Bill Gates for president?
Why not? He’s the perfect choice in a crisis. He’s the functional equivalent of a Roman dictator. No, I am not talking about Nero, or Caligula, or even Julius Caesar.
Think Cincinnatus – the 6th century BCE Roman general to whom republican Rome handed dictatorial powers in a time of crisis. He famously gave the power back, once the crisis had past, thus earning him accolades ever since. We refer to George Washington as our Cincinnatus because he did not hold too tightly to the reins of power at the time of the founding.
The Roman republic was obsessed with keeping absolute power from falling into the hands of one man. There were two consuls, the top office, at any given time. But in a pinch, when the republic’s fate was at issue, a dictator could be appointed. The dictator’s term was six months. (Crises were simpler then.) If a dictator held office for too long, it was lawful for any Roman to assassinate him.
We’re all but begging for a dictator now.
In this past weekend’s Wall Street Journal, the weekly think piece in the review section called for strong and decisive leadership to meet the next pandemic head on. The author without blushing urged use of social media to surveil us all, the better to keep track of health data. We also need a better coordinated and more decisive centralized power to distribute resources.
A generation ago such talk in the Journal would have reeked of accusations of centralized planning, communism, and all the other bug bears that make marketeers rage.
And consider the non-stop breathless coverage on CNN. Every hour we are told, again and again, about President Trump’s failure to lead, his indecisiveness, about the need for strong federal leadership. Most governors, let by New York’s Mario Cuomo, have joined the chorus.
We’re all mesmerized just now by the pandemic. Doctors have become the new rock stars. Everyone knows who Anthony Fauci is. Deborah Brix is becoming a household name. And Sanjay Gupta makes televised house calls morning, noon and night on the air.
Tell us what to do, doctor, to be safe. What must we do to be saved?
Physicians can, of course, tell us how to minimize risk. I hear physicians exasperated by the failure of the federal government to order a lockdown. Good doctors roll their eyes when they are reminded that there is a constitution, and that notions of federalism limit what the federal government can do. We need data-driven, evidence-based public policy. Let public health professionals rule, please, before it's too late.
The other night, a doctor I know wondered aloud why civil liberties have not been suspended, just as habeas corpus was suspended during the civil war. I reminded the doctor that habeas corpus could only be suspended in times of an invasion or insurrection. Our war on the virus is only metaphorical. The constitution doesn’t have a safety valve that permits suspension of civil liberties in a public health emergency.
The answer did not satisfy my interlocutor.
It doesn’t satisfy many Americans.
The fact is that increasingly folks seem willing to sacrifice not just privacy, but liberty itself, for safety.
If the goal is to keep as many of us alive as long as possible, then public policy can be crafted to calculate the maximally efficient allocation of goods and resources. Doctors can prescribe public health measures that best control the spread of the virus. The market’s invisible hand can be replaced by an algorithm; now that we agree that the goal is survival of the greatest number at the most socially efficient cost, big data can be used to decide where to send the next ventilator, how many gloves are needed in Montana, where to send the next shipment of fruit.
We can replace the invisible hand and banish the thought of market inefficiency. We can socially score individuals, as the Chinese do, weeding out those who refuse to behave in inefficient manners by allocating fewer resources to those malcontents who refuse to recognize reality.
But, as Shoshana Zuboff noted in “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” the creation of such an algorithm places into someone’s hands the decision about what parameters the algorithm should stress. Who should decide?
Why not Bill Gates? He’s the creator of Microsoft, right? That’s one of the world’s most powerful sources of computing power. Why not make him dictator and set Microsoft free to govern. Gates signaled, after all, that he has a vision of what it will take to get us through this, calling last week in an opinion piece in The Washington Post for bold new federal powers to meet the crisis.
Let’s face it, our president is a stumblebum. Watching his daily press briefings is like watching a Boy Scout prepare for a merit badge in spelling – he stumbles around the point, trying valiantly, and expecting our praise merely for making the effort.
As for Joseph Biden, the presumptive Democrat nominee for president? About as inspiring as watching the concierge at a funeral home sing the national anthem.
Bill Gates, I say! Let him set Big Data loose on what ails us. Let AI govern. We’re all home now, about to receive checks for staying put. We’re becoming habituated to obedience. Let computers rule. Utopia has arrived.
I write only half in jest. I suspect that Gates would get a lot of votes about now. The trouble is, I don’t see Big Data and its owners giving up the reins of power once the crisis has passed. Do you?