insisted no cooperation was possible with bourgeois electoral politics and that no such cooperation was needed anyway, as material conditions would usher forth a spontaneous revolution of the proletariat, according to the scientific predictions of Marxist historical materialism. Inevitably. Any day now.

Bernstein disputed the Marxist prediction of the ever-worsening immiseration of the working class. The following is from political scientist Sheri Berman, who describes the emergence of social democratic parties out of the revisionist movements in her book, the Primacy of Politics.

“Proof for actual immiseration has never been and will never be offered,” he noted. Instead, of the past years, the “wealth of society has increased enormously, and its wide distribution makes it possible to fight the danger of stagnation more effectively. Vast market expansion has created previously unimagined possibilities for balancing conflicting forces.” As a result, “the revisionist claim that the way to socialism leads via the ascent, and not the immiseration of the proletariat, has been achieving greater recognition all around.”

Berman 39, quoting Bernstein’s Preconditions of Socialism

The ascent of the workers, whom Bernstein saw becoming property owners in increasing numbers, does not come at the expense of the bourgeois classes, except in relative terms. This is consistent with Marx’s own appreciation of the awesome productive powers of capitalism and the pro-growth ideology of market socialists.

Socialism, for Bernstein, was not some utopia that would obtain once the workers overthrew the capitalists. Socialism is instead realized incrementally, as the intolerable aspects of capitalism are rendered humane by reforms benefiting struggling people in all classes of society. 

“With regard to reforms, we ask, not whether they will hasten the catastrophe which could bring us to power, but whether they further the development of the working class, whether they contribute to general progress.” This progress would consist of the “steady expansion of the sphere of social obligations (i.e., the obligations of the individual toward society, his corresponding rights, and the obligations of society toward the individual), the extension of the right of society, as organized in the nation or state, to regulate economic life; the growth of democratic self-government in municipality, district, and province; and the extended responsibilities of these bodies—for me all these things mean development toward socialism, or, if you will, piecemeal realization of socialism.

Berman 41, again quoting Bernstein

All this suggests there simply is no sharp boundary between socialism and liberalism. The Italian revisionist socialist Carlo Rosselli agreed with Bernstein that socialism was the legitimate heir of liberalism, carrying its ideas of universal freedom to practical fruition.

In the name of liberty, and for the purpose of ensuring its effective possession by all men and not just a privileged minority, socialists postulate the end of bourgeois privilege and the effective extension of the liberties of the bourgeoisie to all. In the name of liberty they ask for a more equal distribution of wealth and the automatic guarantee for every person of a life worth living. … They want social life to be guided not by the egoistic criterion of personal utility, but by the social criterion, the criterion of the collective good. … The socialist movement is, in consequence, the objective heir of liberalism: it carries this dynamic idea of liberty forward through the vicissitudes of history towards its actualization. Liberalism and socialism, rather than opposing one another in the manner depicted in outdated polemics, are connected by an inner bond. Liberalism is the ideal force of inspiration, and socialism is the practical force of realization.

Rosselli, Liberal Socialism, quoted in Berman, 108

Democratic socialists like Teen Vogue’s Samuel Arnold and DSA superstar Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are socialists, but they are socialists that liberal democrats can get along with, and they’re part of a long tradition stretching from the revisionists of a century ago to the market socialists of today.

Contiguity from liberalism

From the other direction, liberalism has always included strains concerned with a robust cultivation of human flourishing for *all* human beings and a skepticism of bourgeois privilege. Adam Smith, the father of modern economics and a protoliberal of pantheon rank, opposed slavery, condemned the brutality of colonialism, and advocated against stark inequalities of wealth (as well as described in detail the various ways tax and regulatory schemes foster such inequality). Smith can sound radical enough at times that a fun time can be had by superimposing his quotations on images of Ocasio-Cortez.

The liberal historian Helena Rosenblatt has recently explored the origins of liberalism by tracing the semantic history of the nouns “liberal” and “liberalism”. On her telling, liberalism emerged with the French Revolution, especially with the Marquis de Lafayette, Benjamin Constant, and Madame de Staël. The original liberal positions were more expansive and inclusive than one might expect from notions of “classical liberalism” (a creature Rosenblatt argues was invented in the 20th century).

By the time the second part of Paine’s pamphlet appeared in 1792, France’s National Assembly had passed additional reforms. A constitution had been approved in 1791. It created a limited monarchy with a unicameral assembly and gave the vote to all adult white males over twenty-five years of age who paid the equivalent of three days’ wages in direct taxes. Although women were not granted the vote, new laws legalized divorce, broadened women’s rights of inheritance, and made it possible for them to obtain financial support for illegitimate children. The Assembly also overhauled the tax system and passed laws to end feudal obstructions to the economy. It abolished guilds and dismantled internal tariffs and trading monopolies. It reduced restrictions on imports. After a major revolt in Saint-Domingue, it abolished slavery in the colonies. Looking back at this early stage of the revolution, Swiss writer Madame de Staël praised the deputies for having given France the “liberal institutions” necessary to ensure civil liberty to all. In so doing, she memorialized and placed her own seal of approval not only on the reforms but also on the new meaning and use of the word “liberal.”

Rosenblatt 47.

This strain of liberalism expressed itself in a diverse set of thinkers in the 19th century. Liberal luminaries like Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill had repugnant—and what today we might call illiberal—views on the humanity and developmental prospects of the nonwhite colonial subjects of their respective empires, yet both advocated for extensive state powers and interventions in the economy, including to protect workers and the poor. Mill was also a trailblazer for feminism with the publication of the Subjection of Women. In America Frederick Douglass spoke against slavery, but also advocated powerfully for Black equality during Reconstruction as well as for women’s suffrage.

A Rawlsian interlude

Liberal political philosophy for much of the past half century has revolved around the distributive justice account of John Rawls. For Rawls the basic structure of society must ensure equal freedom for all individuals, and be organized such that whatever inequalities arise benefit the least well off. This liberal framework flatly condemns modern capitalist political economies in which the massive fortunes of the rich coincide with homelessness crises and other social maladies. And while Rawls preferred what he called “property-owning democracy” he also explicitly allowed that democratic socialism met the requirements of justice.

Rawlsian distributive justice has been stretched by more recent liberal thinkers to make liberal justice more effectively universal, in order to be truer to liberal principles. This increased critical attention to genuine universalism has resulted in liberal frameworks more consonant with socialist concerns about social and economic equality.

Liberal feminists like Susan Moller Okin have argued that Rawls’s basic structure assumes a male “head of household” point of view, ignoring intrafamily inequality and the resulting pattern of male supremacy in the broader society. To incorporate the considerations of women, Okin argued that Rawls’s principles of justice must apply within the home as well as within the broader society.

Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen and philosopher Martha Nussbaum have expanded the concept of distributive justice to comprise a value-plural set of capabilities that are understood as embedded in the social contexts in which individuals live. They offer a holistic, outcome-sensitive approach to distributive justice that avoids the pitfalls of purely procedural—or purely hypothetical—approaches to justice. It is worth noting that Sen launched his illustrious intellectual career as a socialist. Nussbaum frequently appeals to Marx when describing the vision of human flourishing that drives the capabilities approach.

Philosopher Charles W Mills has combined the Rawlsian theory of justice with Marxist and Black radical traditions to flesh out a “Black radical liberalism” that makes liberalism fully accountable to these traditions. Mills highlights how historical liberalism has implicitly assumed a hierarchical social order and how the resulting institutions have propagated material inequality. Riffing on Rawls’s “veil of ignorance” thought experiment, in which we imagine what institutions rational persons would dream up if they didn’t know their place in society, Mills considers what policies would be implemented if those rational individuals didn’t know their place in society but did know about racial and other systemic injustices. They would conclude that direct repair of individuals who have been damaged by White supremacist patriarchal policies are necessary for liberal justice.

Toward a liberal socialist rapprochement

Meanwhile in actual politics, liberalism has come to include the progressive movement and the welfare state institutions of Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society. Roosevelt insisted his movement was liberal, and succeeded to the point that his Republican opponent abandoned the word “liberal” altogether, to lasting consequence for American political language. The New Deal firmly established the validity of positive rights (freedom from hunger, etc, that require positive actions by the government) within the mainstream of American political liberalism. Universal health care has been at the top of the agenda of liberal politicians since the Truman Administration. The crafting of Medicare and Medicaid assumed that these were stepping stones on the path to universal coverage.

The latest iteration of the liberal Democratic Party’s Presidential primary, where the party revises its platform and priorities, suggests that the more expansive conceptions of liberalism from the likes of Rawls and Nussbaum have found their way into American party politics. Reflecting a growing enthusiasm among reformers, a UBI was advanced as part of candidate Andrew Yang’s “human-centered capitalism.” Universal childcare and free higher education were campaign planks not just of the democratic socialist, but of several liberal candidates. While falling short of endorsing freedom of movement across borders, Julián Castro advocated decriminalizing unauthorized border crossing, leaving it as a civil offense. Warren made herself publicly accountable to oft-neglected groups like Black women and nonbinary persons, the disabled community, and sex workers in order to learn what policies these groups needed to achieve equity in economic and democratic power. This campaign method resonates with Sarah Leonard’s attractive depiction of socialist feminism. This brief, non-exhaustive survey of the recent Democratic primary illustrates the ongoing ability of liberalism to reform itself to come ever closer to the epigraph above from the Communist Manifesto.

Self-identified neoliberals, libertarians, and more radical liberals can find common cause with young DSA socialists on a number of issues. Especially among libertarians, there is a strong opposition to military entanglements abroad, mass incarceration, mass surveillance, and the prohibition of sex work. Neoliberals have a special passion for freedom of movement across borders and housing rights, though neoliberals tend to focus more on reforming regulations that stifle the housing supply than tools like rent control favored by socialists. Progressive liberals like those who supported Warren and Castro emphasize the importance of democratic reform to extend and protect democratic rights for the disenfranchised. In addition to affirming many of the positions above, they would also close the racial wealth gaps, including by reparations for those impacted by racist policies.

Liberalism contains multitudes, and obviously many varieties of liberalism are inconsistent with even the hip, market-friendly socialism described in the pages of Teen Vogue. Socialism is in turn far more varied than lazy dictionary pushers and red-baiting liberal oldsters give it credit for. There is some truth to the idea that liberalism is a bourgeois ideology, beholden to bourgeois freedoms and bourgeois institutions. Some liberals jealously guard those privileges and exclude, implicitly or explicitly, working classes, people of color, women, disabled persons, and other marginalized groups. But others take the core liberal pillar of universalism as a directive to extend those privileges to all persons. There is a fertile, harmonious nexus where these liberals can meet with those socialists who aspire not to tear down the institutions of bourgeois freedom but to throw open their gates to the workers of the world, the oppressed, and the unfree. At the mixing site of liberal and socialist traditions lies the promise of the free development of each and all.

Featured image is an iconic image of the March 1848 revolution in Berlin, Unknown Author, public domain.

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Eugenics and Contraceptives in Puerto Rico: A History of Manipulation and Unethical Experimentation

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We live in a time when more access to contraceptives means that people have more of a say over their bodies. For women who were of childbearing age in Puerto Rico during the years of 1937-1960, the opposite was true. These women were manipulated by their health care workers into believing that they had access to safe and reversible birth control. Instead, they received dangerous experimental birth control pills and permanent sterilization surgeries. This mistreatment was a consequence of the popularity of American eugenics, unethical human experimentation standards, and colonial disenfranchisement of Puerto Rico’s economy that defined the Puerto Rican history of the 20th century. 

The rise of political support for the science of eugenics in the early 20th century resulted in state-mandated sterilization being protected by law, with 32 states establishing eugenics boards to oversee compulsory sterilization in the peak of the eugenics era. In 1937, the US imposed Law 116 onto Puerto Rico, a law that legalized sterilization on the island under the belief that Puerto Rico was too overpopulated to have a stable economy and the only way to lower the staggering unemployment rate was to decrease the population density. Puerto Rico’s economic collapse was a result of the US invasion of the island in 1898 when “the U.S. disrupted Puerto Rico’s coffee industry, implementing a sugar economy and creating massive poverty among the population.” A few decades after the US took over the island, “70% of the Puerto Rican population was landless with 2% of the population owning 80% of the land.”

The law federally subsidized the procedure for both sexes, though most cases of sterilization were on women. Some cases of sterilization were fully mandated by the Puerto Rican Eugenics Board, which ordered 97 sterilizations throughout its existence. One figure who contributed to the increase in sterilization was Clarence Gamble, heir to the Procter & Gamble company. He was President of the Pennsylvania Birth Control Federation and a correspondent and colleague with Margaret Sanger. Gamble began bringing Puerto Rican doctors to New York to be trained in sterilization techniques in 1939. Most sterilizations were not mandated in the technical sense of the word, but they were far from truly voluntary. For instance, the US government institutionally supported the spread of sterilization on the island by having health workers perform door-to-door visits, subsidizing the procedure, and by industrial employers on the island favoring sterilized women in their hiring process.

When doctors prepared to sterilize a patient, they usually didn’t ask for consent, and when they did it hardly met the criteria for informed consent that doctors are required to give patients today. Coercion tactics were common on the island. For instance, “many hospitals would not accept healthy pregnant women for delivery unless they agreed to be sterilized afterward.” This means that women would need to give full consent to the procedure right before they were going to give birth, and if they didn’t they wouldn’t be able to give birth in the safety of a hospital. 

Usually, women who underwent this procedure “were not told that sterilization was a permanent form of birth control and misled about the ability to reverse it later on.” Results of a 1968 study confirmed this and showed that over one third of Puerto Rican women did not know that sterilization through tubal ligation was permanent. Because it is sometimes referred to as “getting your tubes tied,” women commonly thought the procedure was reversible. So even when the circumstances were less coercive than those described above, many Puerto Rican women did not give informed consent when they agreed to permanent birth control procedures. Of the sterilizations that occurred between 1954-1982, 21% of women reported somewhat regretting having been sterilized and 11% reported definitely regretting it. Some reasons reported for their response included that “they were under age 25 at the time of the operation, having no daughters, husband or physician having decided on sterilization, sterilization failure, and living with a new partner.”

By the 1950s, awareness of sterilization spread among Puerto Rican women, even becoming known simply as “la operación” or “the operation.” During that same time, Gregory Pincus, a biologist who specialized in mammal reproduction, with the help of John Rock, an obstetrician, began developing hormonal birth control. In 1955, they went to Puerto Rico and began to experiment with hormonal birth control on the first human test subjects. Gamble, who years prior supported widespread sterilization on the island, supported Pincus and Rock by expanding “the distribution of oral progesterone, accepting donations from pharmaceutical companies who, unable to conduct trials in the US, bid for access to the women in his clinics.”

The birth control pill’s first clinical trials took place in Puerto Rico on poor women who were never informed they were part of a study. While “educated women didn’t want to try the new medication, fearing side effects, women from lower classes with less access to health education “were desperate to avoid both pregnancy and sterilization” and unknowingly became test subjects. While the pill was nearly 100 percent effective, it contained significantly higher doses of hormones than birth control pills today. Women sometimes experienced serious and life-threatening side effects like nausea, blood clots, and depression. Doctors usually dismissed these concerns as minor or unrelated to the drug. After another round of testing which took place partly in the mainland, the drug was approved in 1957 under the name Enovid. Despite having dangerous side effects, the pill became popular among women all across the country. 

In 1960, as a result of Catholics and nationalists from the island speaking out against the practice, the law that legalized and subsidized the sterilization of Puerto Rican women was repealed. In later years, society began to reflect on the horrific consequences of eugenics on the lives of those affected. In 1982 Ana Maria Garcia directed a 40-minute documentary called La operación, which brought light to the impact of forced sterilization on Puerto Rico’s society. Additionally, in 1984 The New Yorker published a 4-part series on the topic. 

Forced sterilization was not isolated to the island but also occurred in the U.S. mainland as well. In 1907 a public policy gave the government the right to sterilize people without their knowledge or consent. Some groups who were particularly vulnerable in the states are people with disabilities who were considered “dependent,” “insane,” or “feeble-minded,” racial minorities like American Indians and black women, and even incarcerated women. 

Even with the cases of forced-sterilization on the mainland, evidence shows that the practice was far more common on the island’s population. A survey from 1965 showed that one third of Puerto Rican mothers, ages 20-49, were sterilized. Compared to women in the United States, Puerto Rican women were 10 times more likely to be sterilized. Despite the fact that women on the mainland were vulnerable to forced sterilization, the procedure was far more heavily promoted on the island. This, combined with the fact that the population of Puerto Rico had a higher percentage of economically disadvantaged people at the time in comparison to the US population, resulted in this stark difference in the number of sterilizations between the US and Puerto Rico.

The manipulation of reproductive rights to this degree is not a thing of the past. Many of us are aware that women today face barriers in making decisions about their reproductive choices, but few are aware of the history of forced sterilization in Puerto Rico and the mainland. While most laws surrounding sterilization in the US were repealed by the 1970s, cases of forced sterilization may have occurred as recently as 2013. A California audit of a female prison revealed that “of the 144 tubal ligations performed on inmates from fiscal years 2005-06 to 2012-13, auditors found, more than a quarter – 39 – were done without lawful consent” (source). The actual number of cases that were done without lawful consent can actually be higher than this. 

The history of the progression of women’s reproductive rights in the US is even messier than most of us believe. The unjust and disturbing way that women have been denied freedom over their own bodies throughout history should inspire us to protect our reproductive rights today.

Featured Image is Antiguo Hospital Militar

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Free Speech and Marginalized People

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“I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it,” Beatrice Evelyn Hall wrote in her 1906 biography of Voltaire. Her words conveying Voltaire’s attitude have become one of the most quoted, and most valorized, summations of liberal principles. 

Unfortunately, the statement is for the most part practically irrelevant, and therefore is morally misguided. Suppression of speech is not directed most intensely at controversial speech. It’s directed at speech by people who are controversial—that is, at marginalized people who lack power, and who are therefore easily silenced and ignored.  If liberals really want to defend free speech, they shouldn’t be laying down their lives for those who say things they disagree with. They should be fighting instead for the disempowered, who often have no access to the public sphere at all.

In line with Hall’s quote, liberal discussions of free speech often focus on fighting for ideas which are in danger of suppression because they are so extreme or noxious. As a result, some of the most iconic free-speech battles have involved liberal defense of fascist marches or far-right speakers.  In 1978, the ACLU, as its website says, “took a controversial stand for free speech by defending a neo-Nazi group that wanted to march through the Chicago suburb of Skokie, where many Holocaust survivors lived.” 

More recently, liberals have been exercised by protests on college campuses against far-right speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos. Yiannopoulos referred to a famous black actor as an ape and called feminism “cancer”—statements that hardly seem designed to provoke reasoned or productive debate. One of his speeches at Berkeley in 2017 was canceled when protestors destroyed property. Megan McArdle at the Washington Post, writing about the Berkeley protests and others, inevitably quoted Hall and argued “that liberalism let[s] groups of people with radically different answers to life’s most vital questions live together without killing each other.” If Yiannopoulos and those like him can’t speak, or if Nazis can’t march, then McArdle believes all unpopular opinions and all civil disagreement are threatened. Liberalism must defend Nazis and racists, or, we are warned, the liberal order will crumble.

In the age of Trump, though, are racists and Nazis really in need of defending? And has defending them really protected the liberal order? The ACLU, in line with its traditions, defended the right of neo-Nazis to march on a route of their choosing in Charlottesville in 2017. The result was an outpouring of fascist violence, culminating when neo-Nazi James Fields murdered counter-protestor Heather Heyer. Heyer, who was peacefully exercising her right to protest when Fields ran her down with a car, will now never speak again. It’s hard to see how that is a victory for liberal values.

Heyer has been silenced, but the views of her murderer are still very much alive in the public sphere. Donald Trump, who initially refused to condemn the Charlottesville protests, himself frequently stokes racist hatred. He promoted anti-immigrant and antisemitic conspiracy theories about Democratic donor George Soros. Those conspiracy theories were also cited by the man who attacked a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, killing more than a dozen people. Quite recently, he retweeted a Holocaust denier. If the president of the United States is actively promoting far-right views, it’s hard to argue that those views are out of the mainstream. 

So the supposedly controversial ideas of the far right blare from numerous prominent platforms, not least from the White House. But there are many disempowered and stigmatized people who are silenced not so much because of what they say as because of who they are. 

One important example is prisoners. Unlike Yiannopoulos or Trump, prisoners have extremely limited access to public platforms. They cannot visit college campuses and they often aren’t even allowed to talk to reporters. The Electronic Frontier Foundation reports that most prisoners have no access to social media. That means that they have little ability to tell the public about the dangerous conditions inside right now as Covid-19 sweeps through incarcerated populations.

When prisoners do get access to a public forum, they are often subject to vicious state retaliation. In 2013, for instance, environmental activist Daniel McGowan, then in a halfway house at the end of his prison term, wrote a blog post about his experiences behind bars. Officials at the halfway house then quickly moved him to a detention center in an act that certainly looked like retaliation. McGowan sued, but the federal appeals court ruled against him and refused to punish the officials involved.  

Another group systemically subjected to state censorship is sex workers. In 2018, Congress passed and the president signed new legislation which increased liability for websites which are found to be promoting sex trafficking. Sex trafficking is a broad, ill-defined term, though, and the practical result of the legislation is that many websites have ceased to carry ads and content from consensual sex workers. Many sex workers who were able to use the web to screen clients online have been forced onto the streets. Researchers have found that homicide rates for sex workers drop precipitously when they have access to online ads. Sex workers have said the law is putting their lives at risk. There is good reason to believe that as online spaces shut them out, some sex workers will die.

The constraints on sex workers’ speech can make it difficult for them to advocate for themselves or to argue for changes to the laws that criminalize them. Platforms often delete or ban sex-worker accounts, and that’s increased since the law passed. But they are not mainly being censored because they are promoting controversial ideas. They’re mainly being censored because their very existence or visibility is seen as dangerous, disgusting, or threatening. Similarly, prisoners aren’t prevented from speaking because people disagree with their ideas in themselves. Those in power want to clamp down on prisoners’ speech because they worry that if prisoners are allowed to describe their own lives, it will reflect badly on those in power.

Civil libertarians do often, and admirably, report on the silencing of marginalized people. The ACLU, for example, has been covering nationwide efforts to arrest undocumented immigrants who dare to speak against Trump’s anti-immigrant policies. But the arrest of an immigrant activist doesn’t get the kind of blanket coverage that the Yiannopoulos protests did. Numerous pundits from across the political spectrum pound the campus protest free speech beat: Robby Soave, Bari Weiss, Jonathan Haidt, Jonathan Chait. In contrast, there is not a single mainstream writer who consistently covers violations of free speech in prison for a high-profile venue. 

People with “controversial” opinions aren’t necessarily oppressed, and aren’t necessarily in danger of censorship. If you are wealthy and connected, you can seriously tell people to inject disinfectant, and while you may be mocked, you won’t be censored. But if you are part of a marginalized and criminalized population, simply saying “stop hurting me” can bring the entire apparatus of the state down upon you, threatening your freedom and your life. 

Liberal obsession with protecting controversial speech rather than marginalized people has chaperoned us to a society where far-right, adamantly anti-liberal speech suffuses the mainstream. Meanwhile the liberty of prisoners, of sex workers, of undocumented immigrants, of women, of the poor, of black people, is smothered in silence. If liberals really want to stand for freedom, they need to be less concerned with defending the controversial speech of the powerful, and more concerned with defending the speech of those labeled disagreeable, inconvenient, and not worth listening to. 

Featured image is Folsom Prison East Gate, by Vince Mig

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Reclaiming Nationalism as an Ally of Liberalism

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In 2019, the liberal European parliamentary group Renew Europe won its best election result since 2004. Reflecting on that result, the president of Renew Europe, Dacian Ciolos, wrote, “Europeans have given us a strong mandate to change Europe for the better…[Renew Europe] will stand up for the people who suffer from the illiberal and nationalistic tendencies that we see returning in too many countries.” The implication was clear. Nationalism is clearly linked with illiberalism, and both are obstacles in the process of “changing Europe for the better.” 

Most liberals would agree with Ciolos’ sentiments. In turn, nationalists sneer at liberals as “citizens of nowhere,” as former Prime Minister May put it

With each year, each election, and each new populist firebrand, the antagonism between liberals and nationalists grows. To modern liberals, it is tempting to view history through a type of neo-whiggish framework where nationalism becomes just another opponent of liberalism, soon to be defeated much as the Bolsheviks, fascists, and Bonapartists were.

It was not always this way. Even in the recent past, prominent liberals were nationalists, and prominent anti-nationalists were more likely than not to oppose liberalism. The liberals whose resistance brought down Soviet-style communism in Eastern Europe were firmly nationalist–whether they supported independence from the Soviet Union as in the Baltics, national autonomy as in Poland, national reunification as in East Germany, or return to their national homeland as with the Soviet Jews. The great liberal theorists of the past were avowed nationalists–John Stuart Mill voraciously defended Britain’s foreign interests to establish  colonies (though we should note the racist elements of Mill’s apologia here), while the Marquis de Lafayette stubbornly refused to join the United States government to work for liberty only in his homeland. Both Mill and Lafayette, while prideful of their nations and supporting its interests above others, promoted peace between nations and rejected isolationism. Major Western nationalist politicians such as Begin, De Gaulle, and Adenauer embraced free market economics, social liberalization, and a regulatory state.

The end of the Cold War coalition

If we want to end the alienating modern conflict between liberalism and nationalism, we have to understand how it began. Liberalism has always, in its theoretical forms, expressed a preference for internationalism and multilateralism. The Oxford Manifesto of 1947, which defined post-war liberalism and founded the Liberal International, an association of worldwide liberal parties, expressed a desire that “all nations [show] loyal adherence to a world organisation of all nations, great and small, under the same law and equity, and with power to enforce strict observance of all international obligations freely entered into.”  Liberalism is so amenable to internationalism because, fundamentally, all unjustified barriers to commerce and individual liberty, whether between nations and citizens or between two nations,  are repulsive to it. The Corn Laws that imposed internal tariffs on British corn imports and spawned The Economist are as illiberal as the trade barriers between Britain and France that The Economist opposes today.

During the Cold War, however, liberals and nationalists made common cause against the Soviet Union and its allies, which required compromises from both sides. Many nationalists came to support regional defensive pacts and limited economic integration to ward off communism, while many liberals supported a more hawkish foreign policy over a universalist one to pressure the Soviet Union and its allies. This relationship was not unstrained. The issue of détente in the seventies was opposed by nationalists, and the aggressive military interventions prosecuted from the Falklands to Grenada in the eighties were opposed by liberals. But the bond held through the Cold War. 

After the demise of Soviet-style communism as a theoretical and geopolitical threat to liberal democracies in the early nineties, the cracks in the liberal-nationalist alliance quickly emerged. Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed the “End of History” in a 1989 essay and 1992 book, declaring, “What we may be witnessing is…the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” While he is often misinterpreted as arguing that nothing would ever challenge liberalism again, he did argue that liberal internationalism had triumphed on its own, and that nationalism, too, was among the defeated ideologies. 

Liberals, following his vision, claimed a mandate to effect worldwide political change, beginning  in Europe and quickly expanding outwards. The end of the Cold War brought about the European Union and with it the Euro, the supranational European Parliament, and the Schengen Zone. In North America it brought with it NAFTA, the finally realized dream of a continental free trade area. In Asia it brought about the liberal economic reforms of Vietnam and China, and the ascension of those nations to the World Trade Organization. In Latin America it brought about the end of the illiberal juntas and the formation of Mercosur and the Andean Community. Liberal reforms, especially liberal reforms to trade sovereignty and the economy, swept the world. Worldwide, liberals ended their alliance with nationalists to finally pursue truly anti-nationalist policies. 

As Fukuyama was writing his End of History, the Israeli liberal politician Yael Tamir wrote a prophetic rejoinder, Liberal Nationalism. In her introduction, she argued, in 1992, that, “the twenty-first century is unlikely to see nationalism fade away. Liberals… must come to terms with the need to ‘share this glory’ with nationalism.” While both Tamir and Fukuyama hoped for a similar future—regional cooperation, the spread of democracy, universal social liberalism—Tamir, perhaps because of her proximity to the nationalist dilemma of Israel and Palestine, did not believe nationalism was vanquished. If anything, she saw the end of communism empowering nationalism. 

History since the End of History has proven her right. Peru was the harbinger of revitalized nationalism. Their third post-junta elections, in 1990, were contested by the neoliberal novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, the socialist former Prime Minister Luis Alva Castro, and the nationalist professor Alberto Fujimori. When Alva Castro was narrowly defeated in the first round, he endorsed the vaguely moderate Fujimori over the favorite, Vargas Llosa. Fujimori, enjoying support from both the traditionally left-wing rural natives and lower-income urban workers, won the election in a landslide. Fujimori would govern for the next ten years as an increasingly autocratic nationalist, and today resides in a Peruvian prison for crimes against humanity. 

Even as liberalism expanded through the halcyon nineties, nationalism enjoyed a frequently misinterpreted revival as well.  The case of the former Yugoslav states is widely known, as are the low-level wars of the Caucuses. But nationalism did not just expand through the post-Soviet world. It re-emerged in the Palestinian territories, where, after decades of occupation, Palestinians began the infamous and brutal First Intifada. It re-emerged in Rwanda, where a fragile multi-party democracy collapsed and the horrific Rwandan genocide began under Hutu nationalists. It re-emerged in South Africa, where apartheid was defeated by international pressure and sanctions, but also by strengthened Pan-African nationalism in the ANC and Zulu nationalism in the IFP. South African liberals, while anti-apartheid, played little role in dismantling the regime and never enjoyed political success pre- or post-apartheid. It re-emerged in Japan, where the first government not dominated by the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party since 1955 collapsed. It re-emerged in Quebec, where, after over two hundred years of stillness, Quebecois nationalists came within a half point of independence. While each nation saw the new rise of nationalism differently, and in each case it emerged under unique circumstances, the trend was clear. Once communism ceased to be a threat, nationalism roared back, whether in a liberal democracy, a post-communist state, or a non-aligned dictatorship.

The pursuit of internationalist liberal policy goals alienated their one-time allies among the nationalists, as well as decisively cutting off the liberal nationalists Tamir had described. President Clinton, for example, supported a dramatic anti-nationalist package in NAFTA despite widespread opposition within his own party and nation under the benign theory that since the liberals had won the world, opposition to NAFTA was a paper tiger. His subsequent loss of Congress in 1994, and the use of opposition to NAFTA as a rallying point from populists left and right even today shows the enduring strength of nationalists. 

Nationalism’s persistence

The past thirty years, and especially the past ten, have shown us conclusively that nationalism is not going anywhere. What was murky even in the nineties seems clear now. Anti-European Union nationalists successfully withdrew Britain from the EU and, though their support has waned recently, still threaten the total dissolution of the EU. United States nationalists elected the first true anti-trade president since the days of the Hawley-Smoot Tariff in Donald Trump. Argentine nationalists threaten to dissolve Mercosur. Liberals feel attacked by nationalists, who in turn feel that liberals seek to dissolve their very identity. 

Nationalism will not fade away as have the other ideologies vanquished by liberalism. As Edmund Burke wrote, “[the nation] becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born.” A partnership based on the purely material concerns of the present, as in, for example, a communist state, is far weaker than one based around a commitment to one’s ancestors and to one’s children. Unlike the historical “opponents” of liberalism such as socialism or communism, nationalism ties itself inextricably to the past, and nationalists, unlike socialists or communists who may be motivated by their present suffering, and may be motivated by a feeling of inevitability and destiny from their national past. This process will not end when nations lose their connection to the past, or when new nations or peoples develop. Anthony Smith described the process by which, “[nations] which could not fall back upon a… long and rich cultural heritage sought to imitate those which could do so, by, if necessary, ‘inventing’ or rather ‘rediscovering’ and ‘annexing’ histories and cultures for their people…” Hence no matter how the future progresses and what new peoples emerge, a nationalist sentiment will always persist among them. 

The issue for a modern liberal, given that liberals have cooperated with nationalists in the past, and given that nationalism is not some final obstacle to overcome but a common expression of enduring features of mankind, is how to use nationalism to achieve liberal ends without compromising liberal ideals. There are three general approaches: expanding a national identity, redefining a national identity through civic nationalism, and minimizing national sentiment. 

Expanding a national identity refers to recasting existing national sentiment to a broader scale. Think, for example, of an ardent English nationalist who becomes a British nationalist. While still remaining a nationalist, our hypothetical lion is now in favor of free movement, free trade, and free flow of capital between England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, in favor of the rights of Welsh, Scottish, and Irish minorities, and in favor of a common military and defense of the islands. While remaining a nationalist, the nationalist achieves practical liberal goals. 

A similar process occurred in the United States. Though we often forget it, after the American Revolution, and at least until the Civil War, citizens of the United States were more likely to identify with their state than with the Union. Describing the political order in the antebellum United States, de Tocqueville wrote that “the Federal Government is… the exception; the Government of the States is the rule.” They remained nationalists but they advocated for a stronger central government, greater economic activity between the states, and a pan-state identity. A similar process is occurring today in Europe, where nationalists seeking independence use the concept of the “Europe of Nations” to envision a federal Europe where Scotland, Catalonia, Brittany, and the rest are free of their nation state though subject to a broader European government. 

The best example of this process is Botswana. Upon independence in 1966, Botswana was one of the poorest nations in the world. Today it is a widely regarded upper-middle income nation with a strong democratic tradition and good relations with the world. Undoubtedly this is a result of liberal policies being implemented by the Botswana Democratic Party from independence onwards, but an underappreciated facet of Botswana’s success is expansion of nationalist sentiment.  Prior to independence, Botswana’s politics were dominated by relationships between various Tswana tribal groups, as in many African nations. But the early government of Seretse Khama, and his successor governments, worked very hard to create a pan-Botswanan nationalism, even going so far as to mandate forced movements of people to disrupt tribal lines. His success led to Botswanans identifying primarily with Botswana, not their Tswana tribe or ethnic group, which in turn fostered the strong state we see today.  The transformation of nationalism from a tribal or ethnic nationalism to a central nationalism achieved liberal policy without alienating nationalists. 

The second method of incorporating nationalism into a liberal agenda is through civic nationalism. Civic nationalism incorporates elements of shared culture and identity while retaining liberal values such as inclusivity, diversity of expression, and respect for different cultures. The best example for this practice is undoubtedly Canada, which, while taking in large numbers of immigrants, refugees, and migrants, has retained and even strengthened its cultural identity. Canada today does not suffer from nationalist extremists, and both major parties have to some extent co-opted nationalist imagery while supporting liberal values. According to Tamir, liberalism is entirely sympathetic to this concept:  “In order to sustain its character as a law-abiding and caring community, the liberal state must view itself as a continuous community rather than a causal association of parties.” How does one distinguish between a “continuous community” and a “causal association of parties?” Tamir argues a successful liberal state will incorporate both “general civic competence” and “shared culture and identity.” A civic nationalist liberal state melds the two while retaining liberal values. Civic competence is always a liberal pursuit, of course, while a shared culture and identity can be created through values of freedom, tolerance, and reverence of social mobility instead of an illiberal pursuit of forced assimilation and nationalization to encourage conformity. 

Finally, hypernationalist sentiments can be diffused among subnational entities. While there are many advantages to federalism, especially across large nations, which we need not explore in great detail, for our purposes one of the keenest may be that it weakens nationalist sentiment. Aggressive nationalism is often aggravated by particular regional issues, and directing that anger and energy towards a regional government allows a liberal state to insulate itself from populist fury. Germany has collectively rejected nationalism for many reasons, but it has also resisted nationalism even today by creating a system that marginalizes nationalist sentiment located in specific regions. The German state today is strongly federal, and nationalist parties and movements, such as the AfD (Alternative for Germany) are kept “quarantined” in their bases of support, chiefly the former East Germany and Baden-Württemberg. Even within a proportional, democratic electoral system, the AfD is penalized for not being a truly national movement. The AfD also is forced to contend with state governments, where it is excluded from government and unable to demonstrate competence on a local level, which is how other successful German “third parties,” such as the liberal FDP (Free Democratic Party) and the Greens, have risen to national prominence. A system of regional, localist government diffuses nationalist fury and isolates extreme nationalists from overcoming a nation in one fell swoop.

Nationalism is a permanent facet of human existence. Liberals do best to not see it as an opponent, but rather a potential ally, as they did during the Cold War. The rejection of liberal nationalism and the embrace of a confrontational mindset after the end of the Cold War mistakenly alienated those partners, and led to the nationalist reaction western nations endure today. The liberal policy goals we seek are not, for the most part, anti-nationalist, and there is little conflict between nationalist and liberals on most issues. Collaboration is key, and in the areas where it is not, there are less aggressive ways of overcoming nationalist opposition, whether it be reframing nationalism on a larger scale, fostering a more moderate civil nationalism, or isolating nationalists regionally. 

To adapt, liberals ought to implement these successful methods. They are proven to work, it simply requires us to adapt them to our local circumstances. Defeating hyper-nationalism by co-opting its best points and cultivating a civic concept of a nation is universal. Redefining, say, nationalism within the United States to refer to a pan-American nationalism, or turning the specter of Brazilian nationalism into pan-Latin nationalism is, while difficult, a winning argument in the long term. Federalism, a long standing liberal objective, is eminently reasonable. Any liberal that bemoans the rise of euroscepticism or protectionism must offer not just an alternative to it, but an “out”—a means to bring nationalists into the cause and build a broader coalition without forcing them to admit total defeat. 

Liberals have long prided themselves for their adaptability, and their efficiency in stealing the best ideas of other ideologies. In this case, liberals will either adapt to once more incorporate nationalism, or they, too, shall come to pass. 

Featured image is mural of Solidarity

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Can We Afford Freedom of Press in a Pandemic?

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A divided America has come together in the face of a crisis; to a man they have all agreed that “if the world were organised according to my political views, this tragedy would never have happened.” For a certain class of American, this includes their views on how the media ought to be organized. This class has ceaselessly told whoever would listen that the media we had before the Internet was superior in every way. It was fact based, dispassionate, and nonpartisan. Above all, it was authoritative—you could trust it. If only we had that system to help us through this crisis! Some go even further, looking to our contemporaries in China for a solution to what ails us.

I will endeavor to evaluate the performance of the American media—including blogs and social media—during the first three months of the year, as COVID-19 began its relentless, exponential spread. But it always pays to begin by asking: compared to what? So I want to make it clear up front: I do not believe there has ever been a media system that has performed better than ours in situations like this. Meanwhile, the Chinese censors bear more culpability for allowing the virus to spread to the world than any other single party; having ordered doctors to suppress information, sent police to threaten them when they did not, and erased the public outcry when these reckless actions came out. Nostalgia for the mass media of yesteryear is misguided, if understandable. Yearning for the firm hand of authoritarianism, at just the moment that those authoritarians have put the entire world at risk, is inexcusable.

Evaluation requires a standard, and if I have learned anything during his pandemic, it is that what appears a reasonable standard today can age very poorly in a matter of days or even hours. I will be proceeding on the assumption that calling for mitigation efforts was the right thing to be doing, and the earlier this call was made, the better it looks in hindsight. Drawing early attention to now-familiar details, such as the existence of asymptomatic transmission, will be considered especially praiseworthy. On the other side, those outlets that went out of their way to minimize the risks do not look good in hindsight. That is the basic perspective I will bring to this process; if I end

In general, the professional media did better than its critics give it credit for. When it came to evaluating the crisis, the worst that can be said for many journalists is that they simply reflected the views of an expert community which itself fared poorly well into February. Many of the common vices of journalism were on display, of course, in headlines and social media promotional posts making bold declarations that there would be no pandemic, even when the article itself was more nuanced. And the tendency to use COVID-19 as a vehicle for grinding highly templated ideological axes was endemic. 

But within the six week period between when the WHO declaring a global health emergency and the Santa Clara County Health Department initiated Bay Area “shelter-in-place” orders, the bulk of the media had come around. A coverage delay of weeks before converging on a more or less accurate picture is not an unreasonable standard in almost any other situation, especially when there is at least a substantial minority of coverage from the outset that is getting it right. Compare this to with the 1918 Spanish Flu, where a wartime media blackout combined with a patchy local news system so that the full story was never truly told throughout the outbreak. Or the 1968 flu, in which the midcentury media struck a “business as usual” tone as the death toll mounted to 100,000. Or most importantly, compare to the Chinese media’s shameful performance in December and January, or in the 2003 SARS outbreak.

Six weeks turned out, for COVID-19, to be not nearly fast enough—we could have taken measures in January or February for “pennies” that would have effectively curbed the spread, but by mid-March it was far too late. But contrary to its critics, the openness of our information sphere is its great strength, not its great weakness. All other historical and contemporary alternatives make this obvious. In the age of Internet-connected devices, no one actor can stop a message from getting out. How fast the message spreads is another question—choices made by the big outlets can slow its spread or create confusion, meaning that the practices adopted by those outlets do matter. Moreover, other competing messages reaching both small and large audiences will be generated and proliferate in tandem. There is no guarantee that the best messages will become prominent; it is an empirical question, to be taken case by case. Bad messages and bad actors, even very small scale ones, benefit from the same potential to go viral. But there is a guarantee that you won’t end up with a single or even a handful of decision makers who can simply veto the best messages from being told by anyone at all to anyone else.

The ecosystem

Large, open networks create skewed audience distributions, or as Clay Shirky put it, “freedom of choice makes stars inevitable.” Still, skew does not mean stasis, which is precisely what the authoritarian media model requires. During this pandemic, a March 10 Medium article urging social distancing written by tech executive Tomas Pueyo was viewed over 40 million times. At the time Pueyo had a little over 6,500 followers on Twitter and, we can safely presume, had never before enjoyed an audience remotely the size of what his viral article found. He did not have to ask anyone’s permission; Medium is a glorified blog platform, a LiveJournal or a Tumblr with aspirations of respectability. He did his research, which he cited meticulously, created a score of graphs, wrote up his piece, and hit “publish”. Within a week it had been viewed tens of millions of times.

If that example is not to your taste, consider STAT News, a young outlet covering the health industry which employs around 30 veteran health and science reporters. It was on top of COVID-19 from day one, and were early on a number of crucial details. They covered asymptomatic transmission as early as January 22nd, describing cases of transmission where patients were “experiencing only very mild symptoms or possibly without experiencing symptoms at all.” According to The New York Times:

The site has attracted nearly 30 million unique visitors this year, which is four to five times more traffic than usual, said Rick Berke, the executive editor, who oversees the editorial and business departments.

STAT News deserves the success its world-class COVID-19 coverage has brought it, but it is not much like the typical winner of the messy, freewheeling struggle for attention in the information sphere. Articles like Pueyo’s, in which an amateur invests in a great deal of research are more common, though not exactly the norm, either. The typical blog post, social media update, or even professional media article is much less rigorous and authored by individuals lacking in subject matter expertise.

Still, the openness of our system has allowed people to publicly sound the alarm who would not have had a platform in less open or more tightly controlled alternatives. Individuals with thousands or tens of thousands of followers on Twitter sounded the alarm in January about everything from ventilator shortages to the expected economic fallout of COVID-19 having “transmission characteristics similar to the common cold.” One individual with over a hundred thousand followers was emphasizing just how quickly an exponentially growing virus could spread. Public intellectual Nassim Taleb called out the possibility of a pandemic on January 26. Prepper Jon Stokes provided a guide for how to prepare for a lockdown in response to COVID-19 on February 6th

In the conservative corner of the ecosystem, a group dubbed “Trump’s early adopters” by Vanity Fair and “conspiracy theorists” by Mother Jones, which includes Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams, fringe reactionary Mike Cernovich, and the former Breitbart executive chairman and Trump administration official Steve Bannon, were all sounding the alarm early. Conservative-adjacent Quillette’s editor-in-chief Claire Lehmann’s wrote a piece on March 3rd on the “Once-in-a-Century Pathogen” which was right on the mark and covered many important topics, including asymptomatic transmission. 

These individuals and others like them had fairly niche audiences, nothing like the big outlets or even a STAT News. But as Pueyo’s article demonstrates dram, today’s audience distribution dramatically underestimates potential reach. Let us conservatively estimate that every private individual or small publication with the best early COVID-19 messages across the entire information sphere was able to reach a cumulative audience of only one million, a small fraction of the population. To begin with, that is one million people more that received the right messages early than would have in a closed system.

The logic of exponential spread that has allowed the literal virus to ravage the world also governs the spread of content that “goes viral”. An audience of a dozen can quickly become an audience of hundreds, which can quickly become an audience of thousands. An audience of one million? That can become an audience of one hundred million in the blink of an eye. Taking your social media messages seriously might be mocked as “hashtag activism,” but the fact is that anyone has a potential reach of millions when posting publicly. The cumulative efforts of private individuals like Pueyo, alongside mid-tier publications like STAT News, vastly improve the quality of the information sphere.

The experts

Consider the following quotes:

Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission

We (…) don’t have any clear evidence of patients being infectious before symptom on sets.

Broadly-applied interventions such as travel bans can cause public panic, impede individual rights, lead to secondary effects like shortages of food, and may not be effective at containing a virus if it has already spread outside of the epicenter, as nCoV-2019 has done.

The risk of acquiring a respiratory infection through air travel is still extraordinarily low,

Roses are red/Violets are blue/Risk is low for #coronavirus/But high for the #flu

“The chances are astonishingly low that you would come into contact in a coronavirus infection” at work or in a public setting

Right now, at this moment, there’s no need to change anything that you’re doing on a day by day basis.

Who said it? Many were quoted in the media. But every single one comes from either an expert or a public health institution. 

It was the WHO that announced on January 14 that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.” It was the CDC who, on January 27—the day after the Chinese Health Minister had announced that they had observed cases of transmission during the incubation period—stated that there wasn’t “any clear evidence of patients being infectious before symptom on sets”. Rebecca Katz, Director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown, was quoted in Buzzfeed downplaying the effectiveness of “Broadly-applied interventions” on January 28th, six days after the lockdown of Wuhan had begun.. Isaac Bogoch, “a professor at the University of Toronto who studies how air travel influences the dynamics of outbreaks,” was calling the risk of contracting a respiratory disease while flying “extraordinarily low” in a January 31 Vox article. Surgeon General Jerome Adams  tweet on February 1,two days after WHO declared a global health emergency. Next is Dr. Stanley Deresinski, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, quoted in the infamous February 13 Recode article on Silicon Valley’s cautiousness. After that is Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of NIAID and member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, on February 29.

These were not the assertions of journalists. Only some were the assertions of institutional public health officials, who can only maintain their positions by carefully considering their political context when making public statements. Three of those quoted were simply experts on the relevant subject. And this pattern was representative of many of the pieces I reviewed, even those portrayed after the fact as examples of journalists falling down on the job. The Recode article is a case in point, and has been frequently pointed to as particularly egregious case of journalistic malpractice.

The point of that article was to mock Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists for having a “deep, paranoid fear about bodies and disease.” The temptation to use COVID-19 coverage as a vehicle for attacking old antagonists and repeating old arguments proved difficult to resist on every medium. But the important point here is that the Recode article did not assert anything about the risks of the outbreak on its author’s own authority. From the beginning of the article, the framing is:

Public health officials in the area have said there’s currently a low risk to public health; the cases, they say, have been contained to those who have recently traveled to Wuhan and their direct family members.

The person who downplays handshakes as a mechanism for transmission is not author Shirin Ghaffary, but Dr. Stanley Deresinski, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care.

The Ghaffary’s own ignorance, and by extension that of her editor, is put on display in her framing of Google’s decision to have all employees in China work from home. seem [was] absurd or even provincial. She quoted an anonymous employee comparing Google employees in Beijing working from home because of an outbreak in Wuhan to employees in Chicago doing the same because of an outbreak in New York. The implication is that Google is making rash decision in panic, but given the dense network of travel between Chicago and New York every day, such a policy would make perfect sense.

But in terms of her evaluation of the risks of COVID-19 and what ought to be done about it, the author mostly reflected the positions of public health institutions and public health experts. She was not alone in this. Deference to experts and authorities was the rule among professional media.

STAT News, the outlet that was the earliest and best in its coverage, corroborates this: they argued that expert failure played a critical role in allowing the outbreak to become a pandemic:

As China was seeking to rid itself of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, a number of leading infectious diseases scientists mused that the outbreak would be controlled or might burn itself out. (…)The virus, the thinking went, didn’t appear to be behaving as explosively outside of China as it had inside it.

“Everybody was in denial of this coming, including the U.S. And everybody got hit — just as simple as that,” Gary Kobinger, director of the Infectious Disease Research Center at Laval University in Quebec, told STAT.

Kobinger himself thought the WHO’s immediate move to a war footing on the virus — the day after China made its first official report on it on Dec. 31 — was probably an overreaction.

The STAT headline speaks of “some experts” rather than all, and some were indeed sounding the alarm. And when they did, they were given space in professional media to do so. Scott Gottlieb, the commissioner of the FDA from 2017 to 2019 wrote in CNBC on January 26 of our need to be prepared. That piece shows great foresight about the need to get testing scaled up through the development of quick tests, also suggesting that point of care administration of the tests by authorized, rather than relying on specialized labs. Gottlieb plainly states that “global spread appears inevitable. So too are the emergence of outbreaks in the U.S., even if a widespread American epidemic can still be averted.”

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, wrote a New York Times opinion piece on January 20th, “Is it a Pandemic Yet?” In it, he made it clear that the virus was not going to be contained (indeed, it was “never going to be contained”). Osterholm also says—on January 20th!—that “Unlike Ebola, SARS and MERS, individuals can transmit this coronavirus before the onset of symptoms or even if they don’t become ill.” 

Clearly, expert messaging was mixed, but erring towards avoiding the appearance of alarmism. In as much as America’s too-slow response to COVID-19 was a reflection of the state of the expert community, it seems unrealistic to expect journalists as a class to have fared better.

Media vices

If there is a single general problem that cuts across media of all types—including social media and blogs—it is the urge to give a clear answer in an authoritative tone. This tendency manifests most intensely in headlines and when official social media accounts link to the articles. Here is a sampling of ones that did not age well:

Don’t Worry About The Coronavirus. Worry About The Flu.

Buzzfeed, January 28

Is this going to be a deadly pandemic? No.

Vox, January 31

Get a grippe, America. The flu is a much bigger threat than coronavirus, for now.

The Washington Post, February 1

Who Says It’s Not Safe to Travel to China? The coronavirus travel ban is unjust and doesn’t work anyway.

The New York Times, February 5

MD Flu Deaths Climb As Flu More Worrisome Than Coronavirus

Patch, February 23

In many cases the pieces were much better than their headlines or social media taglines. That is a valid excuse for the authors of the pieces, but not for the publications. The fact of the matter is that vastly more people will see the headlines and the tweets than will actually read the articles. The information conveyed by the one-liners will travel far and wide while the subtleties will be picked up by only a minority of those who even click the link. It is irresponsible behavior even when there is a business case for it, and that business case ultimately falls apart when your industry gets demolished by the subsequent fallout.

Another questionable tendency across the board is to stick to certain formulas no matter what the subject matter. So this infectious disease plan from the Elizabeth Warren campaign may seem timely, appearing as it did on January 28 and talking about the coronavirus. But in fact it hardly talks about that at all, and just uses it, and previous examples like the 2014 Ebola outbreak, as a vehicle for talking about her typical hobbyhorses—even climate change and the opioid crisis make it in there, somehow. Compare this to Chuck Schumer actually calling for preparedness here and now back on January 26th.

In characteristic fashion, Cass Sunstein used the opportunity to tell us all that we were irrational for worrying, pulling “probability neglect” out of his behavioral economics hat on February 28th. By March 26th, without reference to the previous piece, he was assuring us that a rational cost-benefit analysis confirmed his new belief that strong mitigation measures were justified.

Many focused on the potential for racism against Asians, which of course is a valid concern. But these authors were clearly writing to a formula—how (fill in the blank) will impact marginalized communities—without bothering to examine the relevant details of the case. This time, it had the effect of making it appear that concern about an unfolding pandemic or valid criticism of the Chinese regime was nothing but a knee-jerk racist reaction. The Huffington Post similarly was more interested in projecting a conspiracy theory onto Tom Cotton, who was sounding the alarm in January, than investigating the risk of the virus. Cotton had speculated that the virus may have spread as a result of an accident in a Chinese lab, a story now now considered credible enough to cover in The Washington Post (if not to accept as demonstrated truth), but The Huffington Post interpreted it as referring to the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was developed as a Chinese bio weapon. 

All of the above is unwarranted when the stakes are high, and all of them are structural features of our current media system. This is not a council of despair; we ought to continue to think creatively about what is possible and encourage entrepreneurship. But realistically we should expect these vices to remain characteristic of the media landscape for the foreseeable future.

Fox News

Fox News is the juggernaut in this space. To a considerable degree, it is this space. While there was a great deal of fanfare around the rise of Breitbart, its star has fallen precipitously. Meanwhile, traffic to “has doubled since 2015 and is now at more than 100 million unique visitors per month” generating “ten times the audience of any other conservative news website offering original content.” Fox is also at the top of all cable news channels but still smaller than the smallest broadcast network evening news audience. In short, understanding their coverage of COVID-19 goes a long way towards understanding most of what conservative audiences have seen over the past few months. 

The Internet coverage is not unmixed; in February Fox was largely following the same narrative as most mainstream outlets. A February 3rd piece opens with “Experts believe the highly transmissible coronavirus will become a pandemic as infected numbers continue to increase in China and countries around the world” and continues:

The coronavirus is reportedly spreading at a similar pace to influenza compared to the slow-moving SARS and MERS, according to the New York Times.

“It’s very, very transmissible, and it almost certainly is going to be a pandemic,” Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, told the paper.

But two days later they published two pieces by doctors on the Fox News payroll strongly downplaying the danger. From one:

“Americans have no reason to panic over the coronavirus, Fox News medical correspondent Dr. Marc Siegel said Saturday.

“People are walking down the street with masks about a virus that literally only has infected 12 people” in the United States, he said.”

And another written directly by a Dr. Robert Siegel:

And a fourth – and worst-case – possibility is that the coronavirus will not be contained and will run rampant across the Earth, as was the case with the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic. While fear mongers may focus on this scenario, it is very unlikely to come to pass based on what we have seen to date.

Though he goes on to emphasize the importance of fighting the virus with:

surveillance and containment; treating infected individuals; greatly increasing the availability of diagnostic tests in every populated region of the world, including traditionally underserved regions; and facilitating international cooperation and communication regarding the virus.

A February 26 piece quotes a former FDA official cautioning against “overreaction.” It does not mention that he is affiliated with the Hoover Institution and Competitive Enterprise Institute. This is a pattern: doctors write pieces or are quoted who may or may not be experts on infectious diseases specifically, but are mostly affiliated with Fox or someone in the conservative ecosystem. I did not find a similar tendency in February COVID-19 coverage on CNN and MSNBC. The quality of information in which Fox relied on “internal” experts or any sort of personality-driven piece like this was markedly worse from pieces like the February 3rd one, which were not very different from reporting done at competing, more liberal media outlets. One way in which they were different is that Fox appeared more likely to rely on “experts” of the caliber of “Dr. Linda Anegawa, an internist with virtual health platform, PlushCare” rather than the professors running infectious disease centers at universities whose quotes frequently appear in pieces by Fox’s liberal competitors. 

The most egregious coverage is the constant stream of sycophantic Trump coverage bordering on a cult of personality. See this glowing praise on March 12 for Trump’s complete fixation on the stock market rather than fighting the disease to get the flavor of this style of coverage. As Trump’s take on the pandemic could be described as fact-free and erratic at best, and fictional yet incomprehensible the rest of the time, Fox has been a willing and enthusiastic partner in spreading Trump’s terrible messages to the public.

Coverage of Fox’s bad behavior has focused entirely on the cable news hosts. These have been undeniably terrible. On March 9th, Trish Reagan called the pandemic an “impeachment hoax”—though Foxparted ways” with her afterwards, ostensibly because of it. Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham have repeatedly argued that the whole thing is a conspiracy by the Democratic Party to hurt Trump. It’s quite bad, and the 4-5 million viewers of these programs are no doubt a disproportionate source of the pathologies we’ve seen from the right around COVID-19 response, including the recent wave of protests against state shelter-in-place orders. One notable exception here is Tucker Carlson, who on March 10th sounded the alarm and took the unusual step of reaching out to the President personally to try and persuade him to take the crisis seriously. Carlson currently draws the second largest audience on Fox after the President’s daily briefing; so his getting this right is by no means a trivial exception. But it is, undeniably, the exception.

Conservative mid-tier

Beyond Fox, where the audiences are much smaller, we find coverage that is both much worse, and much better. In the former category, we find Ann Coulter arguing that COVID-19 is less dangerous than the flu, while citing a graph which shows the opposite. This narrative was popular across the board in January and February, but not when Coulter invoked it on March 24th. Heather Mac Donald wrote a widely shared article making the same argument on March 13th.

A March 23rd piece at The Federalist boldly asserted “it seems harsh to ask whether the nation might be better off letting a few hundred thousand people die. Probably for that reason, few have been willing to do so publicly thus far. Yet honestly facing reality is not callous.” On April 3rd, it was still screaming “We Cannot Destroy the Country for the Sake of New York City.” Co-founder Sean Davis’ consistent position through March down to the present, expressed frequently on Twitter, is that we are experiencing a media-induced hysteria aimed at destroying the economy in order to take Trump down with it. The Federalist is irredeemable, making Fox hosts look almost sensible by comparison.

 It has clearly been moved by no principle beyond expressing the opposite of what liberals believe; an absolutely atrocious case of unhinged partisanship. Worst of all perhaps is The Gateway Pundit, conservative blog-turned-professional and famously granted a White House press pass by the Trump administration. They did not have a great track record going into this pandemic, and have not covered themselves with glory throughout it. They have served as a hotbed of conspiracy theories and misinformation. In terms of audience these two publications are squarely in the third tier of conservative media, still far too large to be called fringe.

Conservative media was by and large worse and later on COVID-19 than the rest of the information sphere. Yet even here the largest publication,, was largely mirroring experts in January and February—albeit less consistently than its competitors and with gaping lapses. As experts became more alarmed, Fox articles reflected this, more or less. Tucker Carlson’s sounding of the alarm on March 10 was quite close to the end of the six week window we outlined above, but it was within it, and the message was unequivocal. All of this, along with the more informal actors in the community who sounded the alarm earlier, adds up to important information being available to conservative audiences, even as a number of media personalities and secondary and tertiary publications turned sharply against the necessary mitigation measures.

Looking ahead

Pandemics have long been among my favorite topics to teach sociology with, not because the subject is cheery, but because they contain so many of the lessons about our modern world.

Zeynep Tufekci in 2014

Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci was paying attention to COVID-19 back in January and sounded the alarm in a February 27 Scientific American article. Looking back in March, she highlighted how hard it is for journalists to think in terms of complex systems. The existence multiple points of failure in such systems means that many things can go wrong at once; the fact of nonlinear effects—for example, when the doubling time of COVID-19 cases shrinks by a day or two—means that a small number of cases can become tens of thousands of cases well before journalists have decided to take a problem seriously. Journalists by trade must cover events unfolding in a complex world; providing them with better conceptual tools is one way that the media might be improved.

Pseudonymous blogger Scott Alexander does not believe that the media failed at prediction, calling its performance “A Failure, But Not of Prediction.”

Prediction is very hard. Nate Silver is maybe the best political predicter alive, and he estimated a 29% chance of Trump winning just before Trump won. (…)Predicting the coronavirus was equally hard, and the best institutions we had missed it. (…)The stock market is a giant coordinated attempt to predict the economy, and it reached an all-time high on February 12, suggesting that analysts expected the economy to do great over the following few months. On February 20th it fell in a way that suggested a mild inconvenience to the economy, but it didn’t really start plummeting until mid-March—the same time the media finally got a clue. (…)I conclude that predicting the scale of coronavirus in mid-February—the time when we could have done something about it—was really hard.

Judging the media or anyone by whether or not they predicted the exact outcome that occurred is, in Alexander’s argument, “the wrong framework.” While Tufekci suggests a complex-systems framework is invaluable for journalists, Alexander thinks a more basic grasp of probabilistic thinking is the place to start. Both of these are valuable criticism of how journalists approach their topics. And both have received a fair amount of attention.

The greatest virtue of our open information sphere is the space it creates for ongoing conversations, rather than the authoritative declarations of article headlines.Tufekci’s retrospective, as someone widely published in big professional media outlets, is framed as community self-criticism, something there has been no shortage of.

These conversations are not only valuable for media self-scrutiny, however. Consider the debate around whether or not masks effectively curb the spread of respiratory diseases. Proponents of masks have been frustrated by the standing guidance from WHO and the CDC that civilians should not use masks. In an earlier era—or in contemporary China—they may have simply had to live with that frustration. But in our open information sphere, they were able to mount a campaign. Tufecki wrote about it in several places, including The New York Times. A group of tech-types put together an extensive collection of studies on the subject. 

But the best discussion in our estimation is Alexander’s, on his blog. He does not flinch from the uncertainty and ambiguity of the evidence. His goal is to encourage his readers to think pragmatically on important topics for which no perfect, randomized control trials can be conducted. He presents many studies that cut against the conclusion he is arguing for and explains his rationale for drawing that conclusion nevertheless.

The collective efforts of mask advocates paid off; on April 3rd the CDC reversed its long held position that the public ought not to bother with masks. More to the point, the mask campaign appears to have influenced public attitudes more broadly. The CDC decision both reflected this and compounded it.

Our open information sphere has many vices; above all the adversarial character of much of it is unpleasant and difficult to opt out of entirely. Even the mask debate, which I consider an example of the system at its best, was a source of annoyance to many as overzealous mask advocates relentlessly pushed their message on every front. But in Tufekci and Alexander and Pueyo and many others, we see one possible path forward. Something to encourage, a norm to attempt to spread to professional and amateur media alike. If the categorical, authoritative stance that we see most prominently in headlines is among the worst vices of today’s media, then the conversational stance, which aims at persuasion among equals, is among its greatest virtues. Cultivating it will not guarantee a superior response to the next disaster, but it cannot hurt.

Featured image is Top front page of the London EveningPost for October 21-23, 1746

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Multilateralism Without Universalism: Hard Lessons from WHO During COVID-19

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Trump made headlines in announcing that the US will be suspending financial support to the World Health Organization (WHO) until completing an investigation into its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. While this action has been rightly decried as an attempt to deflect blame for his own response, which was too slow and too dismissive, there is some truth to his accusations. The WHO has not performed well, and it does seem likely that they were influenced by China’s desire to downplay the disease for as long as possible. However, the response should not be to abandon internationalism altogether, but rather to look at more selective multilateralism as a supplement to universal systems. 

Internationalism has not failed

The defense of international systems is critical, as that’s the most immediate danger—the argument will run that when the chips were down, we couldn’t actually depend on international cooperation, thus justifying semi-autarky as an “insurance policy.”  This approach is wrong headed: autarky cannot prevent or even blunt the impact of pandemics, and a global response will likely be important in mitigating this and future crises. However, even as multilateral cooperation remains essential, the COVID-19 debacle has shown the weakness of universal international institutions. In an international context where some of the largest and most influential powers are brazenly illiberal, liberal cooperation is of limited efficacy. Multilateral organizations with membership determined by certain shared ideals—as opposed to geography or economic achievement—need to be strengthened to present a united front in the face of future crises. 

There are of course incidents where the usual rules of international commerce have been suspended.  The dispute over N-95 respirators being exported to Canada or imported from China has been one example, and has led to vows of increased self-sufficiency in the future. However, abandoning (relatively) free trade would be a foolish choice. Even now, international trade in ventilators, masks, and other key equipment is critical to keeping healthcare systems afloat. Mexico, which thus far has not experienced the pandemic to the extent that the US and Europe has, is dramatically increasing exports of those goods, while China, having weathered the worst of it, is beginning to export those goods again. If the pandemic strikes the global south next, the United States and Europe should reciprocate. Indeed, as the pandemic hits various areas of the world in sequence, there is no question that free, rapid trade will be critical to minimizing its ability to swamp local medical systems. Insistence that every country should be completely self-sufficient would mean that lifesaving equipment would stand idle while patients died across borders that could have easily been crossed. 

As the effort against the pandemic shifts to developing treatments and vaccines, international trade and cooperation will be even more important. Numerous vaccines and treatments are in development around the world, and while it’s unclear which, if any, are going to yield results, all talk of medical autarky will appear even more foolish if a foreign country develops this life saving vaccine. Indeed, the decision by the United States to take exactly this strategy regarding testing—failing to use or replicate tests developed in other countries and instead taking valuable time developing its own—likely worsened the outcomes here, as compared to Hong Kong, South Korea, or Singapore, where dense populations in close proximity to China nonetheless suffered far fewer deaths than the United States. 

A specifically liberal internationalism

Thus, it is necessary to push back against anti-globalists using this virus to argue for American Juche. However, the international system must become more effective if is going to be defended in the long term, and that means honestly assessing and correcting its weaknesses. As it currently stands, that system has suffered from one glaring error: the lack of transparency coming from China, the most critical country in the current pandemic. China’s opaque policies had a deleterious effect on the entire World Health Organization’s efficacy during the crisis. At the very beginning of the crisis, Dr Li Wenliang attempted to spread information about the novel disease, but was silenced by local officials. Well into January, Chinese officials insisted that the virus was not showing signs of person-to-person transmission, and the WHO did not recommend travel restrictions from China. Indeed, on January 23, the WHO reiterated its recommendation that neither travel restrictions nor traveler screening be put in place despite endorsing travel screening inside China itself. This was in line with China’s general determination to prevent its neighbors and allies from implementing travel restrictions—even as the country essentially isolated Hebei province from the rest of the country, and has now enforced travel restrictions on individuals entering China. 

The World Health Organization’s actions—and perhaps more importantly, inactions—do not primarily indicate a failing of the individuals who run it, who I assume are competent and dedicated professionals. Rather, it is the inevitable consequence of the structure of the WHO and UN. They depend on their constituent states for their funding and effective operation, and they depend on larger states more than smaller ones. While China’s funding commitments are only about half those of the United States, they are larger than any other single country (though their additional voluntary contributions are far less prominent). More than simply money, China holds a permanent seat on the UN security council and is highly influential in the General Assembly, both critical bodies for governing international response to any crisis. Openly condemning or even disagreeing with the Chinese ruling party would jeopardize the larger goals of the WHO. 

Nonetheless, this surely works to the detriment of smaller or more liberal states that depend on the WHO. Smaller states lack the resources to push back against Chinese influence, and liberal states are constitutionally restricted from responding with the same restrictions that China used to control COVID-19. Liberal states rely instead on open reporting and accurate information from partners, which China did not allow in the first period of the crisis and the WHO was unable to provide until it was too late. 

If liberal states are to deal with future pandemics, it will be necessary to create or strengthen multilateral—but not universal—organizations. The WHO, for example, is valuable for improving global health, but an organization that included only countries achieving a certain level of government transparency would likely be more trusted by democratic states looking for cooperation in pandemic response. Existing liberal institutions are poorly suited for the role. Most, like the OECD, have no real humanitarian focus at all, and deal strictly in terms of economics. This may be valuable in recovering from a pandemic-induced economic crash, but not in preventing its core causes. The EU is hypothetically better positioned, but the agency that would be in charge—the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control—has a miniscule budget of $58 million. This is roughly a third of Germany’s voluntary contribution to the WHO, and less than one percent of the US CDC budget. 

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Organization of American States has no equivalent agency. Faced with a pandemic, liberal states must either rely on their own internal organizations—which is, by definition, insufficient for facing a global disaster—or the WHO, which seems for the time to be unduly influenced by Chinese political priorities. 

The solution is not to abandon the WHO entirely; after all, in a true pandemic a truly global response is required. However, if the WHO is restrained from providing transparent information and making unbiased recommendations, other international organizations will be needed that actively limit membership to states meeting certain standards for liberal policies. Such organizations would have greater capacity to analyze data from numerous countries, and more credibility when issuing guidance, than individual country’s health bureaus. 

Whether a single global institution or a series of cooperating regional ones would better serve this purpose is an open question; most of the current bureaucratic infrastructure exists at a regional level, and so those may have to be built before a truly global system can be created. The critical difference between such an organization and the WHO, however, needs to be its selectivity. Countries that do not tolerate a high level of media freedom and critical reporting need to be excluded. Furthermore, there need to be mechanisms to expel, after a series of warnings and time to address issues, countries who fail to meet these requirements. The current situation in Hungary is a demonstration of how complex this is; however, some expulsion mechanism is important in order to maintain some unity of vision within an international liberal organization. 

Would exclusive internationalism completely take the place of the WHO? Hardly. For one thing, for a pandemic that begins in an illiberal country, the world will still have to depend on that state to give the initial information. And the WHO will still need to do important work for the health of people living in illiberal states; their health is important even if their governments are poor partners. And working with those regimes on critical international initiatives will be necessary.  

Liberal alternatives to the WHO, however, would allow for a rapid international deployment of resources between liberal countries. This could lead to more appropriate recommendations, since such organizations would not be constrained by illiberal regimes. A health organization where Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea were the dominant East Asian voices, for example, may have been able to issue more effective guidance based on those countries’ experiences with SARS, MERS, and the current pandemic, less influenced by concerns about the impact on China’s political standing. Undoubtedly, states would still attempt to exert influence on these new organizations for their own benefit, but in a context of free media and multi-party elections, this would be less effective.

Although the comparison is imperfect (because H1N1 was a better understood virus than COVID-19), a comparison of the H1N1 pandemic with the current COVID-19 pandemic shows profound differences: H1N1 was reported to the WHO after the second patient was identified, while COVID 19 had at least 27 active cases before the WHO was notified. Within four days, a public statement was made about the two H1N1 cases. There was no doubt strong incentives to downplay such information; after all, it not only created the potential for restrictions on the travel of US citizens, but directly threatened the massive US pork industry. Nonetheless, there was no way to intimidate the first doctors and patients as has been done with Dr. Li in China; both local officials and the CDC quickly moved to present the situation transparently to both the public and the WHO because the information was impossible to hide. 

The next question is whether in the immediate future this means defunding the WHO, as the president has set out to do. In the short term this is more of a knee-jerk scapegoating than a true solution. Imperfect as it is, the WHO remains the only effective international health organization, and while its recommendations may be suspect, its expertise is still needed to mitigate this pandemic. 

What is needed instead is a deliberate plan to create a better organization or set of them—starting in our own backyard. So far, the United States is hardest hit of countries in the Americas. Border closures with the relatively less impacted Canada and Mexico have been mutually agreed upon; this will hopefully slow the spread from the US into those countries. The next step will be more politically difficult: when and if Mexico, Brazil, and other countries in Latin America are stricken more acutely than the United States, it is critical that the US offer help and support. There will be a hesitancy about exporting medical devices and PPE on the tail end of the epidemic in the United States—this hesitancy must be overcome. The United States must be open about what worked and did not in its own response in order to help our neighbors. On the basis of successful hemispheric cooperation, we can build real institutions designed to help our neighbors—a well-funded American States Health Organization, dedicated to hemispheric cooperation in preventing the spread of epidemic disease and stamping out remaining endemic contagions, such as malaria, much as was done historically with Yellow Fever

Overseas, funding for the European Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, naturally, needs to be a European priority, but close cooperation between the US CDC and its European counterparts will be important. Perhaps most important will be the creation of formal avenues of medical cooperation with South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and other democratic states in Asia. Their experience with epidemic disease is invaluable, and the odds are good that future pandemics will also originate in this densely populated region of the world. Being able to immediately share information with these countries should allow every country to respond more quickly to future pandemics. This will be especially valuable in the case of Taiwan, a model case for fighting this pandemic but which is largely locked out of cooperation with the WHO. 

As these organizations gain the infrastructure to include liberal states around the world, they can also begin to offer assistance to non-members. Of course for pandemics originating in powerful illiberal states, the WHO will still have to at least provide the initial response. However, a respected multilateral alternative, less subject to political pressure, could be a valuable resource even to non-members by providing recommendations, funding, and emergency response to pandemics. Moreover, once a true alternative to the WHO exists, it will increase leverage exercised by countries like Germany and Canada, which provide a huge portion of the WHO’s budget but whose public opinion (rightly) makes cutting off this funding unthinkable. Whether this pushes the WHO to improve or simply creates a viable alternative, it will have improved the global health situation. 

If this effort works, it can be extended to other realms of international cooperation. It has long been remarked that the mission of the UN Human Rights Council, for example, is difficult to reconcile with the actual records of many of its members. And if nothing else, hopefully membership in numerous genuinely helpful organizations with exclusive rules requiring basic standards on elections, press freedoms, and human rights will constitute a disincentive to liberal members backsliding into authoritarian ways. 

All of this may seem wildly ambitious, and to an extent it is. Getting such an organization off the ground will cost billions of dollars, in a period that will be filled with (misguided) calls for austerity. However, there is also popular sentiment that “we can’t go back to normal,” that COVID-19 has created an opportunity and necessity for permanent change. In the United States, and many other states, conservatives have been quick to blame China and the WHO for the devastation accompanying the pandemic, while liberals can point to the overall lack of pandemic preparedness that many western governments suffered from. There is truth to both of these claims—and a well funded liberal supplement or alternative (the WHO’s response will likely determine which) to the WHO would be a fitting response to both. More than that, it could be the start of a new sort of multinationalism, one built on the peaceful advancement of global humanitarian priorities via cooperation between like-minded democratic states.  

Featured image is the World Health Organization flag

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