State capacity backups

Most people around the world — except for residents of a handful of competent countries such as New Zealand, Vietnam, and Rwanda — have now spent an entire year watching their government fail miserably to prepare for and respond to a very predictable (and predicted) pandemic, for example by:

  • sending masks to everyone, and promising to buy lots of masks
  • testing tons of people regularly and analyzing the results
  • doing contract tracing
  • promising to buy tons of vaccine doses, very early
  • setting up vaccination facilities, and making them trivially easy to find and use

My friend and colleague Daniel Dewey recently noted that it seems like private actors could have greatly mitigated the impact of the pandemic by creating in advance a variety of “state capacity backups,” i.e. organizations that are ready to do the things we’d want governments to do, if a catastrophe strikes and government response is ineffective.

A state capacity backup could do some things unilaterally (e.g. stockpile and ship masks), and in other cases it could offer its services to governments for functions it can’t perform without state sign-off (e.g. setting up vaccination facilities).

I would like to see more exploration of this idea, including analyses of past examples of privately-provided “state capacity backups” and how well they worked.


  1. Arthur LEPERE says

    You mean, BlackRock and Alphabet could set up “potential disaster” branches, that would receive massive injections in a pinch to buy masks and promise to buy them?
    (That’s outside of their mission & expertise, but if they’re involved in mitigating climate change they can find a way to have “pandemic preparedness” in there as well.)

    Or a separate company should do that? (That seems hard without money.)

  2. Cole Haus says

    In principle, it seems like an insurer with a sufficiently broad customer base should have pretty good incentives here. The primary difficulties seem like:
    • specifying coverage in advance for risks that are, by their nature, heterogeneous and low probability
    • how to determine the level of compensation if/when prevention fails. e.g. how much is an insuree owed for the harms of a lockdown?

  3. Daniel Kokotajlo says

    I’ve read somewhere that one of the classic warning signs of a totalitarian takeover (or maybe just regime change more generally?) is when some faction has built up parallel institutions that are distinct from the state but contain lots of competence and knowledge and are able to step in to get things done. It might be a case of common cause; perhaps incompetent state institutions both give rise to non-state alternatives and increase the chance of takeover/regime change.

    Unrelatedly, I imagine that any honest, transparent attempt to set up institutions like this would be denounced in the media and shut down, if not by the media/techcompanies/activists/etc. then by the government. (E.g. the government would say “Yes you can do this but you have to agree to follow our orders when the time comes” thereby defeating the purpose) But maybe I’m just being too pessimistic.

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