Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

The Fourth Revolution

The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State
by John Micklethwait, Adrian WooldridgeFourth Revolution

There are three books contained within this text. Two work, one doesn’t, which leaves the overall manuscript feeling somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

The first is a highly readable account of the development of the modern Western state. In around 100 pages, the authors provide an engaging tale of reform and philosophical battle to change the purpose and nature of the state. This is a highly readable and engaging tale, as befitting the authors background as editor/writer at The Economist magazine. Most citizens would benefit from reading this section, either as an introduction or refresher.

The second part however breaks down, and here so did my attention. The ‘fourth revolution’ of the title is based upon applying the power of technology and non-western thinking about the state to the west. Unfortunately neither topic has been researched in the depth required, nor is quite the right language found to bring coherence to the concept either. As such it’s often hard to tell what separates the ‘fourth’ revolution from the ‘half-revolution’ of Thatcher-Reagan the authors applaud (but don’t critically engage with sufficiently). As such the book’s claim to present a new way to think about the state, equal to those revolutions before it falls far short. It is also far too reliant on occasional and out of context anacdotes to provide any kind of a cohesive message.

The final part is a solid, if well worn argument for the Western state to slim down to regain its strength. This is a liberal, not libertarian argument, and much of the advice is likely to find wide support. This part would have been much stronger had the middle section been outstanding. Almost as if acknowledging they have come short, the final section seems to leave behind most of the fourth revolution theme and return to some solid if common ideas for restoring the strength and popularity of the state through trying to get it under more control.

This is a work I’d encourage my friends on the left to read. They may disagree with some of it, but I suspect, especially those in Australia will find much to like. If for no other reason it makes clear that the problem is often ‘bad government’ rather than any abstract debate about size. There are some things government can do very well, and some things it does poorly. There will be a good advantage for the left in both policy and rhetoric if this recognition of the need to make government work can be placed front and centre. It will both give a coherence and power to many long standing progressive themes, insulate them from some of the criticisms, and enable the left to get away from a -losing- conservative defence of the status quo, and push towards radical rethinking of how the state guarantees justice and equality (such as a basic wage idea). Finally for Australians it’s also useful to see just how many ideas which are common on the left (such as means testing) are still so controversial and strange in the US or Europe.

This highlights another useful contribution of this book. This book helps demolish the myth that the US is the land of small government. It is not. America is a land with a large and highly intrusive, yet often badly functioning government. Too many Australians assume the poverty and deprivation of the US is a result of too little government. In some cases it is, but more often it is a result of bad government. Abandoning this simplistic view enables a much better understanding of why the Republicans and general American public have such a poor view of government. Ideally demolishing this idea that ‘the US = small govt’ will also help reduce the mistaken and banal criticism that any change or reduction in the role of government in Australia will produce US style outcomes. Other than conservatives who think the status quo is fine, anyone interested in improving the way the state works in Australia should abandon this lazy thinking about the USA.

In the end however, this book falls somewhat short. It promises more than it can deliver, though we should not be too harsh given the high ambition it had. While the prose is excellent it can also feel a little too polished and superficial as well given the importance and difficulty of its themes. Not bad, but not as good as it could or should be. Ideal airplane book really.

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