It’s human instinct to view leaders as important people. And they certainly are vastly more important than average people. But they are also far less important than many people assume.

In past posts I’ve argued that about 3% of outcomes in the US (economics, military, etc.) reflect the president, and about 97% reflect other forces. This means that outcomes are an extremely noisy signal to evaluate presidential performance (although it is still better than nothing for the average voter.)

Today we see another example from the UK. On Thursday, Boris Johnson announced that the UK would diverge from other Western (and Eastern) countries, by not taking major steps to slow the coronavirus. The British were told they needed to accept the fact that as many as 80% would eventually contract the virus. Life would go on, with major public events like football matches continuing to occur.

This is a good test of my hypothesis. How can I say leaders are unimportant if Boris Johnson was able to lead the UK down a very different path from other Western countries?

One day later, and it looks like Johnson has accepted the inevitable. Due to overwhelming pressure within the UK, there will be a ban on mass gatherings.

Mass gatherings are to be banned across the UK from next weekend, the government has announced after Boris Johnson’s cautious approach to the coronavirus outbreak was overtaken by care homes, sporting bodies and even the Queen taking matters into their own hands.

My views are often misinterpreted.  I am not claiming that leaders have no influence.  Three percent of US outcomes is still about a million times more influence than the average American has.  It matters.  And some individual leaders (such as Hitler) had far more influence than average.  Others, like Calvin Coolidge and Gerald Ford, had far less than average.

But the broad course of history is determined by the zeitgeist, especially in the modern world of democratic nations.  This is easiest to see when you look away from your own country.  Does anyone seriously believe that the leader of Switzerland has much impact on the performance of that nation?  Italy is currently led by a bland technocrat.  I find it hard to believe that a different leader would have led to a significantly different outcome in Italy.

Some commenters are surprised by my claim that the US will not experience a large number of deaths from this epidemic.  It’s not because I don’t understand the dangers; I believe about 1.7 million Americans would die if it were left uncontrolled.  Rather it’s because there’s an election in November and the ruling party doesn’t want to go into the election with 100,000 deaths from coronavirus at a time when only about 3000 – 4000 Chinese have died, and death rates are similarly low in other East Asian countries where the data is harder to challenge.  If those countries can continue to succeed, then there will be enormous political pressure to emulate their success.

There’s a sort of horse race going on now, and all governments will soon be under strong pressure to copy the winners.  If governments do not act, the private sector will have a strong incentive to take steps in the direction of social distancing.  Indeed in the US, the private sector has been ahead of the government in addressing the crisis.