RALEIGH — Are societies with higher levels of public spending and larger, more centralized governments better prepared to deal with crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic?
Over the past several weeks, I’ve seen people claim as much in articles, posts and media interviews. But the evidence for such claims is sorely lacking.
Yes, the United States has the highest number of reported deaths in the world, as well as a smaller, more decentralized government. These two facts establish precisely nothing about the policy implications of COVID-19, however. The U.S. reports some of the highest numbers in the world in many categories, simply because our country has one of the highest populations. If you don’t adjust for that, you’re not in search of the truth.
As of late April, Spain had 510 reported COVID-19 deaths for every million residents. Italy (453) and France (362) also fared poorly by this gruesome measure. The rate for the much-maligned U.S. was much lower, at 177 per million.
That doesn’t make America’s death toll any less tragic. It doesn’t mean that our public officials acted as effectively as they could have, as early as they could have, to contain outbreaks and mitigate the consequences. On testing, in particular, the federal government blew it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention produced a faulty test. And the Food and Drug Administration unconscionably blocked private institutions from producing their own tests.
But to draw sweeping conclusions about the vitality of America’s political and civic institutions, or the proper role of government in a free society, from the events of the past two months is fraught with peril.
If I were the kind of daredevil who courted peril, I might select the eight industrialized countries with the most-credible public-health statistics and the most-extensive connections to international travel and trade: the aforementioned Spain, Italy, France and the U.S. plus Germany, Japan, Great Britain and South Korea.
I might then pull not only their COVID-19 deaths per million but also economic-freedom measures, government spending as a share of gross domestic product, and the extent to which their governments are decentralized — that is, the amount of power and autonomy possessed by their subnational units of government, the equivalent of states and localities in America.
This imagined daredevil with my face and features might then run simple correlations. He might report a moderate correlation (.42) between economic freedom and COVID deaths. That is, countries with less-intrusive governments tend to have lower death rates. The daredevil might also report strong correlations of COVID deaths to higher government spending (.66) and to high levels of government centralization (.64).
I would, of course, try to restrain that daredevil, observing that simple correlations are insufficient evidence for drawing any firm conclusions. The governments of Italy, France, and Spain are larger, more intrusive, and more centralized than the governments of, say, Japan and South Korea. But the very low death rates in the latter two countries may well be because their (leaner) governments reacted quickly and vigorously.
And while Italy and Spain are, along with Britain, the only countries on the list with universal single-payer health systems, it would be premature to assert some causal relationship to their relatively high death rates.
The truth is that researchers across the world will spend many years sifting through dozens of relevant variables and constructing hundreds of statistical models in an attempt to understand why the COVID-19 pandemic has been more deadly in some places than in others, and what implications these events may have for public health interventions, the costs and benefits of lockdowns, and the optimal mix of governmental institutions in our interconnected 21st century.
I say leave them to their work. It’s going to take a long while. In the meantime, if you see politicians or activists assert that the crisis “proves” the need for a radical restructuring of American society and government, feel sorry for them. Say a prayer if you are so inclined.
Such daredevils tend to fall on their faces.