Democracy, Autocracy, and Emergency Threats: Lessons for COVID-19 From the Last Thousand Years

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Our experience with COVID-19 has yet to show that either democracies or autocracies are unambiguously better at dealing with this threat. What the pandemic has instead demonstrated is that these two forms of government each have specific strengths and weaknesses when it comes to dealing with external emergencies. In autocracies centralization of power allows for decisive action, but their ability to maintain secrecy means that they can also suppress information and ignore a problem. In a democracy greater transparency makes it hard to cover up a threat, but the decentralization of power that is inherent to a democracy can lead to a slow and potentially ineffective response. Using both current and historical comparisons between China and western countries, I show that these different patterns have deep roots, dating back a thousand years or more. I then consider three alternative proposals for democracies to be able to act more decisively: allowing for rule by decree, devolving responsibility to localities, and investing in preventative state capacity. History shows that the latter of these three is the safest and most effective strategy, but for it to work voters must reward politicians for investing in prevention. Unfortunately, this reward cannot be assumed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)E1-E17
JournalInternational Organization
StatePublished - Dec 1 2020


  • COVID-19
  • autocracy
  • democracy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations
  • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management
  • Law


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