This long read looking back at the 1978 smallpox outbreak in Birmingham is a remarkable document of mundane competence. Although the origin of the outbreak was a laboratory cock-up, the local authority swung into action, mobilizing local, national, and international resources, tracing contacts, isolating patients, and ring-vaccinating the bug out of existence. This is Dr. Surinder Bakhshi, the then director of public health:
Bakhshi’s first achievement was to secure an unlimited budget from the local authority (the response would go on to cost more than £200,000). He requisitioned three floors of the Holiday Inn for staff to rest. He booked cabs, so that they could get around and home safely: “I made a rule that no woman should travel alone after 6pm.” And he paid for three restaurants to supply meals around the clock. “In every outbreak I have dealt with, the first thing that comes to my mind is, where’s the food?” (Bakhshi applies the same principle to our between-lockdowns interview, cooking me a lunch of chickpea curry and basmati rice, followed by rice pudding and clotted cream ice-cream, despite being 83 and living alone.)
You often hear people arguing that it’s not enough, or in the strong form, even wrong to attack government incompetence, in favour of making a “moral case” or words in that line. I think the intellectual archaeology here may take us back to the Iraq war and the notion of the competence dodge, which held that criticizing George W. Bush for his bungling was bad because, supposedly, it was an excuse not to criticize him for going to war at all. But this misses a hugely important point.
Public incompetence is a moral issue, and it is a moral issue precisely in the way we see them now, defined as being instances of structural prejudice or privilege. The bias is towards those people who can get their problem solved though personal connections, through bribery, or by going private and opting out of the system entirely.
If you are rich in connections – the Russian word blat or the related Chinese one guanxi come to mind – you can use them to avoid the consequences of government incompetence, at least up to a point. But this is only the beginning. There is a dynamic analysis as well as a static one. The value of this privilege increases with the haplessness of the institutions, so you have an incentive to choose less effective institutions over more effective ones, and in the extreme case, to actively sabotage the institutions. Similarly, improvement in the basic functioning of the state amounts to a confiscation of this privilege and its redistribution to the wider society. There is a reason why more egalitarian societies have good institutions and vice versa.
Another of the uses of public incompetence is as a means of surplus extraction, in the sense Alon Levy uses it here. Promoting public incompetence – the deliberate under-development of the state – is one way to create a Coasian hell where real costs are unobservable and therefore tend to rise without limit, and the connected, as a class, tend to benefit.
So it’s not just that the Tories are incompetent, nor even that the incompetence reveals the underlying politics; it’s the thing itself. Among other things, this is the story of Grenfell Tower.
Getting to the kind of mundane competence Dr. Bakshi exemplifies would, in itself, be near-revolutionary change. It’s worth remembering that in 1978 he was standing on the shoulders of political giants, both the founders of post-war social democracy and the specific local tradition that yoked together Chamberlain family Toryism and municipal socialism. It’s also worth noting that 1978 Birmingham managed to appoint a Sikh from Uganda to head its public health system; we pride ourselves on our exquisite attention to the moral condemnation of prejudice over mere competence, but maybe we’re not all that either.