3 min read

Government by Crisis

In 1038, a young leader from "The Great State of White and High" (AKA Xi Xia) decided to start a war with Song Dynasty China. He sent an extravagant baggage train to the Song court, as a lavish gift from a self-declared Emperor to a neighboring state. The Song could not accept the gift without also accepting a position of inferiority vis-a-vis the Xi Xia. So they rejected the "Emperor's" gift and sent their own long baggage train of lavish gifts back to the Xi Xia. Who then, of course, rejected it. Everyone knew what would happen next: war.

Within the Song court, a Confucian scholar named Fan Zhongyan, had been angling for this opportunity. He had often bemoaned the state of the empire. Their military track record and military readiness were abysmal. Agricultural production was weak. Corruption and favoritism were common. By this time, the Song was sending massive amounts of money to a northern dynasty, the Khitan Liao. In return, the Liao promised to (mostly) not raid the Song. A significant portion of the money given to the Liao, however, ultimately went back to the Song economy because the Liao would purchase goods in Song markets.

As the crisis with the Xi Xia heated up, Fan's ideas found purchase.

By 1045, however,  Fan Zhongyan – despite his excellent negotiation skills and ambitious plans to strengthen Song society – found himself on the outs again with the Emperor. The Song made peace with the Xi Xia, giving them much the same deal the Song had with the Liao: we pay you lots of money and you don't attack us; then you spend that money on our goods. The Song settled into a comfortable (if superficially expensive) peace. Without an imminent crisis, there was no reason for reform.

This story would play out again twenty years later. Fan Zhongyan and his colleagues had proposed the "minor reforms". But a new reformer on the scene – Wang Anshi – proposed an even more ambitious program, later known as the "major reforms".

What happened next? First, Wang succeeded in making many changes. Then, he was ousted from power. Finally, his changes were reversed.

Of course, the real stories of the minor and major reforms are more complicated than I'm making them seem. It wasn't just crises that drove reform – there were vested interests who opposed the reforms, court politics, alliance-making, etc. . Even so, these (attempted!) reforms are examples of governments operating fundamentally reactively, instead of proactively. This isn't just a lesson in Chinese history, where power struggles and dramatic reversals of fortune are the norm, even during periods of "stable" dynasties.

Lobbyists and PR people know that pushing narratives at the right time – when an issue is hot – often results in more meaningful change. And you can argue that it's the crisis that creates widespread knowledge and urgency about an issue; that the crisis itself is part of society knowing what the problem is. But when do examples like the above become government by crisis? Ignore problems until they get really bad, then scramble to come up with some sort of solution.

Waiting for crises to occur also dovetails with "big solution" philosophy – that solutions to social problems need to be large, comprehensive programs meant to address many of the complexities of the problem. When things get bad, you need a big solution, don't you? One problem with big solutions is that their complexity creates more unanticipated outcomes. Another problem is a lack of empirical data on the solution's efficacy. It can "make sense" (from the perspective of a policy wonk), but not work in practice – in the same way that many medical practices "make sense", but don't actually work.

A more measured approach is to anticipate future problems and spend a small amount of resources experimenting with solutions to these problems. This is the "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" approach. This gives governments more information about the viability of potential solutions. And prevents problems from growing into unsolvable monstrosities.

But perhaps extending these examples from Imperial China is extending them 1000 years too far. Modern governments are bureaucratic behemoths. Isn't there a lot of everyday problem solving that gets done that peons like you and me don't know about? Yes. But there's also a lot of dysfunction in how information circulates through government institutions and how decisions ultimately get made.


My knowledge of Song, Liao, and Xi Xia relations comes from China: A History by John Keay (2009). So if I screwed something up, blame him!

It's a good book. I also released a Youtube video on my attempt to learn from the book.

I mentioned ineffective medical practices in passing. There will be some articles on these things in the future. If you're interested in the topic, I recommend: Ending Medical Reversal by Vinayak Prasad and Adam Cifu (2019).

The links to bookshop.org are affiliate links, so I get a little kickback if you buy through them.