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‘The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State’

by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge

Penguin, 290 pp., $27.95

“The Fourth Revolution” is an argument for fixing American government. The authors, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, are Oxford-educated editors of The Economist. They are based in London but spent some years based in Washington, D.C., covering America, and have written several books about it. They offer thoughtful proposals, though works of this sort always come with a bias.

“We come from a newspaper rooted in classical liberalism, which generally places a high premium on the freedom of the individual,” they write. In American terms, they are conservatives, favoring a smaller government. “But that is a prejudice to be tested against the facts,” they add, “and not a blind article of faith.”

Micklethwait and Wooldridge reject the left’s argument that government will make better decisions if it listens a lot more to the people, especially left-wing people. Government has listened plenty, they say; the problem is that it has undertaken to do all sorts of things it is not good at. The more government undertakes to do, they write, “the worse it performs and the angrier people get.”

Write the authors, “So many of the things that the state does badly are ones where it is charged with pursuing impossible dreams.” The authors aren’t too clear on what these impossibilities are, but one can fill in the blanks: equality of income regardless of race and class, graduation of all high school students college-ready, responsible parenting of all children, and so on.

The book’s title is suggestive of revolutionary thoughts, and its opening pages declare, “The state is about to change.” Change, yes; but the subtitle, “A Global Race to Reinvent the State,” is hyperventilation. Really, the authors’ “narrower state with fewer benefits” is a reform, not a revolution, and is radical only in comparison with the paralysis in Washington, D.C.

The authors would end subsidies to farmers, as New Zealand has done, and favors to various industries. They would tighten up on disability benefits and put retraining requirements into jobless pay. They would contract out much government work, using charters or vouchers in public education. They would replace public pensions with defined-contribution plans and universal social benefits with benefits for the poor only. They are opposed, for example, to offering ever more subsidies for middle-class students to attend college: in their view, a college education is an advantage in earning a high income, and it is unreasonable to tax low-income people to pay for this. On the other hand, they say a single-payer medical system is all right.

Much of the book describes how other countries have solved similar problems, which is something the U.S. press rarely does. Sweden, the original Scandinavian welfare state, has reduced its tax burden by replacing old-style pensions with 401(k)-type plans. It also uses educational vouchers. The authors also spotlight local authorities that choose the practical over the pure. “In London,” they note, “Boris Johnson, a conservative, embraced what he called ‘an entirely communist scheme’ of bike sharing while his predecessor, ‘Red’ Ken Livingstone, introduced the entirely free-market scheme of road pricing.”

The book is written in the institutional style of The Economist, which is clear and also British, as in the use of “scheme” in the previous sentence. It is a useful look at America from the outside in.

Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle writer.