Foolish expectations

If more of us had the common sense that Jeremy O’Grady of THE WEEK displays here, there would be a lot less fractious debate and consequent anxiety produced by this wretched pandemic. There would be a much healthier public square as well.

In the current issue he writes in his Editor’s Letter:

In the endless dingdong between Us (the people) and Them (the Government), it’s always Them as carries the can. Yet I wonder. If departments of state are dysfunctional, the same is surely true of the public. It isn’t “fit for purpose”: its expectations of what ministers can feasibly be expected to do are out of whack with reality. We blame Them, for instance, for lacking the foresight to equip health services with sufficient resources to cope with a pandemic. But see what happens when They do. In anticipation of the H1N1 flu epidemic predicted for 2009, France’s health minister did put her nation in readiness: years before it struck, she procured billions of top-quality masks and drew up a plan to impose social distancing. Alas for her, the epidemic never materialised, and as Theodore Dalrymple relates in Law & Liberty, she was then widely derided for wasting public money. So much for fore­sight. When a pandemic does strike, however, a similar misalignment of expectations occurs. All too aware of what we expect of them, the politicians can’t afford to let us in on the extent of their own ignorance and uncertainty over how to deal with it. They can’t level with us because they’ve a myth to sustain: that there exist relatively painless solutions to all our problems and that They alone can deliver them. It’s not their myth, though: We invest in it even more than They do. We vote in the poli­ticians who are best at boosterism, best at selling optimism. Then, when their solutions turn out to be painful and the myth exposed, we rage. The wisdom of the electorate? Pah!

Jeremy O’Grady

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