The year 2020 will stand out in American history for a number of reasons, possibly and most importantly because it included one of the greatest failures of government in American history. This was not simply a miscalculation or some wrong-headed initiative, which all governments may make from time to time. Rather, the U.S. government’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic was to give up on the central purpose of government in the first place — overcoming collective action dilemmas.
Without getting too technical, let me explain what that means. A collective action dilemma exists when everyone would benefit by working together, but individual self-interest prevents that cooperation from happening, and everyone ends up worse off as a result.
A classic example of this is the “tragedy of the commons.” In this example, a bunch of farmers own cows, and everyone brings their cow to the same pasture to graze. For every individual farmer, this makes perfect sense. But everyone bringing their cow to the pasture causes the pasture to be overgrazed so that no cow gets a decent amount of food. No one thinks their own cow is really causing the problem, so everyone continues to follow this pattern, but that just makes it worse. One solution would be for everyone to limit how often their cow went to the pasture. But no one trusts the other farmers to obey those limits, because then everyone else gets well-fed cows while they don’t. So everyone ignores the idea of limits, and everyone ends up worse off as a result.
This is functionally the position we’ve found ourselves in during this pandemic. We’ve known exactly how to control the pandemic and prevent deaths since March — limit contact with others, avoid unnecessary travel, and, most importantly, wear face masks at all times in public spaces. It’s not terribly complex, and these approaches have proven highly effective when they’re employed broadly across the population.
But they have not been employed broadly in the United States. Most people hear the messaging and know full well that they shouldn’t go out to bars, shouldn’t travel to visit relatives during the holidays, and should wear masks outside the house. But each individual thinks, does it matter so much if I don’t do that? Surely my one trip or my maskless excursion won’t hurt the rest of society. And other people seem to be out having fun, why not me? Other businesses seem to be thriving with indoor customers, why not mine?
And that’s the collective action problem because everyone thinking that their own contribution doesn’t matter means that everyone’s does, and the disease spreads. It’s why we have just 4% of the world’s population but roughly 20% of its COVID deaths.
Many other countries have avoided such problems with robust interventions by their central governments. Much of Europe has engaged in a program that subsidizes workers’ salaries as they are placed on furloughs. It doesn’t hurt those workers financially to stay home, and it doesn’t hurt businesses too badly to stay closed for a while. Meanwhile, businesses aren’t forced to fire people and then train and hire new people once the pandemic passes. Unemployment rose in Europe this year but only modestly, and nowhere near as much as it has risen in the United States. And importantly, a major source of disease transmission was cut off.
These kinds of interventions are undoubtedly expensive. But they’re not nearly as expensive as full unemployment benefits governments would have to pay if all those workers were laid off, no less if millions more of them contracted COVID. The United States’ approach may thus be penny wise but pound foolish; we’re going to spend a lot more money and lose a lot more lives than we would have if we’d made the early investment in keeping workers at home and helping businesses afford to remain partially or completely closed. The stimulus checks the government sent out last spring undoubtedly helped people pay bills and buoyed the economy somewhat, but they didn’t keep people from interacting and spreading the disease.
This needn’t have happened. The American governmental system, divided among different branches and across states and localities, is highly inefficient but is capable of creative collective action in response to crises.
Take the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), a simple government program created in 1933 that amounts to little more than a guarantee that the government will insure depositor’s money up to $250,000 if a bank fails. Just by existing, it has made sure that bank failures, a regular problem up until the Great Depression, stopped happening.
Social Security, Medicare, the Affordable Care Act, the Federal Reserve, and more are all efforts to allow collective action to function and prevent needless suffering. Both parties have typically worked toward creative problems to collective action dilemmas.
What’s more, the solutions to this pandemic were pretty obvious, as were the pitfalls. A federal government failing to act, combined with a president who contributed to the polarization of views on masks and other forms of disease prevention, created pretty much the worst response possible. Yes, many state governments have sought to step up in this environment, but without the federal government’s massive financial resources needed to pay people to stay home, their impact was limited.
We will need the ability to act collectively to face substantial future challenges. In her recent declaration of a climate change emergency, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern noted, “We will only make progress if we absolutely accept that collective action is required.” This was correct in the case of COVID, as New Zealand, with one of the best national records in fighting the disease, has demonstrated, and it is true in the challenges to come.
Seth Masket is a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. He is the author of Learning from Loss: The Democrats 2016-2020.
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