Tuesday, July 07, 2020
The political virus
The idea that politics are "left" or "right" originated in the seating order of the parliament during the French Revolution of 1789. The disadvantage of that descriptor is that if you aren't already familiar with the political positions of the left and the right, the term itself isn't of much help. Personally I would call myself a centrist, which is to say that when I write a political opinion on this blog I get shouted at by people from both sides. :)
There are a number of different other ways to describe the political left and right. But in the context that I want to talk about here, it helps to think of the right as being for the individual, and the left for the collective. I am not putting any value judgement here, both the interests of the individual and the collective need to be defended. Different countries at different times chose governments that were more on one side or more on the other, and many of them worked reasonably well, if they weren't too extreme. There is a matter of cultural preferences, with American politics for example being a bit more on the individualistic side, and European politics a bit more on the collective side. And that is perfectly fine.
As a hobby historian, it is interesting to me how the world changing around us affects human behavior, including economics and politics. And the corona virus pandemic certainly is a world changing event. The big strength of humans, as a species, is how good they are at adapting to their environment. And if you look at how the world has been doing over the first half of 2020 with an open mind, you can't help but notice that there appears to be a link between left/right politics and the success of "flattening the curve": Countries more on the left side of the political spectrum had a better success rate at containing the epidemic than countries on the right side of the political spectrum.
That isn't totally surprising. While the virus by itself is apolitical, a person that is more concerned for the welfare of the collective is going to infect a fewer number of other people than a person that is more concerned with his individual freedom. Wearing a face mask protects other people more from you than it protects you from other people. Even without government intervention and regulations, how willing somebody is to wear a face mask in public correlates with his politics. Furthermore, once a person is infected, the severity of his illness is correlated with the health care he receives, and the health care he received previously, as pre-existing conditions play a big role. It comes as no surprise that Germany, which introduced universal health care in 1871 is doing better than the USA, who is still discussing that option.
The question that is still open today is how the pandemic will change politics over time. Maybe after a vaccine is found, everything goes back to the way it was before. Or maybe some countries will experience a political pull towards the left, at least on subjects like the usefulness of universal health care. If right-wing governments send out relief cheques to every citizen, a previously extreme left idea like universal basic income suddenly doesn't look so outlandish anymore.