Luca no background

Hi! I’m Luca. How can I help?

Email me I reply within 24h.

Luca no background

Hi! I’m Luca. How can I help?
Email me. I reply within 24h.

skip to Main Content

When this coronavirus pandemic will finally be receding, after having taken its toll upon the human race, what will we have learned? What steps should we take once the ashes settle, to prevent global disasters in the future?

The easy answer would be: fire the leaders who were slow to react, fire the pundits who said that there was no need for overreacting to the first initial deaths, write software which can sense outbreaks faster, put in place easy-to-activate systems for quarantine, have larger stocks of masks, react more swiftly, and so on.

But that’s an easy answer which would not change much. Except for China and a few others, the leaders who were in charge at the beginning of 2020 were already new leaders, in most cases. The outbreak was detected early. The easy-to-activate systems for screening were already in place. Most countries already kept stocks of masks. We did react fast (relatively), but the epidemic spread faster. And so on.

The problem was not the leaders we had in times of crisis, but the incentives weighting on them. The problem was not the systems we had in place, but the incentives weighting on the centralized systems delaying their activation. The problem was not detecting the outbreak early, but sharing the information and taking action. The problem wasn’t in the availability of masks, but in the willingness of people to wear them. And so on.

We do not need better leaders and better processes. These are nice-to-haves, but are not game-changers. We need better systems who do not need better leaders and better processes. (A less connected world would also help, but I assume this option is not on the table, realistically.)

The incentive for people in leadership positions, especially those in globally-relevant positions, is to avoid false positives and delay reaction until the last moment possible. It is hard to find leaders who would be swift in reacting to an emergency. It is impossible to find them reliably enough to trust them with our lives. It’s wiser to create systems which do not have to wait on a leader sitting miles away to give the green light to respond to an emergency. “We need circuit breakers”, wrote Francisco Amadeo, and there is no such thing as a centralized circuit breaker.

As Joe Norman wrote,  “the theory that you need central government because they can react quickly to crisis has been debunked.” We need local governments, who are faster and more incentivized to react quickly and proactively to crises. We need local governments, small enough so that we can have a lot of them, so that if one is slow, too bad for its constituents, but not for everyone else.

The usual counterargument is: “central governments are efficient”. However, centralization is only efficient when observed from the center – be it its physical center (the capital), its political center (those running for central elections), its societal center or its professional center. At the peripheries, which often comprise the majority of the population, centralization lacks efficiency. This is a necessary consequence: efficient means optimized, and whatever is optimized for something, is bad at everything else. The centralized is too large, encompasses many things, for being able to be optimized for all of them. In the centralized, information travels faster (perhaps), but it has a much larger distance to cover, and when it gets where it should get, it’s often too weak or too late.

The centralized is optimized for peace, not for emergencies. The centralized is optimized for gaussian distributions, not for exponential ones, such as epidemics. The centralized is optimized for the popular, not for the weird. The centralized is optimized for the central, not for the periphery. The centralized is optimized for the government, not for the people – except those that orbit around the government.

If there is a lesson to learn from this epidemic, it is that yes, (most of) those in charge failed to react swiftly as they should have. But the problem is not those in charge of the many, but in having someone in charge for too many.

As always, sustainable solutions can only be found the bottom-up way.


If you liked this essay, you will also love my books.

Receive my posts via email by subscribing to my free newsletter.

Secured By miniOrange