The Fourth Revolution

The Fourth Revolution, a new ‘zeitgeist’ book by the editor-in-chief and management wditor of the Economist, is a brilliant book both in conception and execution. While the critic can find nits at which to pick (the observation that Ed Miliband ‘owes his position to votes from public sector unions’ being one such), it is an ambitious book that arguably succeeds in its ambition: to frame a contemporary political argument in historical and geopolitical context.

Its argument is essentially that the ineffectiveness and inefficiency of the state in many democracies is undermining liberal democracy in the eyes of voters and that reform of the state is vital to safeguard democracy from future challenges to its legitimacy: ‘The great problem in 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.’

Its pacy and compelling prose canters through what it deems to be the ‘first three’ revolutions: the creation of the Hobbesian centralised state; followed by the 19th-century trend to replace ‘regal patronage systems (‘Old Corruption’)’ with Gladstonian liberal government; and the third revolution of the 20th century to which the authors of The Fourth Revolution give great credit to the Fabian Society: the creation of the welfare state. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan are credited with ‘a half revolution’ because ‘it failed in the end’ to reduce the size if the state.

For the authors, liberal democratic states are now threatened, not just in relative terms by the success of authoritarian state systems in China and Singapore, but by declining voter confidence in democratic leaders: ‘the modern overloaded state is a threat to democracy: the more responsibilities leviathan assumes, the worse it performs them.’

This is not a conservative book. The authors’ scepticism of the state is balanced by an awareness of the naivety of: ‘the libertarian idea that government is a necessary evil. Too little government is more dangerous than too much: you would have to be crazy to prefer to live in a failed state like the Congo, where the absence if leviathan makes life truly ‘nasty, brutish and short’, than in a well-run big state like Denmark … America’s supposedly ‘private’ healthcare system costs its inhabitants more in taxes and delivers worse health than the Swedes’ one. One reason why Germany is so much more successful than Greece is that it has a successful state that is capable of gathering taxes, providing services and commanding respect. The same could be said of Singapore versus Malaysia, China versus Russia or Chile versus Argentina.’

But there is a powerful message for the next Labour government: ‘the left has more to gain than the right from improving the management of government for the simple reason that the left invests more hope in the capacity of government to improve people’s lives, especially the lives if the poor. It cannot make sense for people who believe in the benevolence of government to prevent government from hiring the best people (or firing the worst), or to allow the government machine to be run by vested interests … If the left is serious about defending government, it needs to start by trying to make it as efficient as possible.’ The last Labour government was beset by Daily Mail stories of billions of pounds wasted on failed IT projects and inefficient procurement processes. To set out how we will do better next time will be an important reassurance to sceptical voters as the 2015 election approaches.

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Greg Rosen is chair of the Labour History Group and author of Old Labour to New: The Dreams that Inspired, the Battles that Divided

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The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State

John Mickelthwait and Adrian Wooldridge

Penguin Press | 320pp | £20

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