Commentary on Political Economy

Monday, 14 September 2020



The Wake-Up Call, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge

Singapore: the book builds a persuasive argument that investing in the state Southeast Asian-style results in a resurgence in national ability to deliver
Singapore: the book builds a persuasive argument that investing in the state Southeast Asian-style results in a resurgence in national ability to deliver © Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty

Taking a dip in the sea may, in the days of Covid-19, put you in mind of Warren Buffett. His adage — it’s only when the tide goes out that you know who has been swimming naked — has echoes in governments around the world tested by a disease. The results have been binary: some have passed, others have been caught short.

John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge have taken off their sunglasses to peer at the shallow end and work out who has done well and who has not. Starting from the response of various governments around the world, they have sought to draw lessons on governance in the west and compare failing states with countries that are succeeding.

Their book is a shot in the arm to many who have watched their public administrations struggle with the challenges of the modern world. Running through a history of the west — “more than a geographical expression. It is an idea that has freedom and human rights at its heart” — they set out why lack of investment in the state has led us to the state we’re in.

Their reflection on 400 years of creative destruction takes in vignettes from Renaissance Siena to the 1964 campaign of US presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater. It builds a persuasive argument that investing in the state Southeast Asian-style results in a resurgence in national ability to deliver, while western under-investment, with rewards going to anyone but those in public service, has been a disaster for industry.

From two noted internationalists, the picking apart of the international response, including that of the EU, is welcome. The portrait they paint is sobering and demands solutions, which they set out by reading the mind of an imagined future leader created by Dr Frankenstein from the quickened corpses William Gladstone and Abraham Lincoln.

The solutions themselves are less challenging than the diagnosis but raise important questions nonetheless: localise power, reintroduce collective national service, educate the political class and reform welfare to rebalance the financial demographics away from the old to the young.

Taking examples from Singapore and elsewhere, the authors ask what we are willing to pay to attract the most talented to serve in the public sector. Their answer — to enrich the civil service and impoverish the politician — may have a harder passage through parliaments than some other bills.

It would be easy to challenge some of their presumptions about the losers of the Covid-19 crisis, given the recent resurgence of the virus in places that are declared winners in the book. It is also tempting to pick holes in the solutions their “President Bill Lincoln” advocates, too many of which could have been drawn from the pages of The Economist magazine over recent years to be considered original. But the framing of the problem is powerful, particularly given the speed with which the book has been brought out — a credit to both the writers and the publishers.

But there is one area that could have been considered more deeply — the analysis of the way technology has changed society. Although the authors touch on the challenge, the structural difficulties that rapid technological progress pose to democracy goes much deeper than is addressed here.

Increasing automation of interactions has increased both loneliness and the potential reward to those who control the technology. That undermines the kind of collective or community ethos the authors rightly say needs rediscovery. Solutions for how to fix the future require more than the old liberal internationalist ideas polished up. We need to think about the inequality that technology is accelerating and the isolation that makes authoritarian solutions look tempting.

It’s also worth being wary of the atmosphere of defeatism that some may draw from this brief book. Democracies have a capacity for innovation and reinvention that authoritarian states struggle with. The kind of fear that China’s rulers need to instil in order to exert control leads to a structural weakness that the Covid-19 crisis also revealed — false reports, corruption and cover-ups. That should be a wake-up call for other societies, too.

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