FA: The State of the State



The State of the State

The Global Contest for the Future of Government.

By John Mickelthwait and Adrian Wooldridge, July/August 2014.

The state is the most precious of human possessions,” the economist Alfred Marshall remarked in 1919, toward the end of his life, “and no care can be too great to be spent on enabling it to do its work in the best way.” For Marshall, one of the founders of modern economics and a mentor to John Maynard Keynes, this truth was self-evident. Marshall believed that the best way to solve the central paradox of capitalism — the existence of poverty among plenty — was to improve the quality of the state. And the best way to improve the quality of the state was to produce the best ideas. That is why Marshall read political theorists as well as economists, John Locke as well as Adam Smith, confident that studying politics might lead not only to a fuller understanding of the state but also to practical steps to improve governance.

In today’s established and emerging democracies, few people seem to share Marshall’s sentiment and regard government as precious. Fewer still care about the theory behind it. Many instead see government as the root of many of the problems that plague their societies and express their contempt in protest movements and elections that sometimes seem more antigovernment than pro-reform. In Brazil and Turkey in recent years, huge numbers of protesters have marched in the streets against the corruption and incompetence of their rulers. In Italy, since 2011, three prime ministers have found themselves defenestrated, and in last year’s national elections, voters awarded the largest share of votes to a party led by a former comedian. In May’s elections for the European Parliament, millions of British, Dutch, and French voters, frustrated with their countries’ political elites, chose to support right-wing nationalist parties — just as legions of Indian voters turned to Narendra Modi during elections this past spring. In November, Americans will trudge to the polls more full of anger than hope.

Much of this dissatisfaction is rooted in a despairing belief that when it comes to government, nothing is going to change. This cynicism has become commonplace — and yet it is actually rather odd. It assumes that the public sector will remain immune from the technological advances and forces of globalization that have ripped apart the private sector. It also ignores the lessons of history: government — and particularly Western government — has changed dramatically over the past few centuries, usually because committed people possessed by big ideas have worked hard to change it.

It’s not only ordinary citizens in the democratic world who have lost sight of the fact that government can, in fact, change: their leaders have, as well. Somewhat ironically, these days it’s China’s authoritarian rulers, and not their Western counterparts, who are more likely to understand Marshall’s insights into the preciousness and malleability of the state. Chinese leaders study the great Western political theorists — Alexis de Tocqueville is a particular favorite — and their bureaucrats scour the world for the best ideas about governance. The Chinese, it seems, realize that government is the reason why the West has been so successful. Until the sixteenth century, China represented the most advanced civilization in the world; after that, the West pulled ahead, thanks in part to three (and a half) revolutions in government that leveraged the power of technology and the force of ideas. Now, a fourth revolution has begun, but it isn’t yet clear which countries will shape it and whether they will draw mostly from the ascendant tradition of Western liberal democracy or from newer forms of authoritarian rule that have emerged in recent decades. …

For full article, see John Mickelthwait and Adrian Wooldridge, The State of the State, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2014.

(Emphasis added)