Andrew Potter: Trust, state capacity, and the meaning of ArriveCAN
The crisis of state capacity can’t be separated from the more general crisis of expertise and of the legitimacy of the state and the rule of law.
By: Andrew Potter
There is perhaps no clearer poster child for the current crisis of state capacity than the ArriveCAN app, which was a bad policy initiative, poorly implemented, at great cost, and whose ultimate effect was not to keep Canadians safe and healthy, but rather to annoy users and generate a great deal of hostility towards the government.
The question of state capacity (or more frequently, its absence) became an issue of popular concern during the COVID-19 pandemic when governments, both in Canada and elsewhere, struggled to accomplish basic tasks of pandemic management. Whether it was sourcing enough PPE for the health-care system, scaling up testing or contact tracing, securing the borders, properly staffing long-term-care facilities, taking care of temporary foreign workers, and so on … the authorities struggled to get their act together. This is a well-documented story.
But this all came at a time when we had already started a national conversation about whether Canada had become a place where it was impossible for government to get anything done. Pipelines were the big issue, but we seemed to have turned into a country where crumbling infrastructure and slow and ineffective public services had become simply accepted as a fact of life. “State capacity” just put a name to something that had been in the air for a long while.
And so the pandemic served to both exacerbate and accelerate the concern over state capacity, for two main reasons. First, it raised the stakes. Before the pandemic, the failure of state capacity manifested itself as a slow-motion and genteel sort of generalized decline. With the arrival of COVID-19, it quickly became a matter of life and death. But second, the gusher of money the government printed during the pandemic helped put a point on the problem: the problem didn’t originate in a lack of funds. Indeed, what transpired during the pandemic was a bit of a spin on the old Woody Allen joke about the restaurant with terrible food and such small portions: There was so much government, and so much of it was bad.
So what is state capacity anyway? And why is it so important?
In the academic literature, state capacity is typically described as the government’s ability to accomplish its intended policy goals. But that hides a lot of the actual moving parts. In a recent essay, Samuel Hammond writes: “At the most basic level, then, state capacity simply refers to a government’s ability to adopt a policy and have it faithfully enacted through some combination of competence, credibility, and political will.”
What’s useful about this definition is that it ties together the three key components of state capacity: The government that formulates and adopts policy; the bureaucracy that implements it; and the population that “consumes” the policy. That is, state capacity is a function of leadership, coordination, and compliance. Without leadership there is no policy, and without coordination the leadership is merely pulling on levers that aren’t connected to anything. But without compliance — that is, the consent of the governed — you risk stalling the whole machine. The secret sauce of state capacity, the mortar that holds the whole thing together, is that intangible of social science called trust.
One of the enduring mysteries of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the sheer variance in its effects and its outcomes, from one country to another, in a way that didn’t seem connected to obvious factors like GDP, quality of governance, or pandemic preparedness. Some wealthy and well-prepared countries did well, while others, at similar levels of income and quality of governance, did very poorly. Aside from very coarse level features such as the demographic profile of a country and its altitude above sea level, COVID-19 outcomes seemed to be somewhat of a crapshoot.
And then back in February. The Lancet published a study that appeared to get us some way down the field. The authors considered a whole suite of possible correlates with outcomes, everything from demography and electoral systems, to strategic pandemic preparedness and GDP. They found that two elements mattered more than anything: the level of interpersonal trust in the population, and (to a slightly lesser extent) the level of trust in government. These were associated with significantly lower infection rates and higher levels of vaccine coverage.
In one sense, these results seem to suggest that “state capacity” in itself wasn’t all that relevant to pandemic outcomes. But the fact is, you can’t separate trust from state capacity, precisely because so much of state capacity relies on the compliance of the population. And people will only go along with a policy or a program if they fundamentally trust the government that is trying to implement it.
As the economist Ed Dolan puts it in a commentary on the Lancet results, people are more likely to obey a public-health curfew, engage in social distancing, or get a vaccine if they trust the government — and trust their neighbours to do likewise. But as a secondary outcome, this trust in turn helps generate higher levels of state capacity — it makes the state more effective, which generates higher trust, and so on. But by the same token, bad policy, or even good policy badly implemented, can undermine public trust in the government. This makes people less compliant, which undermines state capacity, which further reduces trust, and the virtuous circle can quickly turn vicious.
The upshot is this: every time a government implements a policy or a program or a regulation, it is engaged in an exercise in either trust-building or trust-degradation. How the policy is developed, implemented, delivered and communicated is affected by existing state capacity, and in turn affects the future exercise of state capacity. And that is why the ArriveCAN fiasco is so salient here: It was a policy that was so poorly done, at such an unreasonable cost, and with such poor results, that it didn’t just undermine the policy, it undermined the very credibility of the state that would implement such a policy.
The crisis of state capacity can’t be separated from the more general crisis of expertise and of the legitimacy of the state and the rule of law. Any initiative or project to “fix state capacity” that doesn’t foreground the role of declining trust as both cause and consequence of the problem will only end up exacerbating the very problems it claims to be trying to solve.
Andrew Potter is the author of On Decline: Stagnation, Nostalgia, and Why Every Year is the Worst One Ever.
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