Peacetime vs. Wartime COVID Response

Ben Thompson discusses new defaults, claiming we need to move faster and challenge the status quo in order to accomplish more as a society. He cites COVID response, specifically with regards to vaccine approval, as an area in which we should have prioritized moving more quickly in order to save more lives.

This is a sympathetic argument. Essentially, it is a specific instance of the Great Stagnation. While the development of this vaccine is a win for humanity, we should be moving even faster by incorporating lessons from the tech industry and software development best practices.

The obvious counterargument is a combination of Chesterton’s Fence and ergodicity. Chiefly, decisions that have the potential to cause significant detriment should be made with an abundance of caution and a full understanding of the terrain. Placing bets with, say, a 90% chance of a positive payoff for society and a 10% negative payoff will be net negative over the long run. In other words, you’d be rational to not play a game of Russian Roulette for $1 million, despite the game’s high expected value.

Thompson argues that both authoritarian and liberal regimes can implement these new defaults. However, the relevant axis on which to evaluate countries’ default attitude towards COVID and technological progress isn’t authoritarianism vs. freedom, but rather peacetime vs. wartime mindset.1

Wartime Mindset

Decidedly not the U.S. COVID response

FDA approval processes (and many of the other governmental processes in liberal democracies) are built around peacetime opportunity costs. They prioritize safety over rushing to get a vaccine out the door. When the opportunity cost changes (i.e., there is a new global pandemic and lives are on the line) those institutions have trouble updating their behavior accordingly.

Conversely, authoritarian regimes are much more militant. You see this in China’s approach not only to the virus, but in audacious economic initiatives (e.g., Belt & Road) and the defense of its political ideology on the world stage.

That mindset is actually similar to the democracies that have responded best to COVID. Israel (very much a “wartime” country – mandatory military service, surrounded by its enemies, etc.) is blowing the rest of the world out of the water in its vaccination implementation. In normal times, it is a powerhouse of innovation, largely due to elite technological groups in the military. South Korea (another country with mandatory military service, has an enemy with nuclear weapons to the north) had a great COVID response. And Taiwan, a country that faces constant existential threat from China,

[E]xhibited the exact same sort [of] can-do attitude alongside a free press, elections, and pig intestines in the legislature.

The US last had a “wartime” mindset during World War II. Many of the innovations in the following period – nuclear physics, the space race, computers, etc. – can be directly attributed to the massive mobilization effort and public-private partnerships of the time.

Gas Mask

So the question to ask is: How do we cultivate the wartime mindset that leads to innovation? And if COVID can’t catalyze this, what can?


  1. This is similar to Ben Horowitz’s concept of peacetime vs. wartime CEO. His book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, is one of my favorites