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Why can’t we mandate anything?

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For Americans who are fully vaccinated, organized political resistance to vaccination mandates is infuriating. Such resistance continues to ravage communities, disrupt commerce, overload hospitals and generate an appalling toll of needless illness and death.

An abundance of clinical evidence shows the authorized vaccines are both safe and effective. And jurisprudence dating back over a century confirms the constitutionality of vaccination requirements. Yet Republican politicians from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin keep rallying outrage against consistent measures to contain COVID-19.

But what if there’s more at work here than a naked play to stir up a political base? What if the institutional distrust and disdain simmering in DeSantis and Johnson followers were sprouting from more than the vulgarian rhetoric of Trump-friendly politicos?

Then we’d have a much bigger problem to solve.

In fact, our research shows that we do.

The resistance to standard health measures is part of a broad global decline in how people see the legitimacy of apolitical, rational state bureaucracies, we’ve found. In short, we are witnessing a rebellion against the very idea of binding, impersonal legal rules and procedures.

This rejection of bureaucratic expertise, procedures and science may seem strange — but we should remember that for most of human history, political authority was based on allegiance to monarchies and families, to clan heads and charismatic leaders rather than to offices.

Of course, this was not always terrible. There were good kings as well as bad kings. The quality of rule depended on the virtues and vices of leaders and the people who helped them run things — usually family members, friends and loyalists who declared love for the leader in public ceremonies.

But the more complex that societies and warfare became, the harder it was to run the state like a family business.

To function effectively, capitalism required the rule of law, and advanced warfare required technical expertise. States that avoided impersonal, bureaucratic methods of rule remained poor and weak; modern administrative states made the countries that adopted them infinitely safer, wealthier and more powerful.

We may criticize civil service and laugh at the inefficiencies of “bureaucracy” — but the fact remains that these helped make the world modern.

Of course, there could be too much of a good thing. Modern states could expand too much and too quickly. The debate over the right size of the state — and the taxes required to finance them — have fueled debates throughout the West for almost a century. The libertarian right, starting in the 1970s and with increasing force in the 1980s, offered appealing critiques that could be summarized as “market good, state bad.”

We are now paying the price for this line of thought. The alternative to the impersonal legal order, to the modern administrative state, it turns out, is not the market, but rather a return to the pre-modern politics of strong men, mafia bosses and charismatic personalities.

Ironically, for markets to function correctly, they require the provision of public goods that only well-functioning state bureaucracies can supply — whether roads, airports, or public health.

Attacks such as those of former President Donald Trump on the “deep state” turned out to be attempts to demolish the bureaucratic state itself. The ultimate effect, and often the explicit intention, was to return power to the person of the ruler.

In this respect, Trump can be understood as part of a global wave of anti-bureaucratic patrimonialism that includes Vladimir Putin in Russia, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and Victor Orban in Hungary. In each case, rule by men requiring unfailing loyalty as a prerequisite for political influence has led to the de-modernization of political authority and a return to personalistic rule.

This explains why social divisions about public health measures are so bitter and enduring: They are rooted in divisions about the nature of political legitimacy itself. The global rebellion against the modern bureaucratic state, and the scientific and professional expertise on which it is built, has degenerated into a zero-sum struggle against any effort whatsoever to impose binding, impersonal rules to defend the public good.

Unfortunately, the political victory of forces attacking state bureaucracy and civil service would make it impossible to impose coherent measures for public health amid a global pandemic. It would also undermine state agencies needed to deal with just about every pressing global challenge we face in the 21st century. Accelerating climate change, massive refugee flows, even the defense of democracy itself — all these crises urgently require binding legal institutions to constrain the worst impulses of self-aggrandizing leaders and the cliques that support them.

What, then, can be done? The robust defense of rational, reasonable public health measures to fight COVID-19 can play a useful role in pushing back against patrimonialism, in the U.S. and globally. Beyond this, we need to rebuild public support for the idea of bureaucratic expertise itself.

Bureaucracy needs to be made more responsive, inclusive and equitable, to be sure — but first it needs to be preserved. Otherwise, we may lose not only the battle with the pandemic, but also the remarkable advancements in public safety, security and prosperity gained over the past several centuries. 

Stephen E. Hanson is vice provost for academic and international affairs at the College of William & Mary, where his work includes oversight of the university’s Global Research Institute. Jeffrey S. Kopstein is a professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine. Together they wrote the recent paper “Understanding the Global Patrimonial Wave,” published in Perspectives on Politics.

Tags anti-mask Authoritarianism banning mask mandates bureaucracy Civil Service Donald Trump Legitimacy Political science Populism Public health Ron DeSantis Ron Johnson state vaccine mandates Vladimir Putin
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