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The book is titled the 'fourth revolution' because the authors believe that we have had 3 and a half revolutions before our current stage. As another reviewer on Amazon pointed out, the first revolution was brought about by Thomas Hobbes, through his idea of a contract between government and the people. The two revolutions that most impact our current age, are the rise of the welfare state linked to the ideas of Beatrice Webb, and the influence of Milton Friedman on the policies of Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Mr. Micklethwait and Wooldridge consider Friedman's influence to be a half revolution because the reforms did not succeed after the Clinton presidency, illustrating that government grew in size again through the presidencies of George Bush II, and Barack Obama.
Reflecting on the message of 'The Fourth Revolution,' I felt that the history lesson was the highlight of the book. I also feel the authors provided a good prognosis of the current condition that we find ourselves in. However, I was disappointed with the solutions they offered. The first point that troubles me is their need to compare. Sure, there is nothing wrong with adopting ideas from other countries if they prove effective. However, I do not like the insinuation that we should compete and that there are countries winning 'a race,' whatever this race is. Governments, like culture, and education are adapted to the specific conditions of each country.
There are specific reasons why a government managed economy is more effective in countries like Japan, China, and South Korea than in the U.S. To learn about these reasons, again one would have to delve into history. The Marshall plan that was put in place to rebuild Europe offers some good points to start reflecting on. Much of the current economic structure of the world was put in place through mechanisms such as the Marshall plan. Government managed economies allowed war-torn countries that were behind industrially to catch up. However, the question is whether managed economies will allow these same countries to have an innovative edge.
Similar arguments can be made for education. Again, countries such as South Korea may have very good test results but there are other factors that should be accounted for, these include the homogeneity of the population, and the education style. A thought for reflection, should we emphasize rote learning, or education that teaches critical thinking, and what is the best method to assess learning? These are some of the questions we should be entertaining and not whether a certain country is ahead in the learning curve just because their students are more adept at filling in bubbles on a multiple choice exam.
A reader may challenge my current line of thinking and state that I am just offering excuses to maintain the status quo. Again, I do not have qualms with the message, just in how it is delivered. The authors are thought provoking and wake their readers up to how much waste is going on in government. However, after all the 'comparisons' this was their solution: 1) cut agriculture subsidies, 2) end entitlements, 3) make tax adjustments, 4) get rid of gerrymandering, and 5) privatize certain government functions.
For such an ambitious project, diagnosing our current malaise, I didn't feel like this was much for solutions. I felt solutions offered merely advocated a continuation of Milton Friedman's revolution to cut the size of government. Certainly a lot less pages could have been devoted to getting me to this point in their argument. Yes, and maybe all the time and effort spent on 'comparing' was meant to convince me that government could be made more effective. Yet, I felt this merely weakened instead of strengthening their argument.
Still, despite all the twists and turns, and tangents that the reader is taken on, I feel there is some merit to this book. This includes the history lesson, and the diagnosis. Yes, we could be at another turning point in history, and yes, maybe changes need to be made. However, are they the changes that the authors call for?
The first was the change to centralized states from medieval states, which were basically a loose confederation of dukedoms supporting a central kingdom. This occurred in the 1600s and was promoted by Thomas Hobbes in his book Leviathan. This change brought order within the state and protection from other states.
The second was the change to liberal democracies with free enterprise and small government. This occurred in the 1700s to the 1800s and was promoted by John Stuart Mill as well as the American Revolution. The emphasis here was on individual liberty and equality of opportunity.
The third was the change to the massive welfare states we have today. This occurred mostly after World War II and was promoted by Beatrice Webb, a Fabian Socialist from Britain, and the Democratic Party in America. Here the emphasis is on massive government spending to promote equality of results.
Today's massive welfare states are heading towards bankruptcy and the authors stress that there must be a fourth revolution to keep them from collapsing. They really don't come up with anything new but support smaller welfare states through spending cuts, privatization, and efficiency through technology. This is partially a return to liberal democracies and a continuation of the half revolutions in efficient government started by Thatcher and Reagan, and promoted by Milton Friedman.
But there is a major alternative to this western model and that is the Asian alternative. The best example is Singapore which has a government and economy that is more efficient than anything in the West. Hong Kong is another example. But the main alternative is China which is following these two models. The main difference is these three are authoritarian states, mostly without elected leaders, which have shown that free enterprise can flourish without democracy. So the main contest here is between democracy and technocracy.
But this viewpoint depends on the myth that China is run by a meritocratic elite while America is governed by the people. Actually America is governed by an elite consisting of a few thousand people in government, media, academia, and business. The worst example is the federal judiciary which has less than a thousand judges but which can overturn any law passed by any elected legislature or propositions passed by citizens, by calling their acts "unconstitutional." The constitution is worded so broadly that any act can be classified as being unconstitutional, so these elites can always impose their political solutions.
The real competition is then between the Asian elites (led by China) and the Western elites (led by America). The main difference is that China is a nationalistic monocultural country while America is doing its best to destroy its culture through multiculturalism. China has survived for thousands of years because it has been able to maintain its culture. It should be no surprise that China will probably win this contest.
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They also make a reasonable case for why the social contract between individual and State probably needs to be revised and are even quite creative when it comes to suggesting how this could take place.
The book is full of "Economist-like" quotations and statistics. Many are not properly sourced, seem questionable and the book could benefit tremendously from a few tables, charts and more rigorous analysis to support its recommendations. Having read the book you end up thinking "interesting, but weak and unsupported argumentation".
I have noted that there are a few 1 Star ratings. Some of these seem to suggest that the book takes the view that the US and Europe should emulate the Chinese economic model. Obviously the reviewer has never read the book!
It is also important to understand that the authors are politically liberal (in the UK sense of the word and with small L) and not libertarian.
The book begins largely as a philosophical examination of the early theorists of the state, mostly Thomas Hobbes and John Stuart Mill, and proceeds with a history of both the development of the modern welfare state and the comparative state models worldwide, notably China, USA, Scandinavia and France.
The book offers a conclusion that the current model of the state is unsustainable, and offer policy prescriptions, such as sunset clauses in legislation, and making government more representative of the people.
Readers of different political persuasions may not initially like the books viewpoints, nor recommendations, but even in disagreement, the staunchest critics will be unable to deny the well researched and informed nature of this book.
However, a key strength of The Fourth Revolution is it's readability. Therefore, one has the best of both worlds, a scholarly, yet highly readable book.
Written by two writers from The Economist, it should be compulsory reading for all politicians of all colours or anyone with an interest in how Government should be run!
However I recommend the book as a starting point in understanding our options for ensuring we can provide a future that supports our current living standatrds.