It is a truth universally acknowledged, that dysfunctional governments have become so cliché in this period we live in. The increasing rise of governmental problems such as corruption cases, financial crises, and political gridlock is not only present in the developing and poor countries, but also on those “superpower” countries, such as in the West. The Western democracy, which has been politically dominant since the Middle Ages, led by the UK, is now claimed to be on the brink of crumble, and only by reinventing the state towards a fourth revolution can keep it from collapsing. For five centuries, the western states, such as that of the United Kingdom and the United States, had been able to keep reinventing their nation-states, thus, establishing its leadership in state-making all over the world. However, at present, their nation-states are badly weighed down by dysfunctional and bloated governments along with their self-indulgent constituents.
These liberal democracies have grown too big and these unchecked growths of the governments have produced huge problems in the forms of legislative gridlock, fiscal crises, decreasing legitimacy, to name a few. In order to address these issues, The Fourth Revolution suggests that this production of bloated welfare states and unproductive governments now necessitates a Fourth revolution wherein western democracy should be reinvented through shrinking of the government by using technologies in decentralizing public administration. The book begins as a historical overview of the early theorists of the state, namely, Thomas Hobbes and John Stuart Mill. Both promote the rise of the centralized nation-state and liberal state, respectively.
The authors proceed to describe the development of the modern welfare state as promoted by Beatrice Webb, and compare state models notably from Asia, such as China, Hongkong, and Singapore, with Western democracies, such as that of US and UK. Finally, they had narrated the failed half-revolution promoted by Thomas Friedman and enacted by UK’s PM Thatcher and US’ President Reagan. Although it had failed to reduce the size of the state, the authors are calling all governments to continue this revolution. They had also prescribed solutions of how modern governments can address contemporary problems of these bloated welfare states and government inefficiency. The series of revolutions in Western political thought started off with Thomas Hobbes’s concept of Leviathan in the 17th century. It was the development of the modern nation-state after the Peace of Westphalia anchored with European domination. It argued for the necessity of the state to provide law and order and benefits to its subjects: the state is made for the individuals, not the other way around.
Hobbes argued that there is a social contract between the ruler and the ruled, and only through giving up individual rights and constructing a sovereign (through the Leviathan) could law and order be maintained. This resulted to the transition from medieval states to centralized states The second revolution had been John Stuart Mill’s liberal states during the late 18th and 19th centuries, beginning with the American and French Revolution. This transition towards the promotion of individual rights and accountable governments had changed the previous government to a liberal state emphasizing on individual liberty and equality of opportunity. This had made states to become more meritocratic and increasingly respectful to people’s freedom. Mill aimed “not how to create order out of chaos but how to ensure that the beneficiaries of order could develop their abilities to the maximum and thereby achieve happiness.” Beatrice Webb’s advent of welfare states was what the authors had dubbed as the third revolution. This 20th-century type of government had committed to use state power in order to cure social inequality.
This transformed the liberal state to the creation of massive welfare states which developed countries have today. Emphasizing on massive government spending to promote equality of results, the state, thus, had become an administrative-like machine which provides a national minimum welfare and education to all of its constituents, deserved or not. It can be comparable to an eat-all-you-can-buffet-type of government wherein the people are actually laid different types of welfare services they can choose from as long as they fall into a particular category.
However, today’s welfare states, as argued by the authors, are heading towards bankruptcy. And this contention is the main focus of the book and the solutions thereof. Lastly, the half-failed revolution promoted by Milton Friedman was a short trend towards the transition of those big welfare states to that of smaller governments. Friedman’s ideas had been endorsed by both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan stressing that big governments had overextended themselves to the extent that they had now become very much bloated, inefficient, and dysfunctional. Hence, the solution towards this problem is the shrinking of the state which means efficient governance, free markets, and privatization of some unimportant state-owned facilities. However, as what was stated above, it had failed, and this is why welfare states are still ruling the governments in the West at present. Nevertheless, there is a major alternative to the western concept of democracy—the Asian alternative (of Singapore, Hongkong, and China) highlighted on state-directed capitalism and authoritarianism, and the Scandinavian countries’ (of Nordics, Swedes, and Danes) more efficient forms of government.
The first three countries are claimed by the authors as being meritocratic, whereas the Scandinavian countries as having open economies with public investment in human capital focused more on serving the individual than expanding the state. Both groups are what the authors considered as epitomes of good governance as they demonstrate that “government can be made slimmer and better.” The authors had concluded that given the facts cited in the book, the current Western model of the state is unsustainable. According to them, “the greatest problem of the West is not just that it has overloaded the state with obligations it cannot meet; it has overburdened democracy with expectations that cannot be fulfilled.” In response to this, they recommended policy prescriptions in legislation and in making government be more representative of the people through 1) selling or privatizing unnecessary government-owned facilities, 2) reducing crony capitalism by cutting subsidies from the rich and well-connected, and 3) reforming entitlements for people who most need them and making it sustainable in the long term.
These are what they suggest as ideal ingredients for preparing the fourth revolution. With the additional garnish of information technology and technological innovation, the authors think that this will eventually be the start of a more efficient and functional government. And the West, undoubtedly, can do the above as it already has past experiences of repeatedly reinventing its states. One of the good qualities of the book is its excellent prose. It gives off a story-telling vibe in which any reader can follow what the authors want to portray. This is a scholarly yet a highly readable book packed with an impeccable research with the authors’ wide historical intellect of early theorists like that of Hobbes, Mill, Webb, and Friedman—the ideas that these theorists had promoted are succinctly portrayed in the book. I also appreciate how the authors try to suggest positive changes to pull the West out of its present unsustainable government approaches by using examples of several governments that have managed to “get things right.
” It depicts how even though it seems like Western states are progressive countries, they are actually countries with large and often badly working governments. Surely, not all “bigger is better” is correct. Nonetheless, despite the good qualities found in the book, its pragmatic stance rather than ideological style has also its downsides. For one, the authors, despite the various theories and ideas they had presented, offer no new and coherent theory of change, agency, and action to truly reinvent the state.
Ideas such as technological innovation and efficient bureaucracy through utilization of information technology and privatization of public services can be considered as old school. Basically, it is more like a partial getting back to the previous state of Mill derived also by spending cuts and privatization. Moreover, their repeated suggestions of freer markets, privatization of public corporations, and government deregulation of economic activities are the main arguments of a “neoclassical counterrevolution” or the neoliberal thinking. There is nothing new in this. I also do not think that the authors had thoroughly explained how this fourth revolution would address bigger problems such as the rising disparity between the rich and the poor, social fragmentation, etc. The last revolution towards the promotion of smaller governments had failed: what is the guarantee that it can withstand the ideal form of government? People hate change.
More so if these changes include taking away all their privileges and entitlements to produce another type of unsure government. Most of the problems of the next decades will be about dealing with the elderly more than the poor. And this increasing number of aging countries nowadays are demanding more and more welfare services. Furthermore, the implication that the size of the state is tied to the notion of freedom and efficiency (in this case, small government is the best government), leaves behind the question of what the people think the real role of the state is. Majority of the people do not mind the true meaning of “freedom” or “equality” so long as they have food, shelter, good schools, clean and safe environment and living a good, healthy, and meaningful lives. Give them these and they will not complain much whether the state is small or the status of inequality.
In short, they had become apathetic to the inside workings of the government as long as they can reap the benefits the state provides for them. In relation to this, nobody wants to abolish the cherished freedoms that come with democracy. Thus, I recommend that arguments are still yet to be made as to whether smaller is really better because a society where people are deprived of their basic necessities is worse than a bloated state.
Eventually, it all comes down to education. Proper education of the masses is still the key to our survival. And this book can, more or less, enlighten the readers to think of what is best for the most of us.