Can the world run out of good people?

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic social media and the internet have been inundated with conspiracies around Covid-19’s origin, whether or not communities should accept vaccines that will be developed among other stories. In almost all the cases attempts are made to convince the reader, listener or viewer of this huge international power grab or profit making conspiracy that is going on. Let’s face it. It is so confusing and many times people do not know what to believe, and sparring news outlets from different political constituencies and outfits (even in developed countries we may look up to) does not make it better. We live in a murky, smoke-and-mirrors world where the massive availability of information is both a boon and a curse. Almost all conspiracy theories and fake news are rebutted in one way or another. International bureaucrats, tech and pharmaceutical companies and others who understand the intricacies of globalization and the international economy may be able to provide more substance regarding veracity or lack thereof in the different conspiracy claims better. 

This article discusses whether the different checks and balances, safeguards and tried and tested protocols and regulations in various industries, organizations and governments can indeed be overcome by groups/entities with sinister motives. Can the world really run out of ‘good people’ to such an extent that people just sit on the fence or condone the subjection of entire populations to sinister machinations of certain groups?! It is fitting that the discussion whether the world can run out of good people also begins by asking whether the world can run out of good things in general. In 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus predicted that linear growth in food supply would be outstripped by exponential growth in population. In his view, the human population would sooner rather than later implode until a natural disaster (such as pestilence) or war reduces the population. On the contrary the human population has grown massively since the late 18th Century on the back of farm biotechnology-driven yield improvements to guarantee food supplies, advancements in medical sciences, medicine and vaccine development among other factors. The combination of human agility, ingenuity and clever use of the world’s natural endowments has proved that a Malthusian implosion is unlikely.

The assertions of Malthus haven’t really come to pass (most Economists would agree), but some bad things have happened since the beginning of time. Market failure (a scenario in which the free market system fails to efficiently allocate resources) has shown us that when people compete to use forest resources, or when they compete to maximize their utility on a public beach, deforestation and pollution are inevitable respectively. The events of the past decades have shown that when migrants and host communities fight for scarce resources, prejudice, hate and violence can flare up. So indeed, good things may run out under some conditions. Since time immemorial, people have suffered from abuse, violence, war and other forms of injustice and in many cases yet no one has done enough about it. Even as the Covid-19 pandemic ravages across the entire globe, guns and mortar fire have hardly fallen silent in some parts of the world. Yet due to geopolitical complications, indifference or just inward-looking tendencies, many have buried their heads in the sand. The fact that people can sit on the fence as injustices take place is an important driver of lack of trust in the institutions and apparatus of individual states and the world in general’s ability to protect us from the harms ‘purported’ in some of the biggest conspiracy theories. 

Not everyone can truly claim that they necessarily have a firm handle on how the world functions. There is just too much information out there to process, and many things are obscure – too many information asymmetries. Information asymmetry or information failure is a phenomenon in which one party in a transaction has material more information than the other, for example in George Akerlof’s Market for Lemons where the seller of a second hand automobile had more material information about its true condition than the buyer. To abstract, a government requiring compulsory vaccination may have more material information on side-effects (among other issues) than the ordinary citizen all things being equal. Murkiness and lack of transparency also mean that transaction costs are high and it is difficult to enforce contracts – including the social contract between a government and its people. The social contract between a government and its people provides for the citizens to expect and demand that the state act in the good interests of the citizenry. There are countless examples wherein governments have betrayed the trust of the population. This can be understood in the context of the Agency Problem wherein there is conflict of interest between the objectives of the principal and those of the agent. In a business setting, the shareholder (business owner) is interested in preserving and increasing the value of the business whereas management may be interested in expense maximization (thereby reducing profit and value) through perks. To protect the interests of the shareholders, the Board of Directors (Board) maintain oversight over the activities of management – yet “Management and the Board play golf together” thereby potentially reducing the effectiveness of oversight. 

When state bodies that are supposed to act in the interests of the public are not sacrosanct in executing their mandate (for example in protecting against harmful practices in a medical emergency or otherwise), if they “play golf with those they are supposed to supervise”, then it fuels distrust and creates an environment where conspiracies and fake news flourish. When levels of education are low, and there is little or no access to basic services including electricity and internet, people fall prey to fake content, including dangerous home remedies and even scammers. There is clearly a need to increase access to Information Technologies (ITs) but also implement deliberate programs for digital education so that ordinary citizens are empowered to fact-check content but also to participate in digital education and in the digital workplace. Without digital education, negative consequences (fake news, scams etc.) of internet proliferation can spread almost unabated. The “new economy” post Covid-19 should do more to promote more accountability, transparency, disclosure so that people understand facts better. Institutions need to be strengthened and corruption rooted out decisively so that agency issues do not contaminate government-citizen social contracts – to restore trust. This is possible, because in the end the world can never run out of good people – generally. 

The evidence is compelling and there for everyone to see. All those nurses, doctors and ambulance drivers risking their lives in order to save us during the Covid-19 pandemic confirms that there are many good people out there. More than ever before, different campaigns have raised enormous sums of money to help fund the health and economic responses of various countries, including safety net components to protect the poor and vulnerable. It shows that the world can save itself, it shows that this is not humanity’s cul-de-sac moment at all. Because our world can never run out of good people. 

Part of a series of blogs on the socio-economic impact, implications, and opportunities for a world after COVID-19. Written by Dr. Tawanda Chingozha, development economist and OAD Fellow. Visit http://www.astro4dev.org/covid-19s-socio-economic-impacts-implications-simplified/