Pity poor Francis Fukuyama. When seaweed curtains Nelson’s column, the shores of the English Channel lap at Highgate Heath and war-painted tribes with cannibalised AK47s battle for control of the South Downs Way, he will still be remembered as the man who declared that history ended in about 1992.
He didn’t, of course; at least not in the way many people think. He never denied that stuff would go on happening. If history is a trash bag of random coincidences torn open by the wind, as Joseph Heller once claimed, Fukuyama never imagined there would be an end to the debris that went blowing down the street. But he did believe – and apparently still believes – that liberal democratic capitalism constitutes the final stage in humanity’s social, political and economic progress and that there was, in essence, nowhere now left to go. It might not be perfect but it was about as good as it got, and certainly as good as we could hope for.
John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge don’t so much take direct issue with Fukuyama’s view in their new book, The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State, (their sixth together) as argue that the state has repeatedly moved on over the last 500 years (even when it appears to have arrived at an obvious terminus) and that the liberal democratic capitalist station at which Fukuyama saw us finally pulling in is not as stable or successful as we like to think.
The first three revolutions behind their title are those that effected the nation state in the 17th century, the liberal state in the 19th, and the welfare state in the 20th. To these they add the half-revolution of Thatcherism in the last quarter of the 20th century, which (began to) address the more egregious excesses of the third revolution. Their retelling of this story, which they pivot on Thomas Hobbes, John Stuart Mill, Beatrice Webb, and Milton Friedman respectively, is admirably succinct and clear if, inevitably, unduly tidy and schematised.
Their central contention, however, is not simply that the state train chugs ever onwards but that it does so because it needs to. Micklethwait and Wooldridge are undoubtedly liberal, democratic and capitalist in their preferences but they believe that this particular combination is not working very well.
As one would expect from writers for the Economist newspaper, much of their diagnosis is fixated on a bloated state. “Government used to be an occasional partner in life… today it is an omnipresent nanny.” Theirs is no Tea Party placard, however. Indeed they shoot some well-aimed arrows at US libertarians, not least in pointing out that the Tea Party’s eschatological view of a government so small as to be non-existent finds its closest echoes in Karl Marx. That barb goes deep.
Rather, they point out (as many now do), that for all the talk of benefit scroungers, a disproportionate amount of state spending “is sucked up” by middle class voters who, “having overloaded the state with their demands…are furious that it works so badly.” The surface storms – the US fiscal mess, the Euro crisis – severe as they are, are generated by deeper and still more powerful public forces: over-expectation, simmering discontent, self-righteous disengagement – and all that is without factoring in what demographic trends or environmental crisis could do to us. We need a fourth revolution because the state we’re in can’t cope with the state we’re in.
What this fourth revolution might actually involve is less clear. Micklethwait and Wooldridge have no big idea that can take its place alongside the ‘nation’, the ‘liberal’ and the ‘welfare’ state, and there is quite a bit of discussion about “fixing Leviathan” through efficiency and better management. This is rescued from the familiar, naïve optimism by their explicit recognition that “governments are very different entities from private companies – and citizens are very different from customers”. Questions of coverage, continuity and compassion that may be factored out in a successful business restructuring cannot be ignored here.
And yet, even tempered with such realism, their talk of how “economies of scale and specialization can radically shave costs and improve quality” fails to convince. I suspect I am not alone in finding the idea of “operating rooms [that] have at least two beds, so surgeons can swivel from one patient to the next” somewhat disturbing.
Where the authors are clear, and more persuasive, is that for the first time in about 500 years, the next step forward is more likely to come from the east than the west. Much of the second part of the book is taken up with surveying “the Asian Alternative” – looking at how Singapore and China especially govern and what we might learn from them.
This is where the authors face a bind. Micklethwait and Wooldridge are democrats. And yet, they find in the Asian autocratic alternative precisely the kind of vision and strength to reform (ie, retrench) the state that they believe we need. Having once been mandated to protect our freedoms and look after our needs, the Western state is “increasingly lavishing money on rich baby boomers who have already spend much of their lives gorging themselves at the great welfare buffet” – and worse, will punish mightily any politician who tries to close, or even scale, it down. Thus the things the authors think are needed – increase the retirement age, increase the age of eligibility for Medicare, lift benefits in line with prices rather than wages, cut certain universal benefits, means test more, narrow conditions of entitlement, gravitate from social assistance to social insurance – are liable to be done, if at all, in the teeth, rather than with the blessing of, democratic opinion.
All in all, while The Fourth Revolution analyses the problem with admirable acuity, as well as being well-researched and written, it doesn’t provide a convincing argument to the problems it identifies. The next (half-) revolution is apparently Thatcherism redevivus, its path trail-blazed by a kind of European Lee Kuan Yew. It’s not the most attractive of visions.
But, then again, Hobbes, Mill, and Webb upset a lot of people with their ideas and, as the authors rightly say, “for the foreseeable future the Western state will be in the business of taking things away – far more things than most people realise.” History will just carry on blowing trash down the road whether we like it or not.