Bill Clinton at a rally in 1996, the year he declared that “The era of big government is over”. Photo: Getty
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Honey, I shrunk the government: a paean to the virtues of the small state

The authors argue that the west has no choice but to unfurl the banner of revolution again. The fiscal crisis and demographic changes have left treasuries creaking under the weight of debt. 

The Fourth Revolution: the Global Race to Reinvent the State 
John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge
Allen Lane, 320pp, £20

Big government is the enemy. It saps enterprise, stifles liberty and undermines democracy. That is the battle cry of The Fourth Revolution, a paean to the virtues of the small state and the free market. Its authors, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, write with a mixture of horror and fascination about the growth of what they refer to throughout as “Leviathan” (after the sea monster that provided the title of Thomas Hobbes’s masterwork).

When Bill Clinton declared in his 1996 State of the Union address, “The era of big government is over,” few dissented from his judgement. But the state turned out to have “merely paused for breath”. In the US, government spending rose from 34 per cent of GDP in 2000 to 41 per cent in 2011. In Britain, it increased from 34.5 per cent to 48 per cent. Across 13 of the richest countries, it has reached an average of 47 per cent. Without a “fourth revolution”, Micklethwait and Wooldridge warn, the west is destined for inexorable decline.

The three preceding revolutions, charted in the opening 100 pages of the book, were the birth of the nation state, following the publication of Hobbes’s Leviathan in 1651; the emergence of a constitutionally limited liberal state in the 19th century; and the growth of a more expansive welfare state in the 20th. The latter was followed by a “half” revolution in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan declared war on the Keynesian consensus with their chosen arsenal of privatisation, deregulation and tax cuts. But this Hayekian crusade “failed in the end to do anything to reverse the size of the state”.

Because of a constellation of forces, the authors argue, the west has no choice but to unfurl the banner of revolution again. The fiscal crisis and demographic changes have left treasuries creaking under the weight of debt. The rise of Asia threatens the west’s intellectual and economic hegemony, while the wellspring of technology has created the opportunity to “do government” better.

The authors hymn the example of Sin­gapore, whose founding father Lee Kuan Yew compares the western welfare model to an all-you-can-eat buffet, urging Europe and the US to emulate its sink-or-swim philosophy. It is an echo of the message beloved of the Conservative Party (whose “global race” slogan is borrowed for the subtitle) and the Orange Book wing of the Liberal Democrats.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge are, respectively, the editor-in-chief and the management editor of the Economist. The Fourth Revolution boasts the crystal-clear prose, intellectual curiosity and forensic data that are the hallmarks of that publication. We learn that half of the richest 1 per cent in the US are medical specialists; that the Australian equivalent of the cabinet secretary earns £500,000 a year (twice as much as his British equivalent); and that Italy’s GDP per head fell by 4 per cent between 2001 and 2011 (the worst growth record in the world apart from those of Haiti and Zimbabwe).

Yet if the book reflects the virtues of the Economist, it also exemplifies its vices – notably, an unbending and ideological commitment to the small state beyond any reasonable justification. The crude focus on the overall level of public spending as the defining metric of a country’s well-being is one telling example. Far more important is the composition of that spending: are a state’s resources being invested in education and infrastructure, or are they being squandered on out-of-work benefits and inefficient agricultural subsidies? To argue otherwise is to imply that there is nothing to choose between France and Sweden.

The authors do cite Sweden as an example of a state that has curbed its ruinous ways by reducing public spending from 67 per cent in 1993 to 49 per cent today. But this belies how the country maintains a level of expenditure and of taxation that, according to their logic, should be incompatible with its social and economic achievements. Nor is Sweden the exception that proves the rule. As data from the International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has repeatedly shown, there is no evidence that countries with high levels of public spending perform any worse than those with lower levels.

The recent surge in spending as a share of GDP in the US and Britain (from 39 per cent to 48 per cent in four years) was the result not of a government binge but of the financial crisis and the associated collapse of the private sector (along with higher benefit payments to reduce the economic harm from unemployment). To pretend otherwise is disingenuous.

This small omission serves as evidence of a bigger one: the failure to acknowledge, let alone confront, the failings of the market. Were a coma patient who had slept through the past decade to wake up and read The Fourth Revolution, he or she could be forgiven for believing that the 2008 crisis was caused by bloated governments, rather than bloated banks. The public alienation charted throughout the book has less to do with the growth of the state than with the collapse in living standards. It is reversing this trend, not shrinking government, that is the defining challenge of this era.

To do so will require not a smaller state, but a smarter one. A smarter state would invest more in pro-growth areas that support lasting prosperity, such as infrastructure, skills, job creation and childcare. It would focus on prevention rather than cure, by switching spending from housing benefit to housebuilding and by incentivising the use of the living wage, rather than subsidising poverty wages. It would tax the rich more and the poor less on the grounds that this is both good economics and good ethics.

Such a state should then be judged on several key measures: how dynamic and sustainable is its economy? How healthy and educated are its citizens? How open and fair is its political system? What it should not be judged on is its size. 

George Eaton is the political editor of the New Statesman

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left