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When the pandemic subsides, I suspect that we will have to discard simple dichotomies. The major dividing line in effective crisis response will not place autocracies on one side and democracies on the other. Rather, there will be some high-performing autocracies, and some with disastrous outcomes. There will be a similar, though likely smaller, variance in outcomes among democracies. The crucial determinant in performance will not be the type of regime, but the state’s capacity and, above all, trust in government.
All political systems need to delegate discretionary authority to executive branches, especially during times of crisis. No set of preexisting laws or rules can ever anticipate all of the novel and rapidly changing situations that countries will face. The capacity of people at the top, and their judgment, determine whether outcomes are good or bad.
And in making that delegation of authority to the executive, trust is the single most important commodity that will determine the fate of a society. In a democracy no less than in a dictatorship, citizens have to believe that the executive knows what it is doing. And trust, unfortunately, is exactly what is missing in America today.
It is a popular misconception that liberal democracies necessarily have weak governments because they have to respect popular choice and legal procedure. All modern governments have developed a powerful executive branch, because no society can survive without one. They need a strong, effective, modern state that can concentrate and deploy power when necessary to protect the community, keep public order, and provide essential public services.
What distinguishes a liberal democracy from an authoritarian regime is that it balances state power with institutions of constraint—that is, the rule of law, and democratic accountability. The exact point of balance between the principal institution of power, the executive branch, and the primary constraining institutions (the courts and legislature) differs from one democracy to another, and also differs over time.
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This is no less true of the United States than of any other liberal democracy, despite its having a political culture that breeds intense distrust of concentrated state power and sacralized law and democracy. The U.S. Constitution was written against the backdrop of the weakness of the Articles of Confederation. Alexander Hamilton, an ardent advocate of what, in “Federalist No. 70,” he called “energy in the executive,” understood perfectly well the need for strong legal and democratic constraints on executive power. But Hamilton also argued that neither the Court nor Congress would be able to act decisively in times of national danger. These dangers would arise in times of war or domestic insurrection, but they could also arise from novel causes, such as the global pandemic that we are facing now. The kinds of authority granted to the executive would differ depending on circumstances; what was appropriate during peacetime was not necessarily what would prevail in times of war or crisis.