Judging by the intrusiveness and reach of the political interventions we have seen over the past 18 months or so, one might infer that the job of public officials is not just to manage public crises, but to guarantee that citizens live flourishing and happy lives, and are protected from every conceivable evil, from “misinformation” to sickness, unemployment, and death.
The desire to make the world a better place, when coupled with access to the tools of modern science and the administrative and fiscal apparatus of the modern state, may give rise to large-scale efforts to engineer social order in accordance with a Grand Plan, overseen by “experts” of every conceivable type. The social engineer longs to control the apparatus of the State, and apply it to advance noble ends, like justice, equality of opportunity, economic prosperity, security, public health, and universal welfare.
However noble the intentions of the social engineer may be, the history of large-scale societal interventions tells a very different story: it is often the most idealistic and well-meaning social planners who leave the greatest devastation in their wake.
A good example of the disastrous consequences of social engineering is the American city planning movement which dominated many large American cities such as Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago in the 1950s and 60s. City planners tended to view the inherently complicated and unpredictable patterns of architectural, economic, and social development in large cities as symptomatic of a disorder that needed to be “tidied up” by experts.
When confronted with the beneficial outcomes of relatively unplanned, bottom-up urban development, they viewed them as inexplicable anomalies because they could not be reconciled with the prevailing wisdom of architects and city planners of the time, namely that centralized city planning was the only way to bring order and progress to a large city.
The paradigm of centralized planning and governance was so engrained in the minds of city planners that it took them a long time to recognize its catastrophic consequences: in particular, the creation of slum neighbourhoods and centers of delinquency on a scale that was scarcely imaginable before the city planners got to work.
Some of the reasons for the abysmal failure of centralized, top-down city planning are eloquently documented by the grassroots journalist and campaigner Jane Jacobs. Of particular note is her observation that city planners fail to respect the accumulated wisdom and ways of getting along that ordinary citizens had developed over many generations.
City planners tended to view busy streets and zones with residential and commercial land inter-meshed as overcrowded slums; but they failed to ask those inhabiting such “slums” what they wanted or what they thought of their own living arrangements. City planners assumed that city life was harsh and unhealthy for residents of old buildings with high population densities; but they failed to notice the ways in which these apparently chaotic social structures constituted a delicate social ecology inhabited by thriving and dynamic communities.
This blindness to the facts on the ground proved disastrous: city planners ended up tearing apart local communities and disembedding them from the customs and institutions that nourished them, in well-intentioned but utterly misguided efforts to improve their lives based on “expert wisdom.”
The failures of American city planners are not to be put down to some technical error, but a fundamental problem with the whole notion that one can unilaterally introduce order into a human society from a single fulcrum, whether an economic Guru, a city-planning committee, a democratic assembly, or a public health committee.
The limits of social engineering can shed valuable light on the current public health crisis. A question worth asking is: what sort of policy response to the current pandemic is warranted by a moderate, grounded idealism, and what sort of response falls prey to the self-aggrandising delusions of the social engineer?
When Covid-19 began to spread globally after it was first discovered in Wuhan, China, governments and their scientific advisors were uncertain how best to contain the disease, since the dynamics of the disease and the susceptibility of populations to it were not yet well understood.
The majority of Western countries have opted for a mix of social distancing, mask use, and societal lockdowns to bring the virus under control. But their efforts have met with extremely limited success, judging by the relatively high number of hospitalisations and deaths associated with Covid-19 across most of Europe and North America. Why might this be?
Once a highly infectious virus is endemic in a population, it is notoriously difficult to control. Its transmission may be delayed or slowed down, but in the absence of a safe and reliable vaccine, infections inevitably multiply until a sufficient number of persons are exposed to the virus to confer some measure of herd immunity upon the population in question.
The heart of the problem is that the only way to stop an infectious disease from transmitting across a population is by cutting the chain of transmission.
But social interaction is notoriously complex and multifaceted, and not easily controlled or regulated in a centralised way. It occurs in such a wide variety of situations, many largely hidden from public view, that any attempt to systematically suppress it is doomed to fail.
Another reason social life is so difficult to rigorously control is that it is not a luxury, but a basic necessity, something that defines who we are and who we aspire to be. A human life cut off from family and friends is, for most people, a life hardly worth living. People build up rituals and customs over many generations in order to meet their social needs and build up supportive communities.
For example, every society has points of encounter, be they homes, bars, restaurants, or terraces, in which people gather, eat and drink, converse, dance, and spend time with each other. Most workplaces have social rituals attached to them, such as coffeetime or lunch with one’s colleagues.
Many leisure activities, such as sport, art, music, cinema, and shopping, have a strong social component to them. Families gather in order to maintain a strong family bond and in order to make sure young and old alike are properly cared for.
The fact is, social life is inseparable from who we are. It cannot be turned on and off like a tap. If a disease spreads through social interaction, an overly aggressive intervention designed to reduce social interaction risks producing unintended harms such as poverty, loneliness, depressions, domestic abuse, and lowered levels of immunity associated with social isolation and depression.
Indeed, we are already seeing many of these effects from a number of recent public health interventions such as lockdowns and business closures. Ironically, the long-term harms of aggressive, population-wide restrictions on social life may be substantially worse than their public health benefits.
The utopians and social planners who thought they could keep Covid under control through aggressive social interventions may go down in the history books as social engineers who, however well-intentioned, wreaked havoc and despair in their societies, following in the footsteps of other notorious social engineers, such as the American city planners, the Russian communists, and the enthusiastic architects of Iraq’s new (failed) democratic regime.
The dangers of social engineering do not necessarily entail that all ambitious social policies are misguided or destructive. Nonetheless, history offers up a litany of failed attempts to engineer desirable social outcomes, and these failures should be required reading for high-level policymakers.
Seeing how our predecessors, acting in the name of progress and science, have inflicted far-reaching damage on generations of citizens, should induce in power-holders a sense of humility and restraint, and temper unrealistic expectations about the power of large-scale interventions to bring about a better society or to solve immensely complex social problems.
What does this humility and restraint entail in the context of an epidemic such as Covid-19? Does it mean we should just do nothing, and let nature take its course? Certainly not – passivity or inaction in the face of an epidemic would not be responsible.
However, if we must manage an epidemic, then we should be very sparing in our interventions, undertaking the most modest, scientifically grounded, and targeted interventions available at this time, and avoiding highly systematic and ambitious interventions that are likely to carry far-reaching unintended consequences difficult to correct or control.
In light of the complex transmission patterns of a virus that transmits easily from person to person, and the vital role of socialization in human life, the most prudent approach at this time would be to abandon dangerously disruptive policies that paralyze the social life of individuals, in particular individuals at relatively low personal risk from Covid-19, and turn our attention to policies that we know, with a high degree of certainty, can limit the harms of Covid-19 without attacking other aspects of people’s physical and mental health.
Such policies include the expansion of healthcare capacity; the development of emerging therapeutic and preventive treatments, including cheap and safe repurposed drugs; improvements in quarantine protocols and healthcare training and resources in elderly care homes; the development of safer and more effective vaccines, for voluntary use; and more effective public education campaigns targeted at vulnerable populations and their close contacts.
Comparatively modest interventions like these do not generate much spectacle, do not tank the national economy, and do not require the erection of a police state. Sadly, however, modesty and restraint are in rather short supply in the corridors of power.
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I agree with your outlook on this thorny problem. Worrisome to see countries like France already extending emergency measures to as far as july next year -- on the basis of what? The easiest thing is to keep the emergency alive (and the sense of anxiety it generates) than to do the slow work of locally focused interventions.