Can liberal constitutional democracy run the state in a manner that is both responsive and accountable to citizens without succumbing to incurable elephantiasis precisely because it is democratic? Does democratic governance inevitably lead to government as an ‘all-you-can eat- buffet’ (allegedly per Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore), and, therefore, bloat, fiscal crises and collapse? These crucial questions are taken on in an important new book by two of the leading minds around the Economist Magazine: John Micklethwait is the Editor of the Magazine, and Adrian Wooldridge is the management editor, who also writes the Schumpeter column. The book is: The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State.
The authors argue that there have been three and half revolutions in governance in the West, and each one is linked to an emblematic political thinker/economist. The first revolution was the rise of the nation-state, and the paradigmatic thinker is Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan. The second revolution was the rise of the ‘liberal state’, and the focus thinker here is John Stuart Mill. (Objection from a Bentham scholar: the authors do not do justice to the role of Jeremy Bentham). The third revolution was the rise of the welfare state, and the authors discuss the ideas and efforts of Beatrice Webb. According to the authors, these first three revolutions in governance were completely successful. The fourth revolution, the effort to roll back the bloated welfare state – the focus here is the economic thought of Milton Friedman – was only partially successful. The authors argue, I believe, that this revolution needs to be completed.
You will ask: what is wrong with the state in the West today? The authors declare bluntly: ‘The Western state is in the throes of a midlife crisis’. (p.228). Using California as an example, the authors introduce us to the ‘seven deadly sins’. Government is out of date. It is useless at making its public sector more efficient. Small, determined lobbies are able to block a major public interest anytime they want. And the state is doing too much and doing it badly. There is more: governments deliberately practice fuzzy maths in order to hide fiscal crises. Sadly, ‘government spending cascades towards the old and the relatively well off.’ (p.122) Then, there is the fact of hyper-partisanship and gridlock. And the biggest problem? Citizens. People want governments to do more and more but are not willing to pay more taxes to fund it.
The authors then take the reader on an admiring tour of the East, to explore the Asian alternative to liberal constitutional democracy. The alternative is what they call ’authoritarian modernization’. Singapore and China are discussed in detail. Do the authors recommend the model then? Apparently not. They move on to explore what is happening in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries. Their conclusion is as follows: ‘Both Sweden and Singapore demonstrate something beyond doubt: government can be made slimmer and better’. (p.187) Here, the authors have an ideological position familiar to any reader of the Economist. And they admit it. They say: ‘Our starting point is liberal: We want the state to be smaller and individuals to be freer. But we are not libertarians. Even in its current lopsided form, the modern state has a lot to be proud of.'
The relentlessly ideological stance of the authors is the first challenge you face as you read the book. Although the authors try to be even-handed with regard to culpability for the bloated condition of the state in the West (for instance, attacking the Right for the inordinate growth of the security apparatus and special tax deals and subsidies for the rich and powerful), their ire is clearly and vigorously directed at ‘the Left’. Again and again, they say things like: ‘The progressive agenda has become self-defeating’. (p. 229). I believe that this one-sidedness is a mistake. If the authors wanted to be heard by all, if they wanted to promote the kind of open-minded discussion that will help find solutions, their denunciations of ‘the Left’ are likely to prove counter-productive.
The second challenge you face as you read the book is that it makes you feel that you are eavesdropping while members of a troubled family are having a blazing row. If you are not from or of ‘the West’ you wonder if you should pay attention to any of this. That is regrettable. I think the authors could have been more self-consciously ‘global’. For instance, I decided to buy and read the book because I saw the authors on the Charlie Rose Show here in the United States a couple of months ago, and I felt that the book they were talking about would be of interest to someone like me who is keen on solutions to problems of governance in developing countries.
So, it is time to ask: why should you read this book even if you are not from or of ‘the West’? I offer four reasons:
- The best bits of the book describe riveting examples of ongoing experiments in effective, affordable and responsive governance from all over the world. This is the most global part of the book and well worth the purchase price. They are the stories that I will keep going back to.
- For developing countries, the book is one long cautionary tale, not just with regard to the mistakes of the Western state but also regarding the very clear limits (and depredations!) of authoritarian modernization. Buyer Beware.
- There is a ‘solutions’ section towards the end of the book, and it brims with ideas about the power of transparency, the information revolution, the role of active citizens, of naming and shaming and so on.
- Finally, the history of ideas about governance, the three and half revolutions. As a student of political thought, I found the history chapters a bit rushed, and there is much that the authors omit that kept me wondering, but I know that for a non-specialist audience they probably have it about right. The history is important. It helps to explain where we are.
Book Cover by Ben Wiseman (jacket design) and Mirabeau Answering Dreux-Breze, at a National Assembly Meeting, June 23, 1789, 1830, Fragonard, Alexandre Evariste (1780-1850)/Louvre, Paris, France/Giraudon/The Bridgeman Art Library
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