In this blog, I have been discussing COVID19 crisis as a case study of contrasting established government practices that come out of the enlightenment era’s faith in science discovery of causal relationships with a government that comes out of modern availability of massive, recent, and diverse data.
Recently, the news has changed focus on government leaders’ plans for reopening the economy by relaxing the restrictions. Almost universally, they mention the analogy that the change will not be like flipping a light switch but instead more like adjusting a light dimmer. This alone is in contrast with my idea of a dedomenocracy that operates with very abrupt on/off transitions that I describe as punctuated liberty and I justify by the recognition of the smoothing effects for human behavior conditioning: people learn new habits and those habits will take time to unlearn.
Another recurring theme in government leader’s descriptions of their decision making is their reliance on consultations with scientists and experts in many fields. They may have inputs from a large variety of areas of expertise such as epidemiology, medicine, economists, education, agriculture, or business, but they will select as little as one single expert from each area. That expert may have credentials and years of experience and even support from their colleague, but there will be similarly qualified experts who may have different opinions and they will be ignored.
The fundamental faith of enlightenment-inspired government is that there exists a scientifically justified best solution obtainable by consulting sufficiently learned scientists. I question that faith, especially as I learn of very compelling competing theories from other scientists. Some of those theories undermine the confidence in the science supporting some decision and thus undermines the justification of that decision. Others propose alternative theories that suggest very different decisions that often contradict the government’s choice.
Within the confines of enlightenment thinking of considering science only, there exists controversy and competing ideas. As a result, the government decision making is not as deterministic as the governors describe in their public statements.
A pandemic is very different from other topics of government regulations. Most problems receiving scientifically supported regulations are problems that exist for a long time giving time for science to study for both the root cause of the problem and the most reliable approach to a solution. A pandemic is new bringing lots of unknowns that science has not had enough time to even begin studying, let alone coming to some well-tested solution. Those questions include how the disease is spread, what is the infection rate, what causes some people to get sicker than others, and why are some areas impacted harder than others.
Our current government is forced to take action and yet we shackle our decision makers with the need to base their decisions on science when they need to consider the full range of disciplines each having its own definition of what it means to do science. The pretense of governing by scientific guidance is that all such guidance is equally scientific. Clearly it is not. If we don’t have enough information about how this virus operates, we definitely do not have enough information about how lock-downs are breaking down the economy and especially the society and individual psychology. The latter breakdowns will flare up as public disobedience, protests, riots, crime waves, and interpersonal violence.
The governors retain short term public support by pointing out their reliance on external experts instead of their own wisdom and intuition. This may work for policies such as deciding whether to increase taxes or to introduce some new restrictions for the sake of protecting the environment.
I expect leaders to rise above their advisers and think for themselves even to the point of contradicting their advisers if that is what their instincts tell them. The reason why we choose between competing leaders during elections is that we are seeking the one with the better instincts to make decisions when the uncertainties are highest.
Another reason to distrust reliance on select advisers is that earlier decisions set the precedence that must be followed even long after it becomes clear there are better options. The fundamental flaw in this type of governance is the expectation that knowledge of the truth in a scientific sense is possible and that truth is currently known. Thus, any decision on that knowledge is permanent until someone can scientifically prove that it is the wrong decision.
Intuition and emotional based government characteristic of tyrants does have the benefit of being allowed to rapidly change their minds as new information becomes available. Basing those decisions essentially emotions is not ideal, but the rapidity of ejecting past decisions can be beneficial especially when dealing with something new with new information becoming available every day. There isn’t time to get the science right so any decision based on past information inherently has less justification than a new decision based on more recent information. This is possible if we accept that the science does not exist to guide us through the current crisis.
My fantasy government driven by data and urgency, a dedomenocracy, fundamentally replaces the faith in science with the faith in data. To be clear, science is still used, but it is used as a source of data (dark data) that competes with observations (bright data). In that competition, bright data is preferred over science as it must be in order to advance science with new data.
Another way to describe the difference between a science-directed government from a data-directed science is that the first leads to rulings presumed to be permanently true unless proven false, while the second leads to tentative temporary rulings that are replaced only if the urgency remains and the new rule makes sense for the current conditions.
I see an advantage to rule with expiration dates that returns governance to the prior conditions when it comes to the pandemic. Our experts do not have scientific knowledge of truth to guide the permanently right course of action despite their claims to the contrary. Also, there are other experts and sometimes it is beneficial to consider their options in future actions.
I have further confidence in this approach because unlike dealing with machinery, a government deals with a human population of intelligent people who will respond to government actions. They will retain the lessons learned from prior government actions so there is no reason for the government to continue to enforcement. More importantly, they will innovate and thus bringing to the table new options that the scientists never considered.
The enlightenment-inspired government imagines the governed population to be a machine that can be designed from scientific principles. Thus, a rule is like giving society some appliance that will continue to work properly as long as it is maintained properly. If we designed the rule scientifically, it must be right forever.
The tentative government is more like an operational control center. The operators are not designers, but instead supervisors at a very macro level. Control center operators do not have time to inspect the running of individual components so they basically let those components run on their own until some larger performance indicator starts to degrade. At that point, the operators will repair the misbehaving component with some work-around during the repair period. Afterwards, the operators return everything to run independently of their direction.
We are at the the point where we can have a government that is more like a operational control center instead of like a design engineer. Such a government has no role in designing anything. Instead its role is overseeing the operation and intervening only when somethings needs repair and completing that repair as quickly as possible to return everything back to normal.
The operational control room of some technological system is different because the technology itself is designed and thus is replaceable by new designs. In contrast, the operation of government oversees a self-adapting and self-replacing intelligent population that can and will come up with their own solutions that will deliver progress.
I describe the dedomenocracy as a punctuated libertarian government. The analogy of the operations center works just as well: the liberty is the careful watching of things operating freely and the temporary authoritarianism is when something needs to be repaired with the expectation that the repair can be done quickly after which that part does not need any further devoted attention.
With modern data technologies, we for the first time have an opportunity to implement an operation center type government instead of one based on the conceit that we have knowledge of truth that can be the basis of permanent laws.
In the context of the current COVID19 situation, there is a tension between two approaches for how to deal with the problem. The winning approach is grounded on the legacy approach to government: this disease must be completely and utterly eliminated from the population through universal isolation at the individual level to prevent its spread and through the eventual development of some promised vaccine that will forever prevent any future infections. This approach is grounded on our certainty that we will eventually know the full and permanent truth of how to eliminate the virus.
This approach has lead most of the world’s governments into a trap of shutting down their economies and forcefully isolating each individual preventing them from participating in any economy and more frighteningly arresting their opportunities to develop their future. As of this writing, the majority of the population supports continuing this option for as long as it takes until a vaccine is developed even though that may take 2 years. When the vaccine is developed, everyone must get it even though we acknowledge that 100s of millions of people will have adverse reactions to the vaccine perhaps even outnumbering the casualties of the disease itself.
The enlightenment-inspired government has a biased view of casualties. Casualties from science-backed human-directed actions such as vaccinations is preferred over casualties from nature. We can tolerate magnitudes more casualties from science than the number of casualties from nature.
The vaccine does not yet exist (and I doubt a truly effective vaccine ever will exist). In the interim we are using an operational approach of improving treatments. The initial focus was on supply of test kits and ventilators, both of which appear have oversold their benefits. There is some discussion of treatments of the conditions but this has received less attention than testing and ventilators.
An operation focused government such as my fantasy dedomenocracy could operate much differently. Because it relies on data over science, it would quickly accept the fact of the virus’s existence as a new normal we must learn to live with. Instead of focusing on eradicating the virus from humanity, it would focus on managing the effects of the virus.
As stated in previous posts, I concede that the initial action may be very similar to what we actually experienced. The abrupt shut down and imposition of social-distancing and isolation was needed to build up our stockpiles of relevant supplies and to slow the spread until that is done. The shut down also served as an effective mechanism to educate the entire population of the new normal and to condition them to adjust their behaviors.
In contrast to the current government’s action, the dedomenocracy rulings would have expired by now and people would be free to do as they wish with confidence that their wishes will not be the same as before. Now that we have adequate capacity for dealing with with the effects of the virus, we can continue oversee the the processing of the newly infected.
The fundamental difference between the two types of approaches is that our current government’s have the goal of getting the new infections to zero and to stay at zero forever there after. In contrast, the operational approach has the goal of keeping the active cases below the available capacity but allow it to continue indefinitely.
Instead of focusing on vaccines that may never arrive and may cause as much harm as good, an operational type government would focus on developing treatments for the active cases and otherwise leave the healthy alone.
Compared to the current goals or eradicating this disease, a more realistic and practical goal for government is to improve the outcomes for the cases in quicker recovery and fewer deaths or injuries. A thriving free market has many opportunities to develop improved treatments for the sick:
- Improved options for home or self care to apply when first symptoms appear with the goal of preventing the progress to get to the point of needing medical attention. This may include both the development of new drugs and the methods of fast prescription and delivery within a couple of hours of first symptoms.
- Improved options for treating the conditions meriting medical attention with the goal of avoiding the need for hospital admission.
- Improved options for those admitted to hospitals to keep them out of intensive care.
- Improved options for those in intensive care to avoid needing intubation and ventilators
- Improved options to minimize time on ventilators with the knowledge that fatality rates rise rapidly with extended time on ventilators.
Development of new treatments for either of these steps is more likely to succeed than developing a vaccine, and succeed sooner. With a complete opened up economy, it is likely there will be innovations available quickly for every one of these stages.
Given the need to administer newly developed treatments only to the presently sick. it is faster and more practical to administer treatments than vaccines.
With a focus on treatment improvements, we could survive through this pandemic with ever needing vaccines and having to trade vaccination casualties with virus casualties.
We live at a time when we have a new option to replace the legacy government based on experts know knowing all truth with a data driven operations-center style government based on knowing that the population just needs momentary interruptions to adapt to new circumstance. The population as a whole has more knowledge of the truth than any select set of experts having the privilege of being able to speak directly to some human leader.
We now have the data technologies permitting us to collect this information from the entire population and use that information to form temporary policies only when the public determines there is an urgency.
As of mid-April, the COVID19 pandemic remains a present threat. What has changed is the growing comfort with living with it. The urgency of fear of the disease itself is declining. There may be a new urgency to free up the population to begin finding improved ways to treat the sick.
A reasonable expectation is that there will always be those who get sick from this virus, the virus will never disappear. Now the urgency is finding better treatments to prevent the conditions from worsening to the next step across the entire chain from home health care to death-under-ventilator.