The book by former Economist Editor in Chief John Micklethwait and Management Editor Adrian Wooldridge: The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State contends that states in the West must complete the revolution started by Reagan and Thatcher and become smaller, more efficient systems that provide greater individual liberty.
In 1814, during the first revolutionary period, John Adams said: “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” He also said: “It is vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than autocracy or monarchy…” The authors of The Fourth Revolution contend that the secret of good governance lies in checking human desires, not letting them run free.
America’s founding fathers also worried that democracy would crush individual liberty. The majority would use pressure and regulation to press the minority into conformity. The authors say few examine these issues now. In the vacuum, voters regard the practice of democracy as corrupt and inefficient. And yet they won’t question the theory. Their contempt delegitimizes government and turns setbacks into crises.
Democracy is overloaded with obligations, overburdened with unfulfillable expectations, and distorted by special interests. The population’s dependency forces government to continuously expand. During the second revolution, nineteenth century liberals in Great Britain reformed both the state’s machinery and its form of representation. The authors suggest today’s politicians should trim the state and renew democracy.
The rise of the Beijing consensus’s top down modernization and meritocratic governmental institutions makes the west’s democratic alternative seem regressive. America demonstrates too many of democracy’s vices and Europe too few of its virtues.
America’s checks and balances, though successful in the past in preventing the tyranny of the majority, has been subverted to become a political tool that decreases efficiency, compromise, and justice. America’s gerrymandering voting districts entrench special interests, extremism, and mediocre representation for a lifetime. America’s lobbying by special interests awash in money begs the question of graft and favoritism.
Europe, in an effort to stifle popular passions that caused two world wars, has sacrificed national sovereignty to technocratic governmental, financial, and trade bodies and, in the process, are vivifying national populist movements.
Economic inequality is putting western democracy to the test. Quoting Louis Brandeis, “we can have a democratic society or we can have great concentrated wealth in the hands of a few. We cannot have both.” In the era of financial crisis with less to go around and a bloated but inefficient welfare state, the West must stop democracy’s decay or risk their people’s ire.
The authors call for limited government that constrains itself through self-denying ordinances. In the process, three government dangers must be overcome: liberty encroaching expansion, surrender to special interests, and making unfulfillable promises.
As remedies, the authors propose balanced budgets over the economic cycle, fully funded and means tested entitlements tied to life expectancy, and sunset clauses for laws and regulations. Handing some economic power to technocrats and independent commissions and pushing decisions to the states and cities are ways to limit centralized power.
Micklethwait and Wooldridge say that the cost of inaction is high—unreformed, the welfare state will collapse under oppressive debt. The opportunity is great—the rewards to states that revive democracy and reduce the burden of the state will sprint ahead of its peers economically and in life satisfaction. History will be on the side of the nations that promote individual liberty.
We in the West are polarized politically. Our leaders pander to special interests instead of providing for the common good. How much longer can we mortgage our children’s future to pay for our pensions and health care? We are getting less benefit from and paying more for our educational system. We’re transferring tax revenues to the middle classes and crony capitalists in agriculture, defense, finance, etc. at the expense of caring for the truly poor.
The world is looking to the East as the model for economic advances and a better life at the expense of individual liberties. We in the West must become serious about reforming our systems or be left behind in the rubbish heap of history. Some western states, provinces, and cities are becoming more efficient through experimentation. There are lots of ideas to try, if only we were willing to start.
In the coming weeks we’ll cover how Beatrice and Sidney Webb laid the foundations for the welfare state in the third revolution, how Lee Kuan Yew created the Asian Consensus, and how the Nordic states point the way to the future.