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The Pandemic’s Big Sort

Summary:
As with every global crisis, the race is on to determine which political systems will emerge stronger from the pandemic, and which will be discredited by their response to it. But if the past is any guide, it is too early to make such judgements, because the real test for competing systems is yet to come. PRINCETON – Political systems live on competition. Political incumbents and aspirants are constantly claiming that they can manage problems better than their rivals can. Modern wars of ideas, political projects, and systems of organization are merely updated versions of older forms of combat. How Might COVID-19 Change the World? PS OnPoint STR/AFP via Getty Images

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As with every global crisis, the race is on to determine which political systems will emerge stronger from the pandemic, and which will be discredited by their response to it. But if the past is any guide, it is too early to make such judgements, because the real test for competing systems is yet to come.

PRINCETON – Political systems live on competition. Political incumbents and aspirants are constantly claiming that they can manage problems better than their rivals can. Modern wars of ideas, political projects, and systems of organization are merely updated versions of older forms of combat.

The 2008 financial crisis is one recent example of competitive politics in action. At first, non-Americans who focused on the origins of the crisis – subprime mortgages in the United States – concluded that American capitalism had failed, and that Chinese planning or European corporatism were superior systems. But then Europe became mired in a debt crisis, allowing Americans to boast that their model was still better, owing to its system of debt mutualization and support, which had been created in 1790 under then-Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton.

Not surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has also offered grounds for competing claims of political superiority. Amid quickly changing scenarios, many political and business leaders have once again rushed to declare victory for their own system. We should be skeptical of these claims. With the exception of less populated, geographically distanced island countries like New Zealand (25 deaths), Taiwan (7 deaths), or Greenland (no deaths), no obviously superior model has yet emerged.

To be sure, China has so far appeared to be the pandemic’s winner: its economy continued to grow strongly in 2020, and was one of the only large economies to have grown at all. After imposing severe lockdowns to suppress the spread of the virus, China was able to restart economic activity and serve as a leading global supplier of products – including personal protective...

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