The Problem of 'Reinventing' the State

Occasionally there appear books that by their great insight and scholarship come to define the terms of the debate surrounding great controversies. The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, (New York: The Penguin Press HC, 2014), is not one of these books.

Indeed, it does try to define new terms and makes valid observations about the sad condition of the present-day State. But the two English authors seem to indulge in the postmodern mania of reinventing everything when all that is really needed is a return to roots.

No matter how many times you try to reinvent the wheel, the final product will always be round. And so it should be in dealing with the problems and distortions of the modern State. In the end, the State must always deal with the political organization and order of the nation; its role is to safeguard the common good and facilitate virtuous life in common.

But what Micklethwait and Wooldridge propose is not a return to the Aristotelian roots of the State. Rather, they seek a new reincarnation of the liberal State that now has gone square under the weight of excessive bureaucracy and burdensome entitlements.

The two authors use the rather dramatic term “revolution” to describe what should be more properly called the “four incarnations” of the modern liberal State. There was first the Leviathan State of Thomas Hobbes that put in place the massive machinery of government as a means of keeping order. The second incarnation is that of John Stuart Mill and his “night watchman” State which sought to parry the extent of government to basic services. The third phase was the modern welfare State based on the work of Beatrice and Sidney Webb and their Fabian socialist ideas. A final “half” revolution (the third and a half revolution) refers to the unsuccessful efforts of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Milton Friedman to divest the State of its bigness.  

The authors make the case well that today’s bloated concept of the State is now in crisis. They claim another incarnation or revolution -- the Fourth Revolution -- is needed.

A good portion of the book develops the notion of this Fourth Revolution, which is a confused mixture of ideas from all across the globe that are actually working to bring governments under control, often making use of advanced technology. The authors pragmatically find models in unlikely places like Singapore, China, Scandinavia, and California. And while “progress is slow, resistance is strong, and reversals are all too common,” they find solace in the fact that people in all these places are at least questioning and trying.

What is problematic about this Fourth Revolution is that there are no real unifying principles. There are no core moral values to inflame the passions of the global masses to rally behind a banner that will bring about real change. There is a vague appeal to liberty, democracy and the rights of the individual without a real consensus of what exactly is meant. As the authors would readily admit, for some these notions mean the worst instincts of unbridled passion and entitlement, while for others, they would mean responsible development of their full potential.

One gets the impression that the authors want to put the modern liberal State in an intensive care unit with technocrats employing all sorts of necessary reforms and admirable measures to keep the system alive but without addressing the basic issue of what is making it sick. There is so much talk of reinventing, re-energizing, retooling, and revising as a means to inject new life into an old body. There is, however, no guaranty that the old patient will not revert to his bloated ways at the first opportunity. 

Like the round wheel, the “reinvented” State must always return to its role of safeguarding the common good and facilitating virtuous life in common. Perhaps it would be better to look at notions of the common good and virtuous life in common that are so missing in today’s fragmented society and individualistic culture. What is needed may not a revolution or even a reincarnation, but a return to deep roots.

John Horvat II is an author, scholar, educator, researcher, and international speaker. Recently his book Return to Order ranked first on Amazon in four countries.

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