NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 30, 2009

Swine flu isn't only a health emergency.  It's a test for how we're going to organize the 21st century.  Subsidiarity works best, says New York Times columnist David Brooks.

The response to swine flu suggests that a decentralized approach is best. This crisis is only days old, yet we've already seen a bottom-up, highly aggressive response.

In the first place, the decentralized approach is much faster, says Brooks:

  • Mexico responded unilaterally and aggressively to close schools and cancel events.
  • The United States has responded with astonishing speed, considering there are still few illnesses and just one hospitalization.

The decentralized approach is more credible:

  • In times of crisis, people like to feel protected by one of their own.
  • They will only trust people who share their historical experience, who understand their cultural assumptions about disease and the threat of outsiders and who have the legitimacy to make brutal choices.
  • If some authority is going to restrict freedom, it should be somebody elected by the people, not a stranger.

Finally, the decentralized approach has coped reasonably well with uncertainty:

  • It is clear from the response, so far, that there is an informal network of scientists who have met over the years and come to certain shared understandings about things like quarantining and rates of infection; it is also clear that there is a ton they don't understand.
  • A single global response would produce a uniform approach; a decentralized response fosters experimentation.

The bottom line is that the swine flu crisis is two emergent problems piled on top of one another, explains Brooks.  At bottom, there is the dynamic network of the outbreak.  It is fueled by complex feedback loops consisting of the virus itself, human mobility to spread it and environmental factors to make it potent.  On top, there is the psychology of fear caused by the disease. It emerges from rumors, news reports, Tweets and expert warnings.

The correct response to these dynamic, decentralized, emergent problems is to create dynamic, decentralized, emergent authorities: chains of local officials, state agencies, national governments and international bodies that are as flexible as the problem itself, says Brooks. 

Source: David Brooks, "Globalism Goes Viral," New York Times, April 28, 2009.

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