In The Fourth Revolution, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge ask: what is the state actually for? Their remarkable book describes the three great revolutions in its history, and the fourth which is happening now
In most of the states of the West, disillusion with government has become endemic. Gridlock in America; anger in much of Europe; cynicism in Britain; decreasing legitimacy everywhere. Most of us are resigned to the fact that nothing is ever going to change. But as John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge show us in this galvanizing book, this is a seriously limited view of things. In response to earlier crises in government, there have been three great revolutions, which have brought about in turn the nation-state, the liberal state and the welfare state. In each, Europe and America have set the example. We are now, they argue, in the midst of a fourth revolution in the history of the nation-state, but this time the Western way is in danger of being left behind.
The Fourth Revolution brings the crisis into full view and points towards our future. The authors have enjoyed extraordinary access to influential figures and forces the world over, and the book is a global tour of the innovators. The front lines are in Chinese-oriented Asia, where experiments in state-directed capitalism and authoritarian modernization have ushered in an astonishing period of development. Other emerging nations are producing striking new ideas, from Brazil’s conditional cash-transfer welfare system to India’s application of mass-production techniques in hospitals. These governments have not by any means got everything right, but they have embraced the spirit of active reform and reinvention which in the past has provided so much of the West’s comparative advantage.
The race is not just one of efficiency, but one to see which political values will triumph in the twenty-first century: the liberal values of democracy and freedom or the authoritarian values of command and control. The centre of gravity is shifting quickly, and the stakes could not be higher.