What is government for? That’s the central question co-writers Jim Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge explore in their recent article, ”The State of the State.” (Foreign Affairs, July/August, 2014 pgs. 118-132). They begin their quest with a review of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan published in 1681, which argued mankind was naturally ignorant and brutish and that in the interest of self-preservation, individuals entered into a social contract whereby they gave up some rights in exchange for safety. Nonetheless, according to Hobbes, the relationship of the individual to the state was one that preserved the individual rather than the reverse, where the individual served the state. (Ibid, pg. 121.)
Next, the authors move to John Stuart Mill who concluded in On Liberty (1859) that a state’s virtue rested in the degree to which individuals were given freedom to develop their talents. (Ibid pg. 123) Then, in the early part of the 20th century, Beatrice Webb along with the Fabian Society, a socialist movement, argued that the role of the state was planning to overcome chaos and was to be based on meritocracy rather than inherited privilege. To further these ideas, Webb and her husband established the London School of Economics and were founders of the New Statesman. As an aside Mrs. Potter wrote the constitution for the British Labour Party and coined the term collective bargaining.
After exploring the failed experiments of fascism and communism, Micklethwait and Wooldridge go on to examine the new forms of government arising out of the East, particularly Singapore. Singapore pays its bureaucrats well and hence has the world’s most efficient government. But its citizens may not look to it as a safety net. They are required to hold saving accounts to pay for their pensions, for example. 90% of what a person gets from the state in old age is based upon what a person saves. The result, according to the authors, combines a welfare state which is robust and yet frugal. (Ibid pg. 129)
In contrast, the United States has created a welfare system that is based upon handouts and is highly inefficient. (Ibid pg. 130) Milton Friedman, a conservative economist, used to complain, that “If you put the federal government in charge of the Saharan desert, in five years there’d be a shortage of sand” (Ibid pg. 127)
To be fair, getting the right balance between government and the individual is tricky. Despite Micklethwait and Wooldridge’s praise for the efficiencies of Singapore’s arrangement, it’s too Calvinistic for me and too repressive. On the other hand, a government that helps promote a society of equals sounds great, but how do we get there? When 1% of the population controls the nation’s wealth, the remaining 99% are unlikely to accept the social contract. Worse, as technology eliminates jobs so that a person’s worth can no longer be measured in terms of financial independence, how will the social contract look in the future?
As Micklethwait and Wooldridge suggests, the templates of the past will no longer help us as we are forced to rethink the role of government. For the times ahead we need a new Jefferson.