The New York Times reports this morning that life in China has returned almost to normal and economic growth has resumed. The worldometers web site that I rely on for COVID data reports that the US has now suffered 709 deaths per million and the major European countries between 600 and 800 (except for Germany, which is much lower 1t 125), while China has suffered 3 deaths per million, Japan 14, and South Korea 9. China, with 1.44 billion people, reports 4,000 deaths, while the US, with 331 million or so, reports well over 200,000. These astonishing figures, in my opinion, show where these various nations stand in the development of modern civilization.
Beginning in the 18th century, the ideas of the Enlightenment provided not only a concept of individual rights, but a framework for disciplining a population. Laws were now passed, and had to be obeyed, for the common good, and taxes paid for public goods. During the nineteenth century these trends dominated both the relatively authoritarian states of continental Europe and the emerging elected governments of the United States, Britain, and eventually France. After Japan encountered the modern west in the 1850s, new Japanese leadership eventually decided that it had to adapt some western institutions to remain an independent nation. The ideas of the Enlightenment eventually reached both Russia and China via one of their extreme offshoots, Communism, and transformed their societies as well.
The influence and impact of these ideas peaked in the first half of the twentieth century. In two extraordinarily destructive world wars, they enabled modern states to mobilize men and resources on an unprecedented scale. During the 1930s, when dictatorships took over so much of the world, many questioned whether democracies could effectively compete with them, but the Second World War proved that they could. Both Great Britain and the US combined free economies and political institutions with very high taxes, conscription, and unprecedented economic mobilization, and emerged as two of the victors in the struggle. They fought explicitly for ideals of freedom and democracy, and those ideals spread over more of the world in the aftermath of the war--even within the British Empire. Within the west, highly disciplined societies--economically and culturally--survived for another twenty years after the war, until the mid-1960s. Then, the American state embarked upon a catastrophic adventure in Southeast Asia, just as a major cultural rebellion began.
I have often cited a famous speech by Mario Savio, then 22, at Berkeley in the late fall of 1964 as emblematic of that revolt. Savio, who had joined the Mississippi Summer voting registration project a few years earlier, found an equivalence between the plight of Mississippi's black citizens on the one hand, and Berkeley undergraduates--who were enjoying a world-class education free of charge--on the other. Both, he said, were fighting the same oppressive machine, and that idea apparently found a lot of resonance in the audience, however absurd it seems now. It signaled, in any case, the beginnings of a world-historical shift, a revolt against nearly all of the restraints that society had imposed upon the citizenry, in return for providing unprecedented benefits. In the next few years and decades, it shredded all sorts of behavioral codes, involving dress, hair style, the use of language, sexual behavior, and the public expression of emotion. Some of these codes were oppressive; some had been recognized for centuries as the price of civilization. The rebellion also became race-based, gender-based, and sexuality-based, as more and more groups rebelled against simply being treated like everyone else and claimed various kinds of authority based upon their demographic. The attack on authority extended to intellectual authority, and we can see now, when political leaders freely challenge scientific authority on matters of life and death, where that was ultimately going to lead. Meanwhile, in a parallel development, private economic interests mounted a long, determined, well-organized fight against mid-century economic restraints, cutting top tax rates by almost 2/3 and eventually freeing the financial sector and giving it a license to create new wealth for itself.
It is fitting that a public health crisis has laid bare our system's inability to cope with a national problem, since public health measures such as quarantines were among the first major initiatives of modern states. When infectious diseases ranked among leading causes of death, the citizenry had to accept draconian measures to stop them. That era ended with antibiotics. It is also significant that we have failed to develop desperately new antibiotics, both because the public no longer takes the threat of infections seriously enough, and because the corporations who control our medical care can't make enough money developing them for it to be worthwhile. Whether they can develop a really effective COVID vaccine remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the Chinese, the Japanese, the South Koreans and others have proven that they have the will to use the old methods to fight a fatal infectious disease, and that the old methods still work. A mixture of testing, isolation (which we aren't practicing formally at all), and contact tracing has worked well enough to allow their economies to resume to normal, while we are still desperately struggling and moving into a new wave of infections and deaths.
The Asian success seems to owe as much to cultural as to political factors, since both Communist China and non-Communist South Korea and Japan have shared in it. Those nations may also be drawing on a Confucian, bureaucratic tradition of discipline that goes back many centuries. This shows that these nations can impose a discipline on their people which we cannot. They have also shown in many ways (as have some of the western European nations) that they can still mobilize impressive resources for infrastructure projects, which Britain and the US have had much more trouble doing. It fascinates me, by the way, that the three victorious nations in the Second World War--Russia, Great Britain, and the US--have all seen spectacular declines in civic virtue and political effectiveness as their postwar generations have taken power. Perhaps they were too spoiled by victory to appreciate the qualities that had been necessary to achieve it. Like so many generations in so many nations, they took their parents' achievements for granted, and let many of them slip away.
Faced with a worldwide crisis, these Asian nations have proven that they have authority effective enough, and citizens obedient enough, to cope with it. Some of the leading western nations have not. No matter who wins the election on Tuesday, the related problems of authority, discipline, sacrifice, and the common good will remain very serious in the United States. We will have to solve at least some of them, I think, to function effectively in the decades ahead. It is interesting that the nation seems prepared to turn to Joe Biden, an exact contemporary of Mario Savio, but one who grew to young adulthood and launched his family life and career without ever being seriously touched by the great revolt around him. We will not return to world of the 1950s, but we need to take some steps in that direction to remain a leading nation--or even, perhaps, a functioning one.