Sunset at Bongeunsa temple in Seoul City, South Korea.
“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is the bitterest.” These words are among the treasure trove of wisdom passed down to us by the Chinese philosopher Confucius.
Copying others is the quickest way to learn anything. Young children learn everything by copying their parents – and children are incredibly fast learners. As adults, we like to emphasise the originality of our thinking and we tend to feel ashamed of copying others – this is especially true for Europeans and Americans. But Asians tend to think differently and rightly so.
There is no reason why Asian societies should have a monopoly on this approach, however. King Solomon, famed for his prudence, taught that while the wise man learns from the mistakes of others, the fool has to learn from his own. And we can see the fruits of learning from others in a number of areas: in business, there is nothing unusual about analysing successful companies and trying to learn from their business models by identifying examples of “best practice.” As Sam Walton, founder of the major American retail chain Walmart, once admitted: “Most everything I’ve done I’ve copied from somebody else.” So successful were his methods that they made him one of the wealthiest Americans. The same is true of sports, where people spend a great deal of time analysing better teams’ strategies to try to learn from them.
It is only in politics that no one seems capable of learning from other countries’ experiences – at least, that seems to be the case in Europe and the United States. In the battle against Covid-19, chaos and contradiction reign as new measures are introduced on an almost daily basis: lockdown today, everything open again tomorrow, and then another lockdown the day after tomorrow.
In Europe and the US, we have seen government failure on a massive scale – but this shouldn’t really come as a surprise. After all, governments are not only failing in the fight against the coronavirus, they are failing in a host of other areas too. For years now, Europe has been unable to secure its borders effectively. Public infrastructure is in a catastrophic state – in Europe as well as in America. In Europe, governments are focused solely on making people happy with a never-ending stream of social programmes and with a constant flood of over-regulation that undermines the economy at every turn. Germany is a particularly sad example, because right now the country’s leading industry – automotive manufacturing – is being consciously destroyed under the weight of planned regulations.
At the same time, all across Europe citizens’ rights and freedoms are being trampled on – the only (apparent) exception seems to be in the arena of data protection. What other explanation could there possibly be for the fact that in Germany, for example, a Covid-19 app has been developed that does a fantastic job of protecting data, but not people? The app has contributed absolutely nothing to fighting the pandemic. In this, it has much in common with many other measures that are even worse and only serve to create false illusions.
According to current forecasts, many European countries are about to exhaust their testing capacities. Meanwhile, in China, nine million inhabitants were recently tested in a single city in five days. China built a 1,000-bed hospital in one and a half weeks. There are debates to be had about whether such a mass-testing programme is effective or desirable – but we should at least be having this debate. Yet, at the moment, as soon as you start talking about China, people often react reflexively and complain that China is a dictatorship and has nothing to teach free societies.
This feels like deflection. Why, after all, do you need a dictatorship to provide enough tests for people? Nobody is saying that we should blindly copy China, but no one would rationally object to learning from the Chinese where such lessons are instructive.
Incidentally, China isn’t the only country we can learn from. Democratic countries such as Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea have also fought the virus much more effectively than the US and countries across Europe. That these democratic states from the East with capitalist, free market economies were handling the crisis far better than their Western counterparts was evident very early on in the pandemic.
Yet, at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis in Germany, Chancellor Merkel declared that masks were completely ineffective. President Donald Trump also spent months ridiculing people who wore masks. So why do populations across Asia, who have far more experience of epidemics, overwhelmingly wear masks? And has this played a role in their relative success in keeping control of the virus? Not enough of these questions are being asked by our politicians.
Why don’t we learn from Asia? Taiwan has managed to completely block local transmission for 200 days. In a population of 23 million and a densely populated metropolitan area, not a single infection has been transmitted, although there have been repeated cases among travellers. South Korea, which has 50 million inhabitants and is almost as large as Italy, has already completely defeated its second wave. Across South Korea, no more than 250 infections were ever recorded in a single day.
Yes, all of these successes have required some sacrifices in terms of citizens’ rights and freedoms. But European countries have, in part, introduced measures that impinge far more drastically on personal liberties – for example, on the right to exercise one’s profession freely. Restrictions of individual freedoms are unavoidable in a pandemic, but they must be appropriate and effective. Neither of these is the case in Europe. Restrictions on freedom are neither appropriate nor effective.
What we are left with is the worst of both worlds. Our governments are prepared to paralyse the economy and destroy thousands of livelihoods, but we also insist that data protection is sacred to us. Unfortunately, the coronavirus crisis offers yet further confirmation: the typical European state is strong where it should be weak, in the economy, and weak where it should be strong, in harnessing technology to empower its citizens.
Rainer Zitelmann holds doctorates in history and sociology and is the author of over 20 books including The Power of Capitalism and The Rich in Public Opinion, which has recently been published by the Cato Institute.