Is it possible to be an optimist during a pandemic? I get that question a lot, since my recent book is about mankind’s progress over the last decades.
The answer is an unqualified “yes.” Because rational optimism has never assumed that the world will not face problems. We always have, and we always will. Rational optimism says that through the discovery of new knowledge, the innovation of new technologies and the creation of wealth, we are getting better at solving them.
The world has always faced pandemics, for example. Plagues devastated Athens, the Roman Empire, and during the Black Death, the entire Eurasian continent. ”What's natural is the microbe”, wrote Albert Camus, “All the rest – health, integrity, purity (if you like) – is a product of the human will”. What’s new in our day and age are not diseases, but the fact that our will has better weapons at its disposal than ever before.
Think about it: If you have to face a pandemic, which year would be the best in history to face it? I would argue that the year 2020 would not be a bad choice. Today, hospitals around the world need more ventilators, but keep in mind that in 1950 the world had a total number of one ventilator. Now we can read the genome of the virus in a week, something that had never been done until 1995.
And thanks to the Internet, we can post in online, for the world to see, so that research teams, drug companies and health authorities anywhere in the world can search for its weak points. It made it possible for researchers in Berlin to develop a test in just six days, a test now used all around the world to track infected.
In a poorer and more closed world, without mass transportation, microorganisms traveled slower, but they traveled unrestricted, recurring for hundreds of years, until they had picked almost all of us off, one by one. Today our response is also global, and therefore for the first time, mankind can fight back.
It took mankind 3,000 years to develop vaccines against smallpox and polio. But just three months after the world learned about the new coronavirus, America’s National Library of Medicine listed 282 potential drugs and vaccines against it, already recruiting patients or proposing to do that.
That tells you something about the benefits of an open world. And in fact, the economic devastation that lockdowns and border closures causes should also be a reminder of the gifts of open economies and societies. The World Bank has estimated that 80 to 90 percent of the economic damage from epidemics usually come from aversion behavior – the fact that we do not meet, go to work, trade and travel – not from disease, deaths and the loss of production associated with that. Sometimes you don’t appreciate what you have until you notice its absence.
In fact, you might have missed that mankind just had its best quarter century ever. Since 1990, extreme poverty declined globally from 37 percent to less than 9 percent. Which means that every day leftist intellectuals and right-wing populists complained that globalization and “neo-liberalism” destroyed the world, poverty declined by roughly 140,000 people. Every day.
Over the same period, the share of the world population suffering from illiteracy and undernourishment declined by around 40 percent. Child mortality halved, preventing the deaths of six million children every year.
It is more important than ever to pay attention to this progress, and not to take it for granted. Because it does not happen by itself, automatically. It takes freedom for people to explore new knowledge and science, to experiment with this in the forms of new technologies, and to exchange the result of that with one another, across societies and borders. This is what creates new ideas and technologies and makes it possible to produce them in the most efficient way and share them around the world.
It takes open societies and free markets with limited governments protecting the rule of law. That is an important insight, because that is under threat right now. Oftentimes, a crisis triggers our fight-or-flight instinct. We want to flee and build walls, or fight against other countries or use minorities as scapegoats. And we often hand powers to strongmen, who promise to protect us.
That might have made sense in the stone age where our instincts were evolved, but not in a complex society, where we have to cooperate with strangers, not kill them. That is why now is the moment to take a deep breath and consult the evidence of history and of economics, before we dismantle institutions that have served us well.
For example, we have to understand that we become stronger together, and free trade makes it possible for us to use the brainpower and hard work of others.
It is easy to see the political logic behind bans on the export of essential equipment, implemented by countries like Germany and France. But it’s the same logic as toilet paper hoarding, and it has the same result. It forces others to do the same, which means that it is not on the market when you really have to go.
During the global price crisis of 2010-11 many governments banned food export to secure local supplies. But afterwards, we found out that those bans were part of the problem. In fact, they accounted for 40 percent of the increase in the world price of wheat.
So even though the world often moves in a nationalist direction during crises, it is exactly the time when we have the most urgent need for international agreements to forego beggar-thy-neighbor policies.
We might all want a ventilator industry when all of this is over, but a ventilator is produced from 500 components. Are you going to create 500 national factories to produce each and every one of them? In that case they will surely be so expensive and ill-fitting that we could only make do with a communist era iron lung. International specialization and trade is the reason why we have the kind of advanced medical technology that is now at our disposal.
Granted, we have learned that it does not make sense to be reliant on China for all our inputs, in case something happens there. But the answer is not to localize supply chains. In that case, our whole society collapses if we face a local crisis. Instead we need more diversity and flexibility. More suppliers, not fewer.
At times of crisis we are tempted to look for a strongman who points us in the right direction, but what happens when he points us all in the wrong direction? Especially in times of uncertainty, when we are all flying blind to some extent, we need diversity and decentralization. A thriving ecosystem of millions of individuals, organizations and businesses can use more knowledge than a centralized government to come up with solutions to protect lives, keep goods on the shelves and keep the economy going.
One reason why Germany was so quick to come up with a COVID-19 test and ramp up the use of it was its decentralized health care system with a wide network of private hospitals and laboratories. At the same time the centralized French health care system failed, and the US government blocked other tests and pushed for its own, faulty test and so lost six crucial weeks. The strong men in Paris and Washington DC, pointed in the wrong direction.
Progress comes from having more eyeballs looking at problems, and more brains at liberty to come up with new solutions. That has always been the case, but it is more important to remember it now, when the problems we are facing are of major proportions.