What did governments get right? Gotta list them all!

When pre­dict­ing fu­ture threats, we also need to pre­dict fu­ture policy re­sponses. If mass pan­demics are in­evitable, it mat­ters whether gov­ern­ments and in­ter­na­tional or­gani­sa­tions can rise to the challenge or not. But its very hard to get a valid in­tu­itive pic­ture of gov­ern­ment com­pe­tence. Con­sider the fol­low­ing two sce­nar­ios:

  • Govern­ments are morasses of in­com­pe­tence, sat­u­rated by turf wars, per­verse in­cen­tives, in­effi­cien­cies, reg­u­la­tory cap­ture, and ex­ces­sive risk aver­sion. The me­dia re­ports a lot of the bad stuff, but doesn’t have nearly enough space for it all, as it has to find some room for sport and naked celebri­ties. The av­er­age per­son will hear 1 story of gov­ern­ment in­com­pe­tence a day, any­one fol­low­ing the news will hear 10, a ded­i­cated ob­ses­sive will hear 100 - but this is just the tip of the ice­berg. The me­dia some­times re­ports good news to coun­ter­bal­ance the bad, at about a rate of 1-to-10 of good news to bad. This rate is wildly over-op­ti­mistic.

  • Govern­ments are filled mainly by poli­ti­ci­ans des­per­ate to make a pos­i­tive mark on the world. Civil ser­vants are pro­fes­sional and cer­tainly not stupid, work­ing to clear crite­ria with a good in­ter­nal cul­ture, in sys­tems that have learnt the les­sons of the past and have im­proved. There is a cer­tain amount of er­ror, in­effi­ciency, and cor­rup­tion, but these are more ex­cep­tions than rules. Highly poli­ti­cised is­sues tend to be badly han­dled, but less con­tentious is­sues are dealt with well. The me­dia, know­ing that bad news sells, fills their pages mainly with bad stuff (though they of­ten have to ex­ag­ger­ate is­sues). The av­er­age per­son will hear 1 story of gov­ern­ment in­com­pe­tence a day, any­one fol­low­ing the news will hear 10, a ded­i­cated ob­ses­sive will hear 100 - but some of those are quite dis­torted. The me­dia some­times re­ports good news to coun­ter­bal­ance the bad, at about a rate of 1-to-10 of good news to bad. This rate is wildly over-pes­simistic.

Th­ese two situ­a­tions are, of course, com­pletely in­dis­t­in­guish­able for the pub­lic. The smartest and most ded­i­cated of out­side ob­servers can’t form an ac­cu­rate pic­ture of the situ­a­tion. Which means that, un­less you have spent your en­tire life in­side var­i­ous lev­els of gov­ern­ment (which brings its own dis­tor­tions!), you don’t re­ally have a clue at gen­eral gov­ern­ment com­pe­tence. There’s some very faint clues that gov­ern­ments may be work­ing bet­ter than we gen­er­ally think: look­ing at the achieve­ments of past gov­ern­ments cer­tainly seems to hint at a higher rate of suc­cess than the re­ported num­bers to­day. And sim­ply think­ing about the amount of things that don’t go wrong in a city, ev­ery day, hints that some­one is do­ing their job. But these clues are ex­tremely weak.

At this point, one should look up poli­ti­cal sci­en­tists and other re­searchers. I hope to be do­ing that at some point (or the FHI may hire some­one to do that). In the mean­time, I just wanted to col­lect a few sto­ries of gov­ern­ment suc­cess to coun­ter­bal­ance the gen­eral me­dia at­mo­sphere. The pur­pose is not just to train my in­tu­ition away from the “gov­ern­ments are in­trin­si­cally in­com­pe­tent” that I cur­rently have (and which is un­jus­tified by ob­jec­tive ev­i­dence). It’s also the start of a pro­ject to get a bet­ter pic­ture of where gov­ern­ments fail and where they suc­ceed—which would be much more ac­cu­rate and much more use­ful than an ab­stract “gov­ern­ment com­pe­tence level” in­tu­ition. And would be needed if we try and pre­dict policy re­sponses to spe­cific fu­ture threats.

So I’m ask­ing if com­men­ta­tors want to share gov­ern­ment suc­cess sto­ries they may have come across. Espe­cially un­usual or un­sus­pected sto­ries. Vac­ci­na­tions, clean-air acts, and legally es­tab­lish­ing limited li­a­bil­ity com­pa­nies are very well known suc­cess sto­ries, for in­stance, but are there more ob­scure ex­am­ples that hint an un­ex­pected dili­gence in sur­pris­ing ar­eas?