This book by Micklethwait and Wooldridge is very fascinating. Both in raising many important and urgent questions regarding the state, but also in its almost total ignorance regarding the fact that the world is very different compared with the world Mill was living in, late 19th century. Below are just a few reflections. I might sound critical, but I want to stress that this is a book that I highly recommend to anyone interested in the future of the state and how we should govern ourselves in the 21st century. The fact that they are asking a lot of interesting questions - are intelligent – and come up with concrete conclusions, many that I very much disagree with, makes this book a must read.
They first list three revolutions:
1. Thomas Hobbes and the Nation-State: 1651 => 1700
2. John Stuart Mill and the Liberal State: 1859 => early 1900
3. Beatrice Webb and the Welfare State: 1920 => mid 1900
They talk about a fourth revolution and I agree that a revolution is probably needed and should be discussed. However, what they actually suggest is, in their own words, “revolution two (2) version 2.0”, i.e. what they actually want is an updated version of Mill’s revolution, number two on their list. So what they actually hope for is to go back and update an old approach that was written 100 years ago, I wonder what Mill would think about such an approach to address future challenges? This is not to say that we can’t learn a lot from history, I think everything from circular thinking to a more important role for elderly can benefit from better understanding of our history, but for questions about how the state should be run is an area where tools and cultures around participation, transparency and global challenges has changed so much that I think we must look forward rather that backwards to start with.
They think that the welfare state have become to bloated and want to reboot of the liberal state, something that they think Thatcher and Regan did a good job starting, but not finishing. They actually call what Reagan and Thatcher did (and I guess Milton Friedman would be the thinker behind it) a half revolution. In many ways that half revolution was also a full derailing of a scientific based enlightenment ideal. In my view “Ratcher” did help getting rid of some old structure that where not very helpful, but they did not contribute to anything significant in terms of building something new that benefited society. So from the perspective that they destroyed but not built anything it was half a revolution.
In many parts of the book their “old world” and UK focus is almost comical. They talk a lot about the world, but the focus is seldom very far from UK, or even London.
There are also very many things that are presented as facts that does not add up. Coming from, and living in, Sweden for most of my life it is very strange to read their description of Sweden. I do not think anyone here, not even those who sympathize with Micklethwait’s and Wooldridge’s world view would say that their description of Sweden is even close to true. The fact is that almost all of the good things in Sweden that they talk about are things that exist because Sweden have resisted the kind of arguments that they promote. The fact that Sweden and the other Nordic countries still have a very strong state and much of the positive parts, like long paternity leave with allocated time for fathers, that even our former minister of finance from The Moderate Party (the largest and dominant party of the Swedish centre-right.) support, are not mentioned in the book. Probably as it goes against the “nanny state” that they think reduces freedom.
The unconditional celebration of Thatcher and Regan is another thing that feels sad to read. Yes, these two controversial politicians did some good things, everyone does. But Micklethwait and Wooldridge should look beyond their narrow focus on the states use of GDP. E.g. Regan turned back the clock 20 years when it came to global environmental challenges. The way he behaved is best described as a market fundamentalist who did not care about reality. One of his first moves was to order the solar panels on the Whitehouse removed. "Reagan's political philosophy viewed the free market as the best arbiter of what was good for the country. Corporate self-interest, he felt, would steer the country in the right direction," the author Natalie Goldstein wrote in "Global Warming." http://usgovinfo.about.com/od/thepresidentandcabinet/tp/History-of-White-House-Solar-Panels.htm
When we look at most global challenges Reagan did not do much right. His approach to the Russian can be discussed, he pushed an agenda and the short-term results had many positive aspects, but the long-term consequences that we see today should be discussed.
Thatcher was not much better. When it comes to a responsible state it is worth remembering her quote from 1987: 'The ANC is a typical terrorist organisation ... Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land'. That the authors fail to mention this part of Thatcher’s legacy in their book, now when we live in a time where governance and human rights are more important than ever, is very strange.
It would have been a better book if Micklethwait and Wooldridge would have mentioned a few of the controversial things these two did and if those crazy things where related to their ideology that got them to almost hate the state.
I guess Reagan and Thatcher are similar to Micklethwait and Wooldridge in the way they are able to identify certain problems, but as they use simplistic tools and have an antiquated world view (where transparency, the role of China, empathy, etc. all are ignored) the results and conclusions they draw is almost always very easy to guess as they, in an intelligent way, recycle old ideas.
They have almost a student-like approach and on too many places it feels almost childlike in its rhetoric. It is as if the support staff that help them with the articles in the Economist (that I often like and that are sharp in a way that this book is not) are needed for them to get a sharp message across.
Global environmental challenges, and the capacity as well as a will to support democratic and just development are just two issues that are fundamental to working state addressing the challenges of our time. Both largely missing in the book.
Turing to the books interesting contributions I would like to start to highlight its focus on state in a broader perspective. If we look at the actual service/delivery from the three revolutions we can see where there are needs for further work.
1. Thomas Hobbes and the Nation-State: This was about saving us from ourselves. With nuclear war, pandemics, climate change today and emerging challenges like synthetic biology, nanotechnology and AI it is clear that the current state is not doing a very good job. To a large extent is that because these issues can not be adequately addressed, and in some cases hardly at all, on the national level. The threats are often part of the solutions so we need a new revolution that addresses.
2. John Stuart Mill and the Liberal State: This is about individual liberty. With surveillance, companies access to your data and new ways of PR that create a world where our mental environment are often polluted (polluted in the sense that there is too much of one thing). 3. Beatrice Webb and the Welfare State: How do we take care of those that fall behind and create a society where everyone have an equal opportunity to create a meaningful life. What does a welfare state mean in a global world. Then the big question is: What would a fourth revolution include? A revolution that builds on the others and move humanity forward. Supporting self actualization, expanding the ethical sphere to other living things beyond humans, etc. Instead of a grand narrative we might consider a WIKI-Global Governance approach where we build things in a more flexible way that allow for tailor-made solutions as the world changes.