The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge (Allen Lane, £20)
With the west seemingly bogged down in intractable problems, there are many who fear that some version of the authoritarianism that has proved so successful in delivering prosperity in Asia may take over from democracy as the next stage of political development. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge share this anxiety, and The Fourth Revolution is their response. Western states are over-stretched and bloated, they argue; only if government is drastically reduced in size and focuses exclusively on what it does best can the west emerge from stagnation and inertia. By selling off what remains of state enterprise and reducing welfare provision, a slim-line state can free up dynamism in the economy and society.
It’s hardly a new message. The line the authors push about rolling back the state is the consensus view in policy institutes throughout the world, and has been for decades. I recall the same ideas being hailed as challengingly radical in right-wing think tanks some 30 years ago, when they were already becoming slightly stale. Micklethwait and Wooldridge point to some new developments—the shift to less state-centred policies in Sweden and Singapore’s success in using the power of government pragmatically, for example—and their analysis is often tough-minded and illuminating; but there is nothing remotely novel in their overall approach to policy.
The Fourth Revolution is more than a grab-bag of fashionable policy prescriptions, however—it is also a history of ideas about the role of government. Since “the dawn of the modern era,” there have been “three new ‘sciences of politics,’” argue Micklethwait and Wooldridge. The first, which they see as being embodied in the political thought of Thomas Hobbes, had to do with the need for order and the emergence in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries of the modern sovereign state. This was followed by a concern with individual liberty, which the authors find in the work of John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville and the limited type of government that existed…