A FEW months ago, there passed one of the giants of American economics and public policy scholarship. Anthony Downs was 90 and his death was largely unremarked, even inside the academy, and certainly outside his native America.
Downs was an intellectual force. He was one of the founding fathers of public choice theory, which remains a compelling explanation of the workings of so much of public life and politics. His most famous book was An Economic Theory of Democracy (1957), but he is perhaps best remembered for a short article written in 1972 with the title Up and Down with Ecology: the ‘Issue Attention Cycle’. The theory sought to explain the sudden popularity, then waning (at that time), of public commitment to the environment, but its much wider application was immediately clear. It might even help us to understand the Covid-19 issue and the policy responses to it.
Downs’s thesis was that every policy issue has a finite life cycle. He began thus:
‘American public attention rarely remains sharply focused upon any one domestic issue for very long—even if it involves a continuing problem of crucial importance to society. Instead, a systematic “issue-attention cycle” seems strongly to influence public attitudes and behavior concerning most key domestic problems. Each of these problems suddenly leaps into prominence, remains there for a short time, and then – though still largely unresolved – gradually fades from the center of public attention.’
Downs saw five stages in thiscycle:
2. Alarmed discovery, with euphoric enthusiasm (about society’s ability to solve the problem or doing something effective quickly);
3. Realising the cost of significant progress;
4. Gradual decline of public interest, through either discouragement (in the face of growing understanding that the problem cannot easily be solved), boredom or the fact that other issues are getting greater attention;
5. Post-problem, or ‘the twilight of lesser attention’. The issue hasn’t gone away, it may well remain ‘unresolved’, but the public just moves on.
You might say that post-Covid sanity is already here; it is just that it is unevenly distributed. While there are pockets of madness still around, in both the political class (especially in Davos-penetrated Cabinets) and among the broader population, the evidence is there that we are collectively emerging from the insanity. Markers across the West include a dramatic reduction in mask-wearing where they are optional; a fall-off in some media of relentless reporting of Covid and vaccination numbers; a relaxation of many Covid rules and restrictions; borders being re-opened, and judges around the world ruling that vaccine mandates are illegal and governments deciding that the legal grief isn’t worth the effort of fighting such judgements.
All of this is classic stage four Anthony Downs. The ‘problem’ of Covid remains ‘unresolved’, but now far fewer people care about it.
Yes, there are holdouts. China, of course, which started off the whole fascist shooting match, has reverted to type in the face of its latest outbreak. There is also embedded, legacy lunacy that is totally at odds with the new, broadly accepted reality of endemic Covid. Much of this is lingering Covid theatre, and the continued desire of overweening politicians to throw their weight around. They are playing a game with voters and hoping, alas justifiably, that most of us still won’t see the con.
But overall, it is clear that the world is calming down on Covid. This isn’t necessarily all upside, by the way. Dan Wootton has noted perceptively that there is a new phenomenon emerging – ‘Covid amnesia’. Russia’s war on Ukraine has helped, of course. We must never let the people who visited a reign of terror on innocent people for two years get away with it.
Why did sanity take so long to return? Explanations of the submissive behaviour of citizens since March 2020 have been many and varied. It is likely they have all contributed.
· ‘Rational ignorance’. This is another of Anthony Downs’s theories. He suggested (in his 1957 book) that most people simply didn’t invest the time needed to understand political issues, so they didn’t remotely perceive what was happening to them and why;
· The death of history as a discipline. We are destined to repeat the blunders of the past if we do not understand it. We are paying dearly for the demise of liberal education and its emphasis on the development of critical faculties in our citizens;
· Nihilism. David McGrogan in The Daily Sceptic has argued that society’s nihilism has been clearly revealed in the self-regarding behaviour of ‘adults’ during the Covid period. Especially in the shameful treatment of children, so we grownups would remain ‘safe’ from a virus that left most sufferers unscathed and very, very few in real danger from it. He might also have mentioned the crushing of the elderly.
· The power of government bribes; again from Downs. Largesse from the public purse bought the compliance of many. Far too many of punters got something from Covid.
· The seeming acceptance, following Downs, that any problem can be solved by government action;
· The power of social media: the pile-ons supporting certain positions, instantly revealing and mobilising an apparent majority, creating public pariahs and scaring craven politicians and other decision makers witless, has been a notable feature of the panic;
· The madness of crowds. Much has been said on this before Covid by Charles McKay and by Douglas Murray. Covid madness trumps woke madness by a considerable distance;
· The ill-deserved respect that Joe Public has for ‘science’;
· The sheer power of government and third-party propaganda. Especially in today’s world of bought-and-paid-for, ideologically driven legacy media companies which monopolise 24-hour news cycles, and of tech companies whose censorship is compromised, corrupt and omnipotent. This cannot be underestimated as an explanation of the ignorance of many in relation to Covid and of their willingness to believe in the veracity of the official information they were fed. If you don’t know what you don’t know, you are putty in the hands of skilled information-controllers. Many people, and not only the rationally ignorant, simply do not have the resources or skill sets to access those alternative news platforms which still ask all the difficult questions, venture plausible theories and which censor no one. Insulting opponents is nothing new. Preventing them from even having a voice is entirely new. Anthony Downs would never have seen this coming.
Yet, despite all of the lunacy of the past two years, the issue attention cycle still holds up pretty well as an explanation of how political issues develop and play out. As Jeffrey Tucker recently noted, public opinion brought the Covid crisis into being, and ended it.
Hopefully, sanity will also one day prevail in relation to that other, toxic yet persistent, carbonzero madness.