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The Government Reform Series: Democratic Nation States in Serious Need of a Makeover

Editor’s Note: Government failure is something everyone complains about, but does little to address. Over the next two weeks, FixGov will review work on government reform: identifying problems in the federal government and offering solutions to get government back in working order. In this post, Elaine Kamarck reviews The Fourth Revolution by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge.

Every citizen of a Western democracy should worry when two smart guys like John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge write a book about government that starts with China.

The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State, traces the history of government through three “revolutions”—the creation of the nation state, the liberal state and the welfare state. Their argument is that we are now on the cusp of yet another revolution in the state because the most recent model, the welfare state of the western democracies, has become “dysfunctional” and prone to “elephantiasis.” Current Western democracies are “flabby and shabby” and have given away far too many things to people who don’t need them, in fact to people who have “hijacked” the government.

Against this gloomy backdrop, Micklethwait and Wooldridge look around the world and find hope in some unexpected places. In the early 1990s Sweden and the other Nordic countries came face to face with the fact that they could no longer afford the enormous state they had built—and they actually fixed those problems. In so doing they settled “…one of the central debates about Leviathan: whether it can be brought under control at all.” Even California, home to the “seven deadly sins” of modern government, has begun to fix itself under Governor Jerry Brown.

But their most intriguing look is at what they call “the Asian Alternative.” This is, in essence, good government and economic development minus democracy—a set of conditions that no one thought was possible. Its founding father? Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew who told an audience in 1992 “I do not believe that democracy necessarily leads to development… The exuberance of democracy leads to undisciplined and disorderly conditions.” The Asian Alternative invented in and epitomized by tiny Singapore has become the model that enormous China emulates. As long as they can deliver economic growth and an efficient state, both nations hope to avoid democracy and all of its messy operations—from elections to more than one political party.

The authors call the Asian alternative “… the most substantial challenge that the Western Model has ever faced: far more substantial than the old Soviet Union (or Maoist China, for that matter).” But they admit that the system suffers from a pervasive corruption that could limit the effectiveness of the Asian alternative.

The challenge to the West is to fix the broken liberal democracies wherever they are: from the shameful antics of a polarized Washington D.C. to the bureaucratic bloat of Brussels and the European Union. In one chapter The Fourth Revolution recommends the use of information technology, and a host of other techniques in government modernization that are already being used in most Western democracies, to improve productivity. These new modes of government are not without their problems (as many of us have pointed out) but they do point the way to a much more cost effective and productive state.

But the bigger challenge is not how governments do what they do but a re-thinking of what they do. This leads to territory where very few government reformers dare to go—asking the big question “What is the State for?” It is on this point that the authors attack both sides of the American aisle. “If privatization is the American Right’s great blind spot, subsidies for the wealthy is the Left’s.” They advocate “lightening the burden of the state.”

This is a big and important idea whose time has come. The great failing of American politics is not that the Tea Party wants to shrink the government or that the Democrats want to keep every single entitlement in place. The great failing is that the country’s leaders can’t seem to have a real debate on what kinds of things a 21st century American government should or should not do. Instead they argue about cutting the whole thing down or they argue about protecting every last nickel. And in the interstices of that non-debate, rent seekers of all sorts from Medicare scammers to Wall Street gamblers are sucking the legitimacy out of the government.

We should heed the call of The Fourth Revolution.

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