Has the Pandemic Led to a More Interventionist Politics?
THE FUTURIAN #2
COVID-19 has been an economic and social disaster for every country around the world. The global death toll has exceeded three million people, and most nations have struggled with severe recessions. Despite what Namibia’s President Hage Geingob called a “COVID apartheid,” the global vaccine rollout is progressing smoothly, given that roughly 75% of vaccines have gone to only ten wealthy countries.
In Canada, at least, people are feeling more optimistic. Where I live in Toronto, we may even be able to spend time outdoors with friends and family this summer, which will be a massive boost to our collective mental and physical health. However, to get there, the Canadian and provincial governments have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on healthcare, vaccines, unemployment and business relief, and so on. Canada’s not alone in this massive fiscal intervention. But it’s not just money. There’s also COVID Alert, a government-run exposure monitoring app that raised surveillance and privacy concerns. Or the unfortunately now routine lockdowns where the government mandates where people can go and what they can do.
These measures have been more than necessary. When you stack a massive health and economic shock onto people already struggling with gross inequality and scarce social support systems, they need relief. People make good decisions but within the range of choices presented to them. Lockdowns and other behavioural interventions create a new range of choices that encourage limiting the spread of COVID.
Beyond government fiscal policy or public health techniques, what’s interesting here is whether this level of government interventionism will continue. Post-COVID, will governments intervene more in people’s lives? A Universal Basic Income (UBI) has already been proven in many pilots worldwide. Is it so different from the Canadian government’s COVID-19 unemployment relief programs? Canada’s going coal-free by 2030, why not create human-free green belts to promote rewilding and carbon capture? We have a tax on carbon emissions, why not go further and set truly meaningful prices on all ecological services that companies draw upon?
Much like the Lost Generation, which stumbled out of the First World War and into the Spanish Flu dejected and frustrated, people today recognize things can get much worse than the crushing challenges of COVID-19. Climate-related displacement, disasters, and depression will cause untold suffering for everyone worldwide, especially those already most oppressed in today’s economic, geopolitical, and moral systems. Today’s limits, such as the top 1% of US households holding 15x more wealth than the bottom 50%, are glaringly obvious. Or how today’s carbon offsets, like planting vast thickets of trees, are tomorrow’s uncontrolled forest fires.
What I hope, and to a lesser extent expect, is that three fundamental shifts arise post-COVID. First, the government intervenes more. While the private sector has its strengths and many noble, highly moral corporate leaders, it’s apparent that the fundamental nature of profit-seeking entities challenges their leadership towards a post-capitalist, regenerative world. They need guardrails in the form of regulation and antitrust laws to promote ethical conduct and competition. The government, and the collective decision-making it represents, seems best suited for the demands of tomorrow.
Second, that the government model shifts from centralized decision-making towards citizen change-making. In today’s oligopoly-style representative democracy, it’s evident the average person’s vote hardly matters. Local leaders have little-to-no power or sway except voting along party lines, and most people vote more as a matter of social consciousness than any genuine belief it will shape the future of our (or any) country. The now-obvious consequences of the individualistic, profit-first era of the 1960s and distress about humanity’s future have led to a growing sense of class consciousness and responsibility that today’s political systems can’t handle. It’s why the past years have seen more and more activism and protests, whether it’s the Black Lives Matter movement, climate activism, or the Occupy Wall Street protests. Of note is how these channels also give a voice to those often marginalized by the usual ‘change-making’ channels, like Canada’s indigenous and racialized communities.
Third, that we look at the world, future, and decision-making in different ways. Consider the indigenous Seventh Generation Principle, which supports making decisions of service seven generations into the future (with today’s rising longevity that would likely be past 2200). How would our energy, economic, or social policy evolve when making decisions with this time horizon? The pressures of quarterly returns, start-up commercialization, or four-year election cycles don’t support this patient, long-term decision-making. However, there are solutions within today’s constraints, such as the Finnish Parliament’s 17-member Committee for the Future, which has advised on futures, science, and technology policy since 1993. Whereas an example of short-sighted decision-making is the Ontario government privatizing the 401 Highway, which both lost a colossal amount of money and was catastrophic for the mobility infrastructure of Canada’s most populous region. The rise of strategic foresight as an educational and professional discipline is incredible for promoting this longer viewpoint.
Let’s say these three shifts happen and fast. Imagine, it’s 2025. Building on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Canadian Federal Government rolls out a Future of Canada framework, which every government service and policy must support. Through continuous, digital quadratic voting systems, citizens can allocate their taxes and elect local experts to lead different aspects of their community, city, province, or country. Much like an environmental audit, decisions must be run through a future generations analysis to see if it will benefit them alongside today’s populace. A new set of choice architecture is designed for the private sector, promoting competition while nudging them collectively towards a green, just, democratic future.
While this may seem radical or perhaps just abstract, the future is written every day and making choices that further today’s status quo, because they’re easy-to-grasp, will reinforce today’s challenges. The world needs more robust social safety nets, to transition to regenerative agriculture, energy, and manufacturing and to empower everyone to participate in their communities and society meaningfully. Transformations are most likely during times of collective stress as they promote a reflection on the status quo and an awareness that things can be different. Perhaps post-COVID, things will return to normal. But I hope that we collectively take this opportunity to move towards somewhere better.
© Andrew Walls 2021