“Democracy in Australia is sinking into a self-destructive spiral. The sickness at its heart is the demise of individual responsibility and expecting more from the state when the national interest says state responsibilities should be cut, not increased. Our democratic system now works to undermine economic progress.”
That is how Paul Kelly, Australia’s most widely respected journalist, concluded an article in The Australian a few weeks ago. The article entitled “Crisis time: We can take a stand – or solve a problem” (probably gated) was published on March 29.
As far as I can see there hasn’t been much public reaction to this article. Only a small proportion of the population read articles of this kind, and most readers would still feel complacent about the Australian economy and the future of democracy in this country. It will become easier to convince people that they should be alarmed about the self-destructive spiral when the crash is imminent. The malfunction began over a decade ago and it might be another decade, or more, before crunch time.
Some other informed commentators take a more optimistic view than Paul Kelly. For example, Gary Banks, former chairman of the Productivity Commission, acknowledges that policy development is now a problem. He has suggested the a “loss of policy capability within government – Commonwealth and State - is palpable and multidimensional”. He is hopeful, nevertheless, that the problem can be ameliorated by improvements to policy-making processes:
“Yet, if this diagnosis is correct, there is hope. Unlike the adverse changes evident in our parliaments and media, changes which are arguably reflective of changes in society itself, the decline in capability is not irreversible. Unless it is turned around, however, we cannot tell whether reform has truly become ‘too hard’, as many now seem to assume”.
A few years ago I was similarly optimistic. I still support efforts to improve policy capability within government. I agree with Gary that improvements to the policy-making system are an essential pre-condition for improvements in policy. However, I doubt whether much economic reform will be achievable until we see substantial changes in the rules of the political game that will provide political representatives with appropriate incentives to pursue the broader interests of the community, rather than the narrow interests that too many of them currently seek to protect. And, unfortunately, that seems unlikely to occur until a major economic crisis is upon us.
In his article, Paul Kelly drew inspiration from The Fourth Revolution: The global race to reinvent the state, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge.
The authors of this book make a case that western societies have seen three and a half revolutions in government over the last four centuries:
- The rise of the nation state in 17th century Europe. Europe’s network of competing Leviathans threw up a system of ever-improving government.
- The rise of the liberal state in the 18th and 19th centuries following the American and French revolutions.
- The advent of the welfare state in the 20th century.
- And the half revolution in the 1980s, associated with economic reforms promoting a partial return to classical liberalism in a few countries.
This history of the revolutions in government seems broadly accurate. Micklethwait and Wooldridge associate each of these revolutions with a notable contributor to ideas about government. In sequence, the four revolutionary thinkers they chose were: Thomas Hobbes, J S Mill, Beatrice Webb and Milton Friedman. It is possible to quibble about that choice, but I will refrain. I want to focus here on what the authors have to say about the fourth revolution.
The authors argue that the fourth revolution is occurring as a result of a confluence of three forces: failure, competition and opportunity.
- The West has to change because it is going broke:“Debt and demography mean that government in the rich world has to change. … For the foreseeable future the Western state will be in the business of taking things away – far more things than most people realize”
- Competition from the “Asian alternative” is prompting change:“Chinese-oriented Asia offers a new model of government that challenges two of the West’s most cherished values: universal suffrage and top-down generosity. This ‘Asian Alternative’ is an odd mixture of authoritarianism and small government, best symbolized by Singapore’s long-term ruler, Lee Kuan Yew”.
- There are opportunities to “do government” better: “New technologies offer a chance to improve government dramatically, but so does asking old questions such as the most basic question of all: “What is the state for?”
So, what will government look like after the fourth revolution? The authors would like to see greater individual liberty emerging as a consequence of reforms that reduce government spending and relieve governments of some of their responsibilities. I would too, but we need to be careful not to confuse what we hope will happen with what we see as most likely to happen.
Micklethwait and Wooldridge published their book a couple of years ago, but it was apparent even then that many voters were becoming cynical about politicians representing the mainstream political parties. The European Union had become a breeding ground for populists who were speaking out against “incompetent and arrogant elites”. Even then, that cynicism was also apparent elsewhere. The authors suggested:
“Such cynicism might be healthy if people wanted little from the government. But they continue to want a great deal. The result can be a toxic and unstable mixture: dependency on government on the one hand and disdain for government on the other”.
Perhaps the victories that the populists appear to be winning at the moment will cause the elites to become less complacent, and less incompetent and arrogant. The political cycle may be turning, as Tyler Cowan suggested in The Complacent Class (recently discussed here). Over the longer term, the elites may come to embrace dynamism, rather than protection of their professional turf, so we might see the battle lines being drawn more clearly between dynamism and stasis. That might correspond broadly to Tyler Cowan’s depiction of the political battle as between talent (human capital) and authoritarianism, stemming from underlying fears of disruption. Since this is also a battle between talented young people and fearful old people, in my view the odds favour talent in the longer term.
It would be easier to predict what government will look like after the fourth revolution if some western democracies provided models of a successful revolution in government. Micklethwait and Wooldridge suggest that reforms in Sweden, necessitated by economic crisis, have produced “a highly successful update of the old middle way”. New Zealand provides a model of what effective government can achieve following a natural disaster. The response to crisis in Sweden and New Zealand provides better protection for citizen’s rights than would adoption of something like Lee Kuan Yew’s model of technocratic government. However, democratic government in Sweden and New Zealand might well revert, within a few years, to taking upon itself more responsibilities, until another economic crisis ensues.
It seems to me that the fourth revolution is likely to involve changes in the rules of democratic politics. This might require constitutional change in some countries, but revolutionary change might be possible in Australia and other countries similarly afflicted by voter cynicism and political fragmentation, if the major parties were to adopt a convention for accountable government. What I have in mind is that the major parties should agree that whichever party wins government has a mandate from the people to implement the tax and expenditure policies it has taken to the election. What could be more democratic than that?