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Which Post-Pandemic Government?

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has shown why high-level coordination is sometimes necessary for managing emergencies, it has also underscored the risks of placing too much power in the hands of an incompetent central authority. The best approach is a middle path, with a slight bias in favor of decentralization.

CHICAGO – Even with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, speculation has turned to what society will look like afterward. Citizens, shocked by how easily their lives can be upended, will want to reduce risk. According to the emerging new consensus, they will favor more government intervention to stimulate demand (by pumping trillions of dollars into the economy), protect workers, expand health care, and, of course, tackle climate change.

But every country has many layers of government, so which one should expand? Clearly, in the United States, only the federal government has the resources and mandate for nationwide decisions on issues such as health care and climate change. Yet it doesn’t necessarily follow that this level of government should grow larger still. After all, it could adopt policies that protect some constituencies while increasing the risks faced by others.

In the case of COVID-19, some countries have centralized decision-making about when to impose and lift lockdown measures, whereas others have left these choices to state governments, or even municipalities. (Others, like India, are in transition between these approaches.) What has become clear is that not all localities face the same trade-offs.

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