As Asian countries generate clever ideas for reforming government, the West’s greatest strength — representative democracy — is losing its luster, argue two leading analysts. Democratic governments increasingly make promises that they cannot deliver on and allow themselves to be captured by special interests or diverted by short-term considerations, according to The Economist’s John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge.
This crisis of Western liberal democracy has been brewing for decades, but it has become acute in the last few years for three reasons, they write for the July-August issue of Foreign Affairs:
First is the increasingly unsustainable debt burden that Western states are carrying. The 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent global recession led to an explosion in public debt: according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, global public debt reached $50.6 trillion in 2013, compared with just $22 trillion in 2003. …..
The second factor that has thrown the deficiencies of contemporary Western governance into sharp relief is the rapid development of information technology. ….. Western governments have failed to harness the full potential of the digital revolution, often stumbling in their attempts to make themselves more Internet-friendly…..
The third ongoing test of Western-style liberal democracy is the impressive track records in recent years of other models, particularly the modernizing authoritarianism pursued by Asian countries such as China and Singapore. For the first time since the middle of the twentieth century, a global race is on to devise the best kind of state and the best system of government. Compared to during that earlier era, the differences between the models competing today are far smaller — but the stakes are just as high. Whoever wins this contest to lead the fourth revolution in modern governance will stand a good chance of dominating the global economy.
“Westerners have long assumed that the ideals of freedom and democracy would ultimately take root everywhere and that all countries that wanted to modernize would have to adopt such values,” they note. “But the rise of authoritarian modernization in Asia puts this in jeopardy. To remain stable and prosperous and to maintain their positions as global leaders, European countries and the United States will have to embrace the goal of smaller, more efficient government.”
“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,” note Micklethwait and Wooldridge, the authors of The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State (Penguin Press, 2014).
But citizens and leaders in the democratic world have lost sight of the fact that government can change.
“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,” they write:
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.
Innovation shifts east
The Chinese have produced a new model of government that directly challenges the Western belief in free markets and democracy. China has pioneered a form of “state capitalism” by selling off thousands of smaller companies but keeping equity stakes in more than a hundred big companies. The country has also revived its ancient principle of meritocracy by recruiting Chinese Communist Party members from top universities and promoting party functionaries based on their ability to hit various targets, such as eradicating poverty and promoting economic growth.
“The twenty-first century is sure to be shaped by ever-fiercer competition between states to figure out which innovations in governing yield the best results,” they contend.
“The liberal democracies of the Western world still enjoy a significant leg up in terms of wealth and political stability. But it’s not yet clear whether the West will be able to summon the sort of intellectual and political energy that, for the past four centuries, has kept it ahead in the global race to reinvent the state.”