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Kirk Houghton

Author of The Dividing Lines and Bad Things to Good People

Kirk's Book Reviews

Kirk's Book Reviews

Review of The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge

Posted on September 29, 2015 at 3:05 AM

The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the StateThe Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State by John Micklethwait

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Discussions on the efficiency of the state in the Anglo-Saxon world are known for their one-dimensional viewpoints. The Left excoriate the Neo-Liberal parties that want to trim Leviathan and subordinate it to the private sector; the Right decry the tendencies of the Social Democrats that want to fix every solution with more government spending. You will not find any political party in Britain that want to discuss how to make government better and more responsive; it’s either a necessary evil or a vehicle for social engineering and re-distribution. In America the debate is even more intransigent depending on what side you’re on.
In this study John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge are determined to show how the West has been leading the world on how to govern since Thomas Hobbes’ seventeenth-century masterpiece, Leviathan, right through to John Stuart Mill’s ‘night watchman’ government and Beatrice Webb’s crusade for the Welfare State in the early 1900s. Rather than play catch-up to the engines of science, industrialisation and mass consumption, efficient government in the western world is actually a story of innovation, (modest) meritocracy and adaptability. But now, for the first time, the developing world is looking to tiny Singapore, the best run country on the planet, for inspiration. With the devastating failure of free-market capitalism in the 2008/09 global credit crunch, China is now more enamoured with Lee Kwan Yew’s authoritarianism and small-government efficiency rather than the west’s bloated ‘all you can eat’ welfare state that is facing a monumental crisis of funding by 2050. As the authors point out: ‘The main political challenge of the next decade will be fixing government.’ (p.5)
The main contention is that the modern Western state is run like General Motors in the age of Google. State bureaucracies still believe in doing everything in-house; decision-making is too centralised; administration is paralysed by the idea it should be as uniform as possible; and there is a persistent fear of change. These are not new criticisms, indeed using words like ‘Revolution’ in the title of this book might disappoint some readers. Strip it down to its core elements and you will realise that these are standard complaints known to most people who’ve worked in or had dealings with the public sector.
However, the authors are on better ground when discussing one of the taboos of our age: could mass democracy be part of the problem? Nobody wants to abolish the cherished freedoms that come with democracy, but the general election cycle produces the worst kind of contest between political parties hoping to please competing factions of lobbyists and interest groups. An ever-increasing expansion of the state follows and leads to ruinous expectations about what governments can achieve. Yet one look at Europe’s aging populations and higher life expectancy levels makes it clear that future administrations will have to do more with less. And more borrowing is not the answer, with the authors reminding us that ‘By March 2012 there were some $43 trillion of government bonds in issue, compared with only $11 trillion at the end of 2001.’ (p.14) No wonder the developing nations are looking outside the West for new ideas on how to modernise and accommodate their growing middle classes. (NB: Entitlements benefit the middle class more than the poor in America and Europe – complete anathema in Singapore, where state funds are targeted at those that need them).
The future revolution, it seems, is already happening in Sweden, and this is where the authors want western governments to turn their attention. This means education vouchers for parents to send their children to the best-performing schools, perhaps the next logical step in Britain where the Academy system allows parents to set up their own schools. Swedish Health Care is even more innovative and entails paying private-sector companies to run a proportion of hospitals for profit, their results published in a central registry so patients can identify the best ones to use. And why not ask all users to pay a nominal fee for each visit so nobody abuses the system? These are all good suggestions and are clearly working in the Nordic countries where budget deficits and public debt levels are way below Britain, France and the US; but these are hardly new ideas. Tony Blair embraced some of these policies in his second term in office from 2001, and one read of The Economist, will remind you that these proposals have been around for the last 20 years. Is this really a revolution?
Perhaps the real revolution is occurring in the opportunities we have to harness technology in the information age. The authors are keen to stress this is the main area where government needs to adapt: ‘The current centralised state has been shaped by the idea that information is in short supply: It derives its power from the fact that it knows lots of things ordinary people do not. But information is now one of the world’s most abundant resources…’ (p.210)
Numerous contemporary studies explore ‘The New Digital Age’ and ‘The Networked State’ and it’s clear the state can use information better, to do more with less, while giving citizens greater power to hold their elected representatives to account. Everything from to San Francisco’s SFPark app are also giving citizens that chance to use technology rather than rely on government departments to solve daily problems. In fact, the future of innovation is now being spurred on by the state as well as the market: Washington DC Mayor, Vincent Grey, was delighted when his call for ‘new apps for democracy’ produced more than 47 apps in thirty days. Imagine if Sir Robert Peel’s government of 1840s Britain had called for more technological innovations in the textile industry, in an era when inventors didn’t even need state inducements to drive improvements.
Ultimately, those expecting this book to be a seminal manifesto on how to fix the state and shift the debate to what government is for will enjoy reading The Fourth Revolution, even if it doesn’t quite live up to its title. The research is impeccable (‘In America almost half the people in the richest 1 percent are medical specialists,’), the surveys of Hobbes and J.S. Mill are succinct in their intellectual appraisals, and each chapter bursts with ideas. Yet those ideas themselves are not exactly new, and the result is this book feels more like a copy-and-paste manifesto from their favourite authors rather than a pioneering study.
Nonetheless, the future is blond – the future is Sweden, if we are to take the authors’ advice. Yet we will need a major shift in political discourse in Britain and America if this is to happen. Will the Scottish National Party ever countenance a National Health Service where users pay a nominal fee to stop the system being abused? Can you imagine America’s powerful teaching unions putting education standards before solidarity with the weakest-performing teachers? What kind of strikes would we see in France if a government copied Sweden and hiked up the retirement age and indexed it to future life-expectancy levels?
If nothing, else Micklethwait and Wooldridge give us a glimpse of the political issues that we will have to face over the next thirty years. Our aging populations, national debts and expectations of more entitlements will, once again, lead us to ask, “What is the state for?”
Perhaps a consensus on this question will be the fourth revolution.

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