Niall Ferguson’s DOOM The Politics of Catastrophe at The John Adams Institute

Niall Ferguson on disasters and how we can avoid the next one.

All disasters have a political dimension, this is one of the central claims of Niall Ferguson’s new book: Doom – the Politics of Catastrophe. An Oxford trained historian, public intellectual, writer and award-winning documentary creator, Ferguson’s latest book turns to history to help us better understand disaster – both natural and man-made. He was a guest of the John Adam’s Institute in Amsterdam this week and spoke about why we were so ill-prepared for the greatest disaster of modern times and what we can do to change that.

‘’Covid has been the Vietnam war equivalent of most Western public health services’ claims Ferguson. No stranger to controversy, the historian provides a variety of fascinating insights into how and why most Western countries responded so poorly to the Corona pandemic. However he is at pains to point out that his book looks at disaster from a much broader, historical perspective. He questions the distinction drawn between man-made and natural disasters because all disasters potentially have political and economic consequences. Ferguson also argues that disasters, large and small, throughout history are similar, regardless of size.

‘Lockdowns were the last resort when the smart options had been forfeited to hesitancy and inertia’ – Ferguson

Take the Corona pandemic, a natural disaster, of modest proportion when compared to others throughout recorded history. Yet the economic consequences have been enormous. Ferguson shows that the fiscal and monetary costs of lockdowns are equal to that of one of the world wars. In this sense, the economic costs of this pandemic have been much greater than the public health costs. This in turn has political implications and Ferguson suggests that these might be the greatest in the long term. His research also finds no relationship between the stringency of the lockdowns and the public health rewards of these lockdowns. ‘Lockdowns were the last resort when the smart options had been forfeited to hesitancy and inertia’ says the historian.

We often see disaster coming, we might even make preparations for it but inevitably we are surprised and unprepared when it arrives. This is partly due to human error, explains Ferguson. On paper, the US was one of the best prepared countries in the world for a pandemic. But when it hit, disaster ensued. ‘Bureaucratic preparedness is not the same as real life readiness’ maintains the academic. He points to countries like Taiwan, South Korea and Israel for the agility and speed of their responses to the pandemic. Ferguson puts their quickness of response down to what he terms paranoia. All three countries live in a state of high alert because of their neighbours. This might sound tiring but when it comes to disaster preparedness it is a real advantage.  And, as the author quips, ‘Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you!’ 

‘We can do much, much better’ – Ferguson.

So what are the take-aways from all of this doom and gloom? The book argues that most disasters occur or are greatly exacerbated by human error at mid-levels of power. Although we are often tempted to blame those at the top, the reality is that many small but important decisions that affect the lives of thousands are taken by mid-level bureaucrats. The democratic system does not, unfortunately, incentivise long-term thinking. So most politicians are reluctant to invest political capital in preventing possible future disasters. However, the bureaucrats who make many of the lesser known but very important decisions regarding policy are not democratically elected.

Ferguson therefore argues that democratic societies should change the incentives for this group and cites Taiwan as a successful example of this approach. ‘Western countries can create better incentives for non-elected officials’. This includes improved training for them which should not simply be legal but include network science and ‘a kind of applied history’.

Looking ahead, ‘We need to be indignant, says Ferguson,’ about how poorly the pandemic has been handled by both politicians and bureaucrats’. We also need to be pro-active citizens who organise our own preparedness and response at local level. We need to ask more questions and resist fatalism.  ‘We’ve all become somewhat passive because the bureaucratic state says, “leave it to us”’. But ‘Covid has made it clear to us that we can’t simply rely on the administrative state to handle future disasters’ affirms Ferguson.      Souwie Buis   8th July 2021