The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge announces itself with mighty ambitions. Beginning with the uncontroversial premise that government is broken, the book argues that two responses are necessary. The first response is technical: “Government can be made slimmer and better.” Such a claim they see as obvious and non-partisan: “Everybody, whether from Left or Right, could make their governments work better.”The second response is “ideological: it requires people to ask just what they want government to do.” Micklethwait and Wooldridge see that technical or practical reforms are not enough; what is needed is a political revolution, the surprising and unpredictable emergence of a new common sense that can inspire sacrifice and dedication in the name of a collective vision.Micklethwait and Wooldridge are to be commended for moving beyond the typical jeremiads that all that we need to fix government are technical solutions. The last third of their book is an attempt to articulate a vision of a common idea that can inspire and animate a revolutionary re-imagination of the state. That their proposed idea, which they call “freedom,” is actually quite old is an argument against neither the idea nor its messengers. That said, their view of freedom is disappointingly tame and apolitical.The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State, begins with fear and awe—of China. The first chapter, parts of which have been reprinted in various forms most recently in the Wall Street Journal, introduces the reader to CELAP, the China Executive Leadership Academy Pudong. CELAP is a “Cadre Training School;” it looks like a campus, but it has a “military purpose.” It is a government training institute for elite bureaucrats, but its models and methods are more Silicon Valley than Washington DC. CELAP, Micklethwait and Wooldridge write, “is an organization bent on world domination.” Translation: We in the West should be scared.
Today, Chinese students and officials hurtle around the world, studying successful models from Chile to Sweden. Some 1,300 years ago, Celap’s staff remind you, imperial China sought out the brightest young people to become civil servants. For centuries, these mandarins ran the world’s most advanced government—until the Europeans and then the Americans forged ahead. Better government has long been one of the West’s great advantages. Now the Chinese want that title back.Western policy makers should look at this effort the same way that Western businessmen looked at Chinese factories in the 1990s: with a mixture of awe and fear. Just as China deliberately set out to remaster the art of capitalism, it is now trying to remaster the art of government. The only difference is a chilling one: Many Chinese think there is far less to be gained from studying Western government than they did from studying Western capitalism. They visit Silicon Valley and Wall Street, not Washington, D.C.
How have we come to be in awe of the Chinese approach to government? How have we become fearful that the Chinese may find more happiness and individual freedoms in their managerial authoritarianism than we expect from our democracy? Micklethwait and Wooldridge seek to explain these fears by telling a simplified story about the history of the state in three-and-one-half steps.First, Thomas Hobbes imagines the state, a Leviathan, in a process that saw European sovereigns replace about 400 principalities where life could descend in “barbarism and chaos” at the end of the Middle Ages with about 25 states by the early 20th century. These states, “constantly vying for supremacy,” built up military and economic machines and “improved statecraft” and ushered in a period of security and innovation.If Hobbes is the patron saint of the first revolution in the modern state, John Stuart Mill is the second. Mill moved from the Hobbesian emphasis on security to the utilitarian insistence that “the beneficiaries of order could develop their abilities to the maximum and thereby achieve happiness.” Raising merit above patronage, the utilitarian revolution “insisted that the state solve problems rather than simply collect rents.” Sewers and railroads were built, and the police emerged. But the genius of the Millian state is that even as the state gave its people so much, it shrank in size. Micklethwait and Wooldridge love to cite William Gladstone’s boast that he was “saving candle-ends and cheese-pairings in the cause of the country.” He fought corruption and extravagance, and it worked. “Under Britain’s thrifty Victorians, the world’s most powerful country reduced its tax take from £80 million in 1816 to less than £60 million in 1860—even as its population increased by 50%.”The Victorian state was efficient, but it was also “harsh and tolerant.” While the government provided services, its largesse was limited. The poor lost their freedom if they lost their jobs. This brought about the Third revolution in the state, the welfare state. The welfare state swept aside the Victorian “vision of a limited but vigorous state.” The personification of the welfare state is Beatrice Webb, the daughter of “high Victorian Privilege” who articulated that idea that the state was the “embodiment of reason” and was there to ensure “planning (as opposed to chaos), meritocracy (as opposed to inherited privilege), and science (as opposed to blind prejudice.” As a founder of the Fabian Society and the London School of Economics, Webb called into being “social engineers from around the world” and was also a “cheerleader of their socialist revolution.”While Micklethwait and Wooldridge argue that we still live under the welfare state model, they know that this third incarnation of the modern state is tottering on its last legs. “Put simply,” they write, “big government overextended itself.” The statistics are clear:
In the U.S., government spending increased from 7.5% of GDP in 1913 to 19.7% in 1937, to 27% in 1960, to 34% in 2000 and to 42% in 2011. Voters continue to demand more services, and politicians of all persuasions have indulged them—with the left delivering hospitals and schools, the right building prisons, armies and police forces, and everybody creating regulations like confetti.
It is not difficult to produce examples of the irrationality of government today, and Micklethwait and Wooldridge deliver admirably. What is more, the welfare state was designed to bring about meritocracy and equality. It has done anything but.The result, they write, was a rebellion led by Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States. For Micklethwait and Wooldridge, this has been a half-revolution. Neither Thatcher nor Reagan succeeded in halting the advance and bloat of the Leviathan-turned-welfare state. Which leaves us where we are today. We continue to demand more from the state, which we abhor and resent. Governments, they insist, are going broke. There are calls for reform and a dawning realization that something must change, but there is little agreement on the way forward.Micklethwait and Wooldridge offer one answer: A return to a limited idea of the state that does certain things well but leaves most of public life free. They repeat over and over they are not libertarians who berate or hate government. They believe government can do certain things well. The book is chock full of examples: The medical care system in Sweden; the use of MOOCs and technology in education; the embrace of surveillance in crime fighting. What all these examples of “good government” share is the embrace of technology and managerial skill to kill sacred cows and bring efficiency and corporate techniques to government. Why CELAP so appeals is its marriage of silicon valley technology with “the latest management thinking” that imports “private-sector methods into the public sector.” The model here is Singapore, where “young Singaporean mandarins” are more like “junior partners at Goldman Sachs or McKinsey than the cast of Veep or The Thick of It.” Government must be run more like a business.Micklethwait and Wooldridge are not ready to fully abandon democracy to technological managerialism. But they see that “Democracy has grown rather shabby.”
Government, backed by the general democratic will, has never been more powerful; but in its bloated, overburdened condition, it also has seldom been as unloved or inefficient. Freedoms have been given up, but the people have not gotten much in return.
What is needed, in other words, is a classically liberal alternative to democracy, one in which democracy is corrected or at the least moderated by a management-trained elite.There is much to praise in Micklethwait and Wooldridge’s account, and it has been lauded widely. The bloat they take aim at is undeniable. Also the need for technological and managerial innovation. Truly government has overreached in a way that is deeply intrusive in our lives. What is more, Micklethwait and Wooldridge are deeply right to insist that beyond technological innovation, we need to think about ideas: Namely, the idea of what we want our government to be. We do need a fourth revolution.There are moments when the revolution Micklethwait and Wooldridge call for sounds appealing. They write of “reviving the spirit of liberty” and “reviving the spirit of democracy by lightening the burden of the state.” It is a call to reinvigorate democracy by localizing it, freeing it from bureaucratic and technocratic elites, and returning it to the people. They praise the “joys of pluralism” and “the charm of diversity.” The call is to devolve power away from the center and “toward the localities.” All of this is not only sensible. It is right.Where Micklethwait and Wooldridge fall short, however, is in holding a simplistic ideal of freedom. Freedom means, “to give the individual the maximum freedom to exercise his God-given powers and achieve his full potential.” It is the Millian freedom of “pursuing our own good in our own way.” And it names the moral “right to live [our] lives according to [our] own lights.” In rebelling against the bloat of the state, and even as they insist that government has a necessary and important role, Micklethwait and Wooldridge insist that government and the state are there only to guarantee the security and the resources for people to pursue their private and individual aims.What is missing in the classically liberal freedom Micklethwait and Wooldridge advocate is any understanding of what Hannah Arendt calls the joys of public freedom. Underlying the decentralized, Federalist, and republican limits on democracy that Micklethwait and Wooldridge praise in the American tradition was a republican tradition that they have forgotten or wish to suppress. The American tradition of self-government included not simply the protection of bourgeois private freedoms, but it also nurtured public-spirited engagement, the active desire to speak and act in concert with fellow citizens to build a meaningful common world.The American democratic tradition is pluralist, diverse, and local. It is experimental. But it is also messy and inefficient and at times relentlessly frustrating. Above all, however, it is about building a common project, something larger than ourselves. Micklethwait and Wooldridge are right that this American dream it is being hindered by centralization, bureaucracy, and technocracy. They are right to insist that we need a revolution. But somehow they think that Americans, Singaporeans, and Chinese will all embrace the same technocratic, managerial, and consumerist world of consumerist individualism. At least on this final point, I hope they are wrong.