The Fourth Revolution: A book review by Bob Morris

Fourth RevolutionThe Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State
John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge
The Penguin Press (2014)

How and why “the West has to change because it is going broke [and] the emerging world needs to reform to keep forging ahead”

John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge focus on a process that led to a revolution that is now “in the air, driven partly by the necessity of diminishing resources, partly by the logic of renewed competition among nation-states, and partly by the opportunity to do things better.”

This Fourth Revolution in government will “change the world” and is preceded by three others: “The first took place in the seventeenth century, when Europe’s princes began to pull ahead of the rest of the world…The second revolution took place in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It began with the American and French revolutions and eventually spread across Europe, as liberal reformers replaced regal patronage systems ‘Old Corruption, as it was known in England — with more meritocratic and accountable government…an improved life for every citizen became part of the contract with Leviathan. That paved the way for the aberration of communism but also for the third revolution: the invention of the modern welfare state. That too has changed a great deal from what its founders, like Beatrice and Sidney Webb, imagined: but it is what we in the West live with today.”

In essence:

Revolution 1: Thomas Hobbes and the Nation-State
Revolution 2: John Stuart Mill and the Liberal State
Revolution 3: Beatrice Webb and the Welfare State
Revolution 4: Milton Friedman’s Paradise Lost

I value this book more in terms of the number and quality of the questions it raises than in terms of the answers it provides as the latest of four revolutions develops. For example, what will determine the reconciliation of the on-going competition for primacy between authoritarianism and self-determination? Which leads to another: Are these the correct terms for the two ends of the spectrum? How and when will this competition be resolved? Will the resolution be a victory, an alliance, or a stalemate? What will be the nature and extent of impact of the resolution (if there is one) on the United States? On China? On Singapore and Scandinavia? Will there be a Fifth Revolution? In that event, what will be its drivers? Who will be its chief advocate (i.e. its Hobbes, Mill, Webb, and Friedman)?

Note: I re-read this book before composing the first of several drafts of this review and am still uncertain if I am even asking the most important questions. The struggle to determine the correct answers to them seems even more daunting.

That said, I agree with Micklethwait and Wooldridge: “The Fourth Revolution is about many things. It is about harnessing the power of technology to provide better services. It is about finding clever ideas from every corner of the world. It is about getting rid of out dated practices. But at its heart it is about reviving the power of two great liberal ideas…It is about reviving the spirit of liberty by putting more emphasis on individual rights and less on social rights. And it is about reviving the spirit if democracy by lightening the burden of the state.”

That’s the potential “good news” but they also fully realize that there is potential “bad news” that reformers must keep in mind. “Democracy is the best safeguard for basic rights and liberties…but fighting against its worst instincts is tough…Unreformed, the modern welfare state will stagnate under its own weight.” Indeed, the cost of inaction is prohibitive, the opportunities are undeniable, and potential rewards (the “good news”) are abundant.

I share John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge concerns about the current state of “State” within and beyond the United States (that often seem more divided rather than united) but I also share their conviction that “the West has been the world’s most creative region” and I also share their confidence that, “because it has repeatedly reinvented the state…that it can do so again, even in these difficult times.” Meanwhile, the clock is ticking….

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