Wednesday, July 09, 2014

On Cruelty

Judith Butler

The Death Penalty: Vol. I by Jacques Derrida, translated by Peggy Kamuf
Chicago, 328 pp, £24.50, January, ISBN 978 0 226 14432 0

London Review of Books - Vol. 36 No. 14 · 17 July 2014

‘Whence comes this bizarre, bizarre idea,’ Jacques Derrida asks, reading Nietzsche on debt in On the Genealogy of Morals, ‘this ancient, archaic (uralte) idea, this so very deeply rooted, perhaps indestructible idea, of a possible equivalence between injury and pain (Schaden und Schmerz)? Whence comes this strange hypothesis or presumption of an equivalence between two such incommensurable things? What can a wrong and a suffering have in common?’ By way of an answer, he points out that ‘the origin of the legal subject, and notably of penal law, is commercial law; it is the law of commerce, debt, the market, the exchange between things, bodies and monetary signs, with their general equivalent and their surplus value, their interest.’

In the first volume of The Death Penalty, Derrida considers the jus talionis, the principle of equivalence according to which a relation is set up ‘between the crime and the punishment, between the injury and the price to be paid’. Debt, in On the Genealogy of Morals, gives Nietzsche a way of understanding how ‘the “consciousness of guilt”, “bad conscience”’ came into the world. Earlier he laments ‘that whole sombre thing called reflection’, in which the self becomes its own object of relentless scrutiny and self-punishment. If one wants to keep a promise, one must burn memory into the will, submit to – or submit oneself to – a reign of terror in the name of morality, administer pain to oneself in order to ensure one’s continuity and calculability through time. If I am to be moral and keep my promises, I will remember what I promised and remain the same ‘I’ who first uttered that promise, resisting any circumstances that might alter its continuity through time, never dozing when wakefulness is needed. The promise takes on another meaning in Nietzsche when what I have promised is precisely to repay a debt, a promise by which I enter into, and become bound by, a certain kind of contract. What I have apparently burned into the will, or had burned there, is a promise to remember and repay that debt, to realise the promise within a calculable period of time, and so to become a calculable creature. I can be counted on to count the time and count up the money to make the repayment: that accountability is the promise. I can count on myself, and others can count on me. If I prove capable of making a contract, I can receive a loan and be relied on to pay it back with interest, so that the lender can accumulate wealth from my debt in a predictable way. And if I default, the law will intervene to protect his interest in the interest he exacts from me.

Nietzsche asks how debt and restitution became the primary framework for conceptualising criminality and punishment. Tracking the persistence of Roman law in 19th-century German jurisprudence, he argues that any injury is conceptualised as a debt, and every punishment understood as a payment. Hence the field of suffering is pervasively economised, and the contract becomes the salient model for human exchange. According to Nietzsche, all manner of injury is now modelled on the creditor-debtor relation. As injury comes to be conceived as payment in default, the psyche develops a penitentiary logic. The psychic form that payment takes is guilt, understood as a kind of perpetual payment, the debt never finally discharged. Punishment thus becomes a form of subjectivation: in punishing the criminal for having inflicted an injury/incurred a debt, a subject is formed who punishes her or himself for having failed to be calculable. And if she or he had proven to be calculable, would no injury have occurred? Not quite, for the only way to become a promising and calculable animal, according to Nietzsche, is precisely by inflicting injury on oneself, burning a memory into the will such that the memory burns time and again, every time the promise is broken and all the time until the promise is fulfilled.

Guilt becomes the psychic modality of the debtor who can neither quit nor fulfil the contract. What, then, is the psychic modality of the creditor? Nietzsche remarks on those Roman laws that allowed for debtors to be dismembered by their creditors or their legal proxies. Derrida continues the thought:

“The creditor is granted a psychic reimbursement … Instead of a thing, instead of something or someone, he will be given some pleasure, some enjoyment [jouissance], a feeling of well-being or greater well-being (Wohlgefuehl), he will be given a pleasure that consists in the voluptuous pleasure of causing the other to suffer … ‘faire le mal pour le plaisir de le faire,’ that is, of doing harm for the pleasure of it … In place of some equivalent, something or someone, one grants in return, as payment, the pleasure of doing violence (Genuss in der Vergewaltigung).”

And though Derrida accepts the translation of Vergewaltigung as ‘violence’ (usually Gewalt), it is also the German word for ‘rape’, raising the problem of whether it is possible to distinguish between sexualised and desexualised forms of destructiveness in forms of legal punishment. Indeed, the move to cast injury as a debt that requires restitution produces both guilt and sadism: the debtor becomes the one who is always paying in a situation in which nothing can finally be paid off; the creditor is always punishing, and always enjoying that apparently infinite task. The idea of equivalence, introduced first by jus talionis, allows one thing to substitute for one another by way of restitution. The point, though, seems not really to become whole again, but to profit and punish more joyfully for an indefinite period of time. Keeping his parts circulating is what brings the creditor his pleasure, and punishing debts, establishing them as unpayable, opens up a potentially infinite future for sadistic delight. The prison is established on the model of social debt, so that sentencing becomes a way of regulating, and extending, the time of debt.

For Nietzsche, and in this Derrida follows him closely, legal punishment, apart from serving its stated purposes, maintains a furtive vocation in which sadism operates through the terms of both law and morality. Nietzsche found that cruelty – indeed, ‘festive cruelty’ – pervaded these two domains. This is explicit in Bentham’s reflections on punishment, but it can also be found operating in a more subtle fashion in Kant’s categorical imperative, which, Nietzsche claimed, ‘reeks of [reicht von] cruelty’. When Kant justifies the death penalty on the basis of the categorical imperative, he demonstrates the Nietzschean point that cruelty can be, and is, masked as morality, and that the pleasure in inflicting cruelty can be, and is, rationalised as moral duty. Presaging Lacan’s ‘Kant avec Sade’, Nietzsche seeks to expose the joyous cruelty of Kant’s morality. Derrida takes it all a step further, figuring Meursault, the absurdist murderer in Camus’s L’Etranger, as a paradigmatic Kantian:

“If I know why I kill, I think I am right to kill and this reason that I give myself is a reason that one must be able to argue for rationally with the help of universalisable principles. I kill someone, and I know why, because I think that it is necessary, that it is just, that whoever found himself in my place would have to do the same, that the other is guilty towards me, has wronged me or will wrong me and so forth … given that the crime is meaningful, deliberate, calculated, premeditated, goal-oriented, it belongs to the order of penal justice and is no longer dissociable from a condemnation to death, from a properly penal act. At that point, the distinction between vengeance and justice becomes precarious.”

But Nietzsche also writes something more, namely that commercial contracts model the social contract, which requires that humans undergo an internalisation of their aggressive drives. What is internalised or, indeed, repressed by entering into the social contract is ‘hostility, cruelty, joy in persecuting, in attacking, in change, in destruction’. This internalisation can operate as sublimation, giving rise to the soul, the entire inner world, bad conscience and guilt – everything that makes man interesting. The development of this capacity comes at a very high price, what some would call neurosis, and what Nietzsche describes as that ‘serious illness that man was bound to contract under the stress of the most fundamental change he ever experienced – that change which occurred when he found himself finally enclosed within the walls of society and of peace’. The social contract, which requires the subject to forfeit the option of acting aggressively and destructively, produces a psychic formation in which the subject pummels her or himself and thereby risks becoming her or his own executioner.

Can those who oppose the death penalty escape cruelty? Nietzsche intimates that cruelty may well be primary. It can be repressed, which is a way of turning cruelty on oneself, or directed towards others in some moralised version, for example by preferring imprisonment to the death penalty (protracted cruelty, that is, over immediate death). The prohibition on aggressive action is an aggressive attack on aggression which paradoxically preserves, or redoubles, aggression even as it seeks its eradication. No one can finally do away with it. ‘The figure of abolition,’ Derrida writes, ‘is that of a death of the death penalty.’


Derrida turns to Freud’s reflections on aggression and the death drive in order to pursue this broader question about cruelty. Beyond the Pleasure Principle calls into question the exclusive operation of the pleasure principle as the organising principle of psychic life. Are there modes of destructiveness that can’t be explained by the pleasure principle? The death drive emerges as a way of explaining repetition compulsions that fail to establish any kind of sustainable mastery. They appeared to Freud first as part of ‘war neurosis’ and were set apart from forms of neurosis organised by wish-fulfilment. These forms of compulsive repetition were not in search of gratification: they were unwanted repetitions that wore down the ego. Derrida is frank: ‘At issue is a diagnosis of a cruelty that has no contrary because it is originary.’ This dialectical inversion characteristic of bad conscience – the redoubling of aggression in the effort to establish its opposite – proves important for Derrida’s approach to the death penalty and to abolitionism.

For Derrida, those who oppose the death penalty – as he did – are caught up in the same problem as those who are for it, but why? Are abolitionists perhaps seeking to eradicate the death drive – the ‘hostility to life’, as Derrida puts it, that is ‘inherent to life itself’? Is that their furtive purpose? ‘Surpassing cruelty by an apparent non-cruelty,’ he continues, ‘would be merely a surpassing in cruelty, a surfeit of cruelty.’ He notes that Robespierre changed his mind from opposing to affirming the death penalty in the space of two years, depending on what seemed more useful to him – whether he feared for his own life or wished for the death of his opponents. Those who oppose the death penalty, such as Beccaria and sometimes Bentham, seem to prefer a long, drawn-out form of cruel imprisonment, which raises the question: which camp in this debate stands for the more humane form of punishment? Wary of forms of aggression disguised as benevolence, Derrida asks whether some abolitionists are committed to other forms of cruelty that are masked by elegant moral formulations, ones that rationalise prolonging the time of cruelty and the tenure of sadistic delight.

Just as Nietzsche found Kant’s categorical imperative to be soaked in blood, so Freud thought that the Christian dictum ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ was pretty much impossible to realise. Why should my neighbour love me? he asks. And why should I love my neighbour? ‘It is very probable that my neighbour, when he is enjoined to love me as himself, will answer exactly as I have done and will repel me for the same reasons.’ Freud suggests that we can only really love those we know and that it is absurd to ask us to love the rest of humankind: hostility seems a more reasonable default position.

What seems to be at stake here is neither a random attitude of hostility nor even an occasional propensity towards cruelty, but the broader problem of the death drive. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle and then in Civilisation and Its Discontents, written ten years later, in 1930, Freud writes about a kind of destructiveness that seeks to dismantle social forms constructed on the basis of aim-inhibited social bonds, such as family, community and nation. He remarks on several occasions, in particular when considering the ambivalence constitutive of love, that the pleasure principle and the death drive work in tandem, but they should be distinguished nonetheless in terms of their final aims. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud makes two inverse kinds of claim about the relationship between pleasure and the death drive: first, he gives the example of sadism, in which the death drive ‘enters the service of the sexual function’; second, just pages later, ‘the pleasure principle seems actually to serve the death instincts,’ which are ‘especially on guard against increases of stimulation from within, which would make the task of living more difficult’. So each can be at the service of the other, which means that neither is necessarily primary. The death drive leads us towards death, in a circuitous return to the inorganic that militates against a progressive sense of time, repeatedly taking apart the social relations we build and returning us to a state of quiescence. So the two drives – or principles, if you prefer – seem to meet up again in this final quiescence in which all that is built is undone, scattered, returning the fading ego to an inorganic condition in which the organism is relieved of all excitation.

We know that civilisation produces unhappiness because social norms demand that we not act on all the desires on the docket for gratification. Ideally, aim-inhibited social bonds create communities, and the sublimation of immediate desires creates artworks or institutions or works like Freud’s. But the other problem with civilisation is that it seems actively to dismantle what it has built, to destroy what one brings into being and to attack those one loves; it takes aim at its own creations and attachments, pursuing a furtive vocation – repetitive, unknowing – that works in a contrary direction to its forward-oriented tasks and all conceits of progress. Freud ends Civilisation and Its Discontents, remarking that civilisation runs the risk of being undone by its own aggression, going so far as to voice his anxiety about the prospect of extermination.

A brief passage in the book proves quite important for Derrida’s argument. Freud is writing about the death penalty: ‘One is irresistibly reminded of an incident in the French Chamber when capital punishment was being debated.’ (I take it that this is the 1790s.) ‘A member had been passionately supporting its abolition and his speech was being received with tumultuous applause, when a voice from the hall called out: “Que messieurs les assassins commencent!”’ It is as if the call to let the assassins begin their work is of a part with the passions aroused by abolitionist discourse itself. Are abolitionists like anti-pornography campaigners who end up exciting their supporters with their graphic descriptions of the porn they would get rid of? Abolitionism has a different problem, since here it isn’t so much desire but the death drive that cloaks itself in moral opposition to its own expressions. Does Derrida’s reading suggest that opposition to the death penalty can quickly be converted into its opposite, unleashing a celebratory affirmation of its destructiveness?

Derrida rehearses Baudelaire’s criticism of Hugo’s abolitionism in ‘The Last Day of a Condemned Man’ (1829), in which the argument is made that the death penalty should be opposed because the right to life is absolute. Abolitionism in defence of an absolute right to life is, for Baudelaire, as Derrida reminds us, ‘doubly guilty’: it clings to animal existence and abandons the human. The passion of those who oppose the death penalty is guilty, he remarks, ‘because they are afraid for their own skins, because they feel guilty and their tremulations are a confession; they confess, with the symptom of their abolitionism as it were, that they want to save their lives, that they tremble for themselves because … unconsciously, they feel guilty of a mortal sin.’ So the passion against the punishment is articulated by those who are guilty not for what they do, but for what they wish they did not wish – to do away with someone. But also because they fear losing their own lives, so formulate their position not from principle, but from fear of being done away with by another: ‘I want to abolish the death penalty because I am afraid of being condemned.’

Derrida’s move to expose the way that the abolitionists are implicated in the death drive has a certain intellectual appeal, resting as it does on a dialectical inversion by which those who oppose the death penalty are implicated in its cruelty, especially when they prefer forms of imprisonment. (At one point he generalises from the case of abolitionism, remarking on ‘the hypocrisy that animates and agitates the defenders of just causes’.) Here is a rejoinder. Derrida’s position implies that the only route to an abolitionist position is through the violent suppression of the aggressive impulse, a redoubling of aggression that is now conveyed and amplified by moral instruments. But given that aggression can be interrupted by more relational orientations, why wouldn’t opposition to the death penalty emerge from those? The pleasure principle intervenes to derail aggression time and again, and I have noted already that for Freud the death drive can be brought within the service of the pleasure principle, and that pleasure can serve the purpose of creating and reproducing social bonds. In the context of preserved social bonds, aggression can become agonism, or it can be strictly contained within the rules of a game: a sadomasochistic sexual scene, for example, or some other rule-bound activity.

But there is a more general argument to be made, concerning Freud’s idea of emotional ambivalence. This idea is there early on in his interpretations of Hamlet in The Interpretation of Dreams; it gets a chapter in Totem and Taboo and is central to the explanation of melancholia in ‘Mourning and Melancholia’. After 1920, it is recast as a mode of entanglement between the pleasure principle and the death drive. There is no overcoming ambivalence in love, since we are always at risk of destroying what we are most attached to and vulnerable to being destroyed by those on whom we are most dependent. According to this later model, Oedipus doesn’t necessarily kill the father in order to have the mother (that would be to posit wish-fulfilment as the final aim of all murderous wishes); he could be moved by various unconscious motives in killing the father, and sexual gratification may or may not be among them.

So the problem with Derrida’s dialectical inversion is that it relies on the death drive, or its principal exponent, aggression, as the only motive operating in the scene. What ethical decisions emerge from the ambivalent situation of wanting someone to die and at the same time wanting them to live, and even wanting both things with equal intensity, but at different levels of consciousness? Ambivalence isn’t quite the same as hypocrisy. I am a hypocrite if, however furtively, I want someone to die, or am possessed by a murderous wish even as I cloak that wish in a moral argument, say, against the death penalty. I am a hypocrite only if there is a wish I pretend I do not have, but in fact do. In the condition of ambivalence, however, there are at least two wishes at work, two true motives struggling to coexist despite their incompatibility. What then works against the inner demand that someone pay for a crime with his or her life? Is it only when we might enjoy inflicting further pain on the criminal that we wish she or he would live? Or are there other reasons why we might want them to live? Are there, even within the terms of psychoanalysis, reasons for wanting to keep the other alive that do not primarily rely on our wish to continue torturing that other, even when it isn’t someone in particular, but an anonymous other or the general population?

To answer that question, we have also to ask whether there are social relations outside the terms of debt and payment, relations that might be understood as being outside capital, or outside the psychic and moral terms by which injury-cum-debt authorises incarceration and the death penalty. This is already to move from a drive theory to an account of relationality, but that doesn’t mean we can dispense so easily with the problem of destructiveness. After all, when Freud posits Eros and Thanatos as two separate principles, as drives which belong to the figural language available to him, he is trying to take account of ambivalence. Eros may well be defined as building social bonds through sublimation, but love, we should remember, is also constituted by ambivalence. This is the very point from which Melanie Klein departs, suggesting that the ambivalence of all human bonds is the basis of an ethical demand to preserve precisely the life it is in one’s power, and sometimes also in one’s interest, to destroy.
‘The power of love – which is the manifestation of the forces which tend to preserve life – is there in the baby as well as the destructive impulses,’ Klein writes in ‘Love, Guilt and Reparation’. The fantasy of destroying becomes coupled with the fear of losing those on whom one is absolutely dependent. To do away with the one on whom I depend for food and shelter and survival is to imperil my own existence. The ‘fear of losing’ emerges time and again in Klein: ‘There is … in the unconscious mind a tendency to give [the mother] up, which is counteracted by the urgent desire to keep her for ever.’ This form of ambivalence emerges developmentally as an emotional bind when individuation isn’t complete. But since individuation is never complete, and dependency never really overcome, a broader ethical dilemma emerges: how not to destroy the other or others whom I need in order to live. It isn’t a matter of calculating that destroying them would probably be a bad idea. Rather, it is a matter of recognising that dependency fundamentally defines us: it is something I never quite outgrow, no matter how old and how individuated I may seem. And it isn’t that you and I are the same; rather, it is that we invariably lean towards and on each other, and it is impossible to think about either of us without the other. If I seek to preserve your life, it is not only because it is in my self-interest to do so, or because I have wagered that it will bring about better consequences for me. It is because I am already tied to you in a social bond without which this ‘I’ cannot be thought. So, what implications does the thesis of emotional ambivalence in love have for thinking about alternatives to the death penalty and for legal violence more generally? Is there a way to move beyond the dialectical relation between the punishment of the death penalty and the life sentence?


Following Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence’, Derrida underscores the toxic intimacy between crime and its legal remedy. The law distinguishes between legitimate and illegitimate forms of the death penalty, establishing the procedures by which that distinction is made. It also establishes the grounds on which the state can inflict deadly violence either in war or through such legal instruments as the death penalty. The death penalty, for Derrida, considered as a form of legal violence, closes down the distinction between justice and vengeance: justice becomes the moralised form that vengeance assumes.

It’s striking that this view is held in common by Derrida and the activist and scholar Angela Davis. Both called for the retrial or release of Mumia Abu-Jamal (a political prisoner sentenced to death in 1982 for the murder of a policeman: his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment without parole in 2012), arguing that his overarching ‘crime’ was his affiliation with the Black Panthers. Davis understands the alternative between the death sentence and imprisonment as dialectical:

“As important as it may be to abolish the death penalty, we should be conscious of the way the contemporary campaign against capital punishment has a propensity to recapitulate the very historical patterns that led to the emergence of the prison as a dominant form of punishment. The death penalty has coexisted with the prison, though imprisonment was supposed to serve as an alternative to corporal and capital punishment. This is a major dichotomy. A critical engagement with this dichotomy would involve taking seriously the possibility of linking the goal of death penalty abolitionism with strategies for prison abolition.”

Like Davis, Derrida understands that the death penalty and imprisonment are hardly opposites, but form two modalities of an economy of vengeance. When the state kills, and justifies doing so, it enacts vengeance through its reasoning process; legal violence becomes no different from non-legal violence, except that now the state performs the act and supplies its justification. But for Davis, the task is to move beyond vengeance. Her mentor was at one time Herbert Marcuse, who in Eros and Civilisation, his rejoinder to Civilisation and Its Discontents, suggested that Eros might be expanded to create forms of community that would counter the force of Thanatos, or the death drive augmented under capitalism. He referred to the surplus aggression created under capitalism, and suggested that Freud was describing a very specific social organisation of aggression, not a pre-social death drive. He also thought that revolutionary energy, as it were, could be marshalled against repressive institutions, among them capitalism and the family. There is no drive theory in Davis’s work, as far as I know: both sexuality and aggression are socially organised. At the same time, however, there is a clear understanding that political resistance has both to build and destroy. There is no way of getting round that double demand. Davis calls for the abolition not only of the death penalty but of the institution and industry of imprisonment. The negation of exploitative and violent institutions makes use of destructiveness, but also seeks to establish and strengthen social bonds through repair and ‘restorative justice’ rather than vengeance and retribution.

If we stay within the problem of cruelty’s relation to the death drive, we may wonder to what extent the death drive, or aggression, can be fully directed by conscious political programmes such as those proposed by Davis, and whether there is always an excess to destructiveness that can’t quite be controlled or explained by the social organisation of life. The important question here seems to be whether social bonds should be understood within the framework of civilisation, or in some other way. As Freud makes clear in Civilisation and Its Discontents, civilisation will hardly save us: the moral face of civilisation, after all, is vengeance, and prisons are its exemplary institutions. In their place, Davis imagines communities that focus on healing and repair, on forms of responsibility that forge new social bonds for those who may have broken them. These bonds would be explicitly anti-capitalist, and would put an end to racist forms of exploitation. She insists that in the United States, both prisons and the death penalty have to be understood as part of the legacy of slavery, given that the disproportionate number of people in prison and on death row in the US are black or Latino men and, increasingly, black or Latino women. (The NAACP reports that African Americans ‘now constitute nearly a million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58 per cent of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population.’ Those numbers have increased in recent years. In the US today more than three thousand people are on death row, all of them poor, and most of them African American or Latino.) Davis also argues that love and forgiveness must be pursued as alternatives to retribution. This is not to imply that there is no destructiveness in this picture, but that it takes the form of ‘negating’ prisons, whose form of destructiveness damages life that ought properly to be repaired and even restored to a broader social world.

Are we really so far from the death drive here? What if we understand the death drive not only as manifested within the individual psyche, or in terms of group psychology, but as something that takes hold of institutions and guides their aims, sometimes with furtive tenacity? The call for an end to imprisonment and to prisons may not be possible, or practical, but it establishes a perspective from which we can see the way that legal remedy is engaged in cruelty. To call for an end to cruelty is to call for the destruction of the institutions of cruelty; the only question that remains is whether it would be possible to control the destructive effects that would follow from the deinstitutionalisation of criminals. The fact is that the destructive consequences of acts that seek to destroy destruction can’t be fully known in advance. This is, perhaps, where Freud on the unconscious operation of the death drive seems to have the last word, indicating a future of destruction whose exact contours we can’t know, but about which we can only feel anxiety.

For Davis, abolitionism refers to the demand to abolish both the death penalty and prisons, but also to the abolition of slavery, which remains a global phenomenon, active not only in the sweatshops of the developing world but also in coerced agrarian work in the US. Prisons too continue the legacy of slavery, acting now as the institutional mechanism by which a disproportionate number of people of colour are deprived of citizenship. The fact that the death penalty is disproportionately applied to people of colour implies that it is a way of regulating citizenship by other means and, in the case of the death penalty, concentrating state power over questions of life and death that differentially affect minority populations. Yet this power is not simply or exclusively sovereign. With the idea of a demographics of the condemned, we enter the terrain that Achille Mbembe has called ‘necropolitics’. That security companies have taken over the public administration of prisons in the US, the UK and elsewhere exposes the link between who is owned, who is put out of play, whose unpayable economic or social debt now defines who they are – and who profits. ‘The people’, the public, are established as those who must be protected from the criminal class, producing one class of people whose lives are worth preserving, and another whose lives can be easily lost or destroyed.

Does debt forgiveness enter into this picture? What would be its psychic equivalent? Would it perhaps be the operation of ‘pardon’ as a deinstitutionalising force, including the deinstitutionalisation of sovereignty and the death penalty? Derrida’s reflections on ‘pardon’ were the focus of his seminar in 1997-99, directly preceding his seminar on the death penalty. One question raised was whether forgiveness and pardon must be figured as sovereign acts, or can be ways of deconstituting established forms of sovereignty. Is there a way to conceptualise forgiveness and pardon as forms of institutional life, perhaps as the driving force that undertakes the deinstitutionalisation of both the prison and the death penalty? Perhaps the opposition to the death penalty has to be linked with an opposition to forms of induced precarity both inside and outside the prison, in order to expose the various different mechanisms for destroying life, and to find ways, however conflicted and ambivalent, of preserving lives that would otherwise be lost.

The State of the State

The Global Contest for the Future of Government

By John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge

Foreign Affairs - July/August 2014 Issue

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.” For Marshall, one of the founders of modern economics and a mentor to John Maynard Keynes, this truth was self-evident. Marshall believed that the best way to solve the central paradox of capitalism -- the existence of poverty among plenty -- was to improve the quality of the state. And the best way to improve the quality of the state was to produce the best ideas. That is why Marshall read political theorists as well as economists, John Locke as well as Adam Smith, confident that studying politics might lead not only to a fuller understanding of the state but also to practical steps to improve governance.

In today’s established and emerging democracies, few people seem to share Marshall’s sentiment and regard government as precious. Fewer still care about the theory behind it. Many instead see government as the root of many of the problems that plague their societies and express their contempt in protest movements and elections that sometimes seem more antigovernment than pro-reform. In Brazil and Turkey in recent years, huge numbers of protesters have marched in the streets against the corruption and incompetence of their rulers. In Italy, since 2011, three prime ministers have found themselves defenestrated, and in last year’s national elections, voters awarded the largest share of votes to a party led by a former comedian. In May’s elections for the European Parliament, millions of British, Dutch, and French voters, frustrated with their countries’ political elites, chose to support right-wing nationalist parties -- just as legions of Indian voters turned to Narendra Modi during elections this past spring. In November, Americans will trudge to the polls more full of anger than hope.

Much of this dissatisfaction is rooted in a despairing belief that when it comes to government, nothing is going to change. This cynicism has become commonplace -- and yet it is actually rather odd. It assumes that the public sector will remain immune from the technological advances and forces of globalization that have ripped apart the private sector. It also ignores the lessons of history: government -- and particularly Western government -- has changed dramatically over the past few centuries, usually because committed people possessed by big ideas have worked hard to change it.

It’s not only ordinary citizens in the democratic world who have lost sight of the fact that government can, in fact, change: their leaders have, as well. 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. 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. 


Providing a comprehensive account of the political development of Europe and North America would be a monumental undertaking: the historian Samuel Finer died before finishing his attempt, and the book he left behind, The History of Government From the Earliest Times, still runs to 1,701 pages. That said, one can briefly sketch out the three major developments that give the story its basic shape: the appearance of nation-states in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which brought internal order and external competition to Europe; the liberal revolution of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which replaced patronage systems with meritocratic and often much smaller government; and the Fabian revolution in the early twentieth century, which created the modern welfare state. The return of market-oriented governance, embodied by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan, represents a smaller but equally significant shift -- something like a half revolution. Each one of these revolutions tried to answer a basic question: What is the state for? And the best way to understand each revolution is to examine the answers to that question formulated by four thinkers: Thomas Hobbes, John Stuart Mill, Beatrice Webb, and Milton Friedman.

Hobbes, the founder of modern political theory and the author of Leviathan, was born in England in 1588. At the time, Europe was a blood-drenched backwater. The world’s most powerful and advanced countries were all in Asia. Imperial China was then about the same size as Europe but was unified by a vast system of canals that connected its great rivers to various population centers. Its government was similarly constructed: a country that was at least as geographically diverse as Europe was ruled by a single person, the emperor. At a time when only three European cities -- London, Paris, and Naples -- could boast 300,000 inhabitants, Beijing’s imperial quarter alone housed that many people, including many of the mandarins who helped the emperor rule his vast kingdom. These civil servants represented the best that China could produce, and they were regularly selected through open examinations.

For Hobbes, as for most Europeans, life was far less orderly. Hobbes was born prematurely, supposedly because his mother was terrified by the combination of a violent storm and a rumor that the Spanish Armada had landed on English shores. (“Fear and I were born twins together,” he wrote in his autobiography.) Hobbes grew up in a time of religious conflict, rebellions, and political plots. The dominant event of his life, the civil war between Charles I and his Puritan foes in Parliament (1642–51), claimed the lives of a larger proportion of the British population than would World War I. 

In Leviathan, published in 1651, Hobbes deconstructed society into its component parts in much the same way that a mechanic might deconstruct a car in order to discover how it works. He did this by asking what life would be like in the “state of nature.” The answer was not encouraging: men, he argued, were constantly trying to get the better of one another, trapped in a “war of every man against every man.” The only way to escape from perpetual conflict and the prospect of a “nasty, brutish, and short” life was for one to give up his natural rights to do as he pleased and construct an artificial sovereign: namely, a state. The state’s function was to wield power: its legitimacy lay in its effectiveness, its opinions defined the truth, and its orders represented justice. 

It is not hard to see why Europe’s monarchs welcomed that idea. But Leviathan also featured a subversive dash of liberalism. Hobbes was the first political theorist to base his argument on the principle of a social contract. He had no time for the divine right of kings or dynastic succession: his Leviathan could take the form of a parliament, and its essence lay in the nation-state rather than in family-owned territories. The central actors in Hobbes’ world were rational individuals trying to balance their desire for self-promotion and their fear of self-destruction. They gave up some rights in order to secure the more important goal of self-preservation. The state was ultimately made for (and of) the subjects, rather than the subjects for the state: the original frontispiece of Leviathan shows a mighty king constructed out of thousands of tiny men. 

This mixture of firm control with a touch of liberalism helps explain why Europe’s nation-states surged ahead. Beginning in the sixteenth century, across the continent, monarchs established monopolies of power within their own borders, progressively subordinating rival centers of authority, including the princes of the church. Kings promoted powerful bureaucrats, such as Cardinal Richelieu in France and the Count-Duke of Olivares in Spain, who expanded the reach of the central government and built efficient tax-gathering machines. This shift allowed Europe to escape from the problem that had doomed Indian civilization to impotence: a state that was so weak that society constantly dissolved into petty principalities that inevitably fell prey to more powerful invaders. Yet Europe also avoided the problem that had plagued the Chinese state: too much centralized control over too vast a region. Even Europe’s most imposing monarchs were far less powerful than the Chinese emperor, whose enormous bureaucracy faced no opposition from China’s landed aristocracy or its urban middle classes and thus fell prey to self-satisfied decadence.

The birth of the modern state was reinforced in Europe by technological and economic advances. The Industrial Revolution gathered people into massive cities and accelerated the speed of communication. The emergence of railroads transformed not only transportation but also governance: in earlier eras, it had made sense for royal authorities to delegate power over the countryside to the nobility and the gentry. But now that any place was just a short ride away, it made more sense to concentrate power in the hands of an efficient central bureaucracy.


The centralization of the modern state paved the way for the liberal revolution of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The transformation began with the American and French revolutions in the late eighteenth century and eventually spread across Europe, as reformers replaced regal patronage systems with more meritocratic and accountable governments. But the political shift that seems most pertinent today occurred more peacefully, in the United Kingdom during the nineteenth century. British liberals took a decrepit old system and reformed it, establishing a professional civil service, attacking cronyism, opening up markets, and restricting the state’s right to subvert liberty. The British state shrunk in size even as it dealt with the problems of a fast-industrializing society and a rapidly expanding global empire. Gross income from all forms of taxation fell from just under 80 million pounds in 1816 to well under 60 million pounds in 1846, despite a nearly 50 percent increase in the size of the population. The vast network of patronage appointees who made up the unreformed state was rolled up and replaced by a much smaller cadre of carefully selected civil servants. The British Empire built a “night-watchman state,” as it was termed by the German socialist Ferdinand Lasalle, which was both smaller and more competent than its rivals across the English Channel. 

The thinker who best articulated these changes was John Stuart Mill, who strove to place freedom, rather than security, at the heart of governance. He belonged to a very different England than the one Hobbes inhabited, one shaped more by reform and optimism than by dysfunction and fear. Mill had no experience of civil war, and the only revolution he witnessed was the peaceful transfer of power from a narrow landed aristocracy to a much broader educated elite. Thus, Mill’s central political concern was not how to create order out of chaos but how to ensure that the beneficiaries of order could achieve self-fulfillment. For Mill, the test of a state’s virtue was the degree to which it allowed each person to fully develop his or her abilities. And the surest mechanism for doing this was for government to get out of the way. In On Liberty, published in 1859, he argued that the only justification for state interference was to prevent people from doing harm to others. For Mill, freedom marched hand in hand with efficiency: the more open trade was, the more prosperous a country would become, and the less money the state would need to confiscate from private citizens. He also believed in the open competition of ideas, trusting that the unfettered clash of opinions would reduce error, persuade people to take a more active role in society, and provide citizens with moral training.  

For most of the nineteenth century, the British state did a remarkably good job of embodying Mill’s principles. A succession of British governments dismantled old systems of privilege and patronage and replaced them with a capitalist state. Government, the Victorians believed, should solve problems rather than simply collect rents. They built railways, paved roads, and furnished cities with sewage systems and policemen, known as “bobbies,” after their inventor, Sir Robert Peel. 

Throughout the nineteenth century, this kind of lean-government liberalism spread throughout Europe and across the Atlantic to the United States. Yet its moment did not last long. Mill himself typified the change. The older he grew, the more troubled he became by some profound questions, mainly to do with the persistence of poverty among plenty. How could a society judge each individual on his or her own merits when rich dunces enjoyed the best educations and poor geniuses left school as children to work as chimney sweeps? How could individuals achieve their full potential unless society played a role in providing them with a fair start? The state, he came to feel, had to do more. By its third edition, Mill’s Principles of Political Economy, the bible of British liberalism, had begun to look ever more collectivist. 

Mill was not alone: the late Victorians (and their imitators around the world) increasingly questioned the laissez-faire certainties of their predecessors, on two grounds. First, the night-watchman state stigmatized the poor: they were deprived of the vote and consigned to workhouses in order to discourage idleness and provide incentives to work and save. In his 1854 novel, Hard Times, Charles Dickens turned “utilitarianism,” the term most commonly attached to Mill’s thought, into a byword for heartless calculation. Second, British critics of liberalism argued that the only way to outcompete other nations, especially Prussia, was to expand the state. Confronted with Prussia’s world-class public educational system and effective tariffs, the British elite fretted about the naivety of free trade and the quality of their country’s breeding stock. In 1917, Prime Minister David Lloyd George worried aloud that the United Kingdom could not run “an A1 empire” with “a C3 population.”

During the first decades of the twentieth century, as the cities and factories of the West expanded, collectivism, compassion, and nationalism fused together into a call for a more potent Leviathan. If Henry Ford could invent a huge mechanistic assembly line for business, surely it was possible to do the same for government: to apply scientific management to the business of running the state and training its citizens. The collectivist dream of a new society also became a technocratic dream of a new state bent on national efficiency and global competition.


This dream was most dramatically manifested in the totalitarian nightmares of communism and fascism. But neither of those ideologies survived the twentieth century, and it is, instead, a different concept that drove the third great transformation in modern governance. That concept is the welfare state: the idea that the government should be a companion throughout the lives of citizens, providing them with education, a helping hand if they lose their jobs, health care if they fall sick, and pensions when they get old. This is the notion around which today’s sprawling Western states were built. 

One of the most important champions of that idea was the British sociologist and economist Beatrice Webb. Webb’s life typified the sea change from Victorian high liberalism to collectivism. She was born Beatrice Potter in 1858; her father was a wealthy tycoon, her mother a disciple of laissez-faire economics. But Webb went in a very different direction. She swapped London society for social work in the East End and shocked her social circle by marrying Sidney Webb, a prominent socialist activist, in 1892. 

Webb was not a political theorist in the model of Hobbes and Mill: she spent her life worrying about administrative details rather than grappling with abstract concepts. But her work -- including a ten-volume study of local government published periodically between 1906 and 1929 -- was suffused with a philosophical vision of the state as an embodiment of universal reason. In Webb’s view, the state should stand for planning (as opposed to chaos), meritocracy (as opposed to inherited privilege), and science (as opposed to blind prejudice).

Webb also reflected the dark side of big government and collectivism. She hailed the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin as the architect of a new civilization, for example, and supported the idea of eugenic planning: given that people were the building blocks of the mighty state, it was the height of foolishness for the state not to step in to manage their breeding habits.

But those extreme ideas had little bearing on Webb’s contributions to policy, which instead had the effect of gradually pushing the United Kingdom toward socialism. Together, she and her husband played a significant role in the Fabian Society, which advocated for socialist policies and an enlarged British welfare state. (The Webbs also established the London School of Economics, founded the New Statesman, and wrote the constitution of the British Labour Party.) In the United Kingdom, it did not take all that long for the state to adopt their basic principles. The British government introduced free school meals for needy children in 1906, old-age pensions in 1908, funds to fight poverty in 1909, and national health insurance for the sick and unemployed in 1911.  

By the beginning of the interwar period, most British citizens found it perfectly reasonable for their government to tax the entire population to provide benefits for the unfortunate -- a dramatic turnaround from just two decades earlier. This belief was not limited to governments led by the Labour Party: Tories continued to expand the state in the face of the Great Depression, and Winston Churchill’s coalition government introduced free education to the age of 15 in 1944. Clement Attlee’s Labour government then established national life insurance (1946) and free health care via the publicly funded National Health Service (1948). “Homes, health, education, and social security -- these are your birthright,” announced Attlee’s minister of health, Aneurin Bevan, in 1945.

In the postwar years, social democracy found even more enthusiastic champions on the European continent. Between 1950 and 1973, government spending rose from 28 percent to 39 percent of GDP in France, from 30 percent to 42 percent in West Germany, and from 27 percent to 45 percent in the Netherlands. Governments built high-rise housing projects, established new universities, and made it easier to become eligible for welfare payments. On the other side of the Atlantic, a far less extensive social welfare state evolved at a much slower pace. The United States was too individualistic, too decentralized, and too business obsessed to embrace European-style social democracy. Still, during the mid-twentieth century, even the United States laid the foundations of a welfare state: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. 

For the most part, big government seemed to work on both sides of the Atlantic. Rapid economic growth more than made up for a bit of social engineering. For the United States, the postwar era was one of unrivaled supremacy. For the British, it was an era when ordinary people had “never had it so good,” as Prime Minister Harold Macmillan put it in 1957. The French had les trente glorieuses, “the glorious thirty” years of prosperity, from 1945 to 1975, and the West Germans basked in the Wirtschaftswunder, the “economic miracle” that began during the period of postwar reconstruction. 

But Leviathan overreached. By the 1970s, the U.S. government seemed to be spoiling everything it touched: a grinding war in Vietnam, an economy hobbled by stagflation, cities wracked by drugs and crime. Around the world, the decade brought labor strikes and energy crises. Those on the political left found themselves “mugged by reality,” in the words of the neoconservative critic Irving Kristol -- as did those in the West who still considered the Soviet Union a kind of noble experiment in collectivism. As the whole Soviet Union came to seem like one giant Potemkin village, it became painfully clear that there was nothing noble about Russian communism.


Surveying the wreckage of the era, the economist Milton Friedman must have sometimes thought to himself, “I told you so.” Born in Brooklyn in 1912 to poor Jewish immigrants from Hungary, Friedman had an intellectual journey that was the reverse of Webb’s. He arrived at the University of Chicago in 1932 as a supporter of Norman Thomas, the perennial socialist candidate for U.S. president. After earning a master’s degree, Friedman worked first as a U.S. government economist. Among his major contributions was helping devise one of the most powerful (and least loved) tools of big government, the payroll withholding tax. But during the Great Depression and World War II, Friedman’s views changed dramatically, and when he returned to teach at the University of Chicago in 1946, he began to forge a very different course. 

The state, Friedman had come to believe, consistently failed to provide services as efficiently as the private sector. He adopted the pro-market, libertarian ideas of the so-called Austrian school of economists, notably Friedrich Hayek, and welded them to American populism to contrive a novel form of small-government conservatism. During the 1960s and 1970s, Friedman became an intellectual celebrity, touring the United States to denounce everything that the American left, and, indeed, most of the center, held dear: government-provided health care, public housing, student grants, foreign aid. All of these, Friedman argued, were at best a waste of money and at worst an abuse of power on the part of an out-of-control, incompetent government. “If you put the federal government in charge of the Saharan desert,” he once said, “in five years there’d be a shortage of sand.”

In the 1980s, Reagan and Thatcher tried to put Friedman’s philosophy into practice. Reagan cut taxes and eliminated regulations. Thatcher faced down the United Kingdom’s labor unions and privatized three-quarters of its state-owned companies, including such behemoths as British Airways and British Telecom. The Reagan-Thatcher model soon spread around the world, just as the social-democratic model had done earlier. From 1985 to 2000, western European governments sold off some $100 billion worth of state assets, including such well-known state-owned companies as Lufthansa, Volkswagen, and Renault. After the fall of the Soviet Union, postcommunist countries embraced the so-called Washington consensus with gusto: by 1996, Russia had privatized some 18,000 industrial enterprises. Leszek Balcerowicz, Poland’s first postcommunist finance minister, regarded Thatcher as his hero. In the 1990s, U.S. President Bill Clinton proclaimed an end to “the era of big government,” and British Prime Minister Tony Blair argued that “the presumption should be that economic activity is best left to the private sector.”

So Reagan and Thatcher -- and, by extension, Friedman -- won their battle: today, almost nobody speaks up for big government. But they did not win the war. Leviathan hardly withered away. In her 11 momentous years in office, from 1979 to 1990, Thatcher succeeded in reducing public expenditure only from 22.9 percent of GDP to 22.2 percent. Reagan failed to persuade the Democratic-controlled U.S. Congress to enact the spending cuts that were supposed to accompany his tax cuts and as a result ended up triggering an explosion in the U.S. deficit. For all the talk of the rise of neoliberalism and the “shredding of the safety net,” the state remained far bigger under Reagan and Thatcher than anything that Webb could have imagined, and it has only continued to grow in the decades since they left office.

Thus, Friedman’s revolution counts as only a half turn. Today, the dominant version of government in the developed world remains the welfare state that Webb helped devise. Meanwhile, two other questions now hang over global politics: whether a genuine fourth revolution might occur, and whether it will originate in the West.


China is the obvious focus of the debate over the future of governance. 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. China has also racked up some astonishing achievements in government reform. In the past decade, it has built a world-class university system. In the past five years, it has extended a government pension program to 240 million rural citizens -- far more than the total number of people covered by Social Security in the United States. 

But other countries are even further ahead when it comes to innovations in government, most notably Singapore, which has created what is arguably the world’s most effective administrative machine. The government recruits the best prospects to work in public service, and those who reach the top of the bureaucracy are richly rewarded with pay packages of as much as $2 million a year and with guaranteed jobs in the private sector after they leave government. Singaporeans pay 20 percent of their salaries into the government-run Central Provident Fund, with employers contributing another 15.5 percent. This compulsory savings account serves as a retirement pension and also allows Singaporeans to pay for housing, health care, and higher education. But unlike many welfare state systems in the West, Singapore’s preserves an incentive to work hard and contribute: 90 percent of what one gets from the fund is tied to what one puts in. This reinforces Singapore’s attempt to combine universal health and welfare programs with frugality; Lee Kuan Yew, modern Singapore’s founder and guiding hand, dismisses the Western welfare state as an “all you can eat” buffet.

Meanwhile, as Asian countries generate clever ideas for reforming government, the West’s greatest strength -- representative democracy -- is losing its luster. 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. The U.S. Congress has not passed a proper budget on time since 1997. The Peterson Institute for International Economics has calculated that since 2010, uncertainty about U.S. fiscal policy has slowed the United States’ GDP growth rate by one percentage point and has prevented the creation of two million jobs. France and a number of other European countries have not balanced their budgets in decades. And recent European elections have been exercises in denial -- in the French presidential election of 2012, neither President Nicolas Sarkozy nor his socialist challenger, Fran├žois Hollande, proposed cutting the country’s bloated budget or raising its retirement age. In the recent elections for the European Parliament in Brussels, right-wing parties made huge gains by blaming the EU’s problems on open borders rather than the overindulgent spending of its members states.

The poor performance of political elites has led to intense cynicism among Western electorates. Voter turnout is declining, particularly in elections held in EU member states, and membership in political parties is plummeting: in the United Kingdom, from 20 percent of the voting-age population in the 1950s to just one percent today. In 2010, Iceland’s ironically named Best Party won enough votes to co-run Reykjavik’s city council (which is tantamount to co-running the country) by pledging to betray its promises and be openly corrupt.

Such antipathy toward politics might not matter much if voters wanted little from the state. But they continue to want a great deal. The result is a toxic mixture: dependency on government, on the one hand, and disdain for government, on the other. The dependency forces governments to overexpand and overburden themselves, while the disdain robs governments of their legitimacy and turns every setback into a crisis. Democratic dysfunction goes hand in hand with democratic distemper.


This crisis of Western liberal democracy has been brewing for decades, but it has become acute in the last few years for three reasons. 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. Much of that growth was driven by Western governments borrowing huge sums in response to the economic slowdown. In Europe, the working-age population peaked in 2012, at 308 million, and is set to decline to 265 million by 2060. That smaller group of workers will have to support an unprecedented number (in absolute and relative terms) of retirees. Between the present time and 2060, Europe’s dependency ratio -- the number of people over 65 as a proportion of the number of people between the ages of 20 and 64 -- will rise from 28 percent (the current level) to 58 percent. And those numbers assume that the EU will let in more than one million young immigrants a year; if it doesn’t, the figures will be even worse. In the United States, where the baby boomers are now crossing into old age, the Congressional Budget Office reckons that government spending on medical benefits alone will rise by 60 percent over the next decade -- and will then begin to rise even faster. 

The second factor that has thrown the deficiencies of contemporary Western governance into sharp relief is the rapid development of information technology. In the past two decades, computers and the Internet have revolutionized all forms of commerce and could revolutionize government as well. Information technology has already transformed the state’s two core functions: fighting wars and collecting information. But so far, Western governments have failed to harness the full potential of the digital revolution, often stumbling in their attempts to make themselves more Internet-friendly: witness the clumsy launch of the Obamacare website in the United States.

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. 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.

At the moment, Western governments do too many things badly: it would be better if they did fewer things and did them well. The Western democratic state is ripe for the sort of spring-cleaning that the Victorians gave it, one that would build on some of the achievements of the half revolution of the 1980s and 1990s. Reagan and Thatcher stopped the state from doing many things that it had no business doing in the first place, such as running energy companies and telecommunications firms. A fourth revolution should go even further, getting government out of the business of picking winners in the private sector through market-distorting subsidies and regulations. Western governments also need to make sure that public largess helps the poor and not the already well-off. The United States, for example, redistributes huge sums to relatively prosperous people in the form of tax relief for mortgage holders, financial assistance in paying for health insurance, and subsidies for the agriculture and energy sectors. The total value of all the exemptions offered by the U.S. tax code is around $1.3 trillion, an amount that could be significantly trimmed without damaging the economy. 

Western governments should follow China’s example and take good ideas wherever they can find them. Close to home, they should pay attention to Sweden’s successful experiments with school vouchers. Farther afield, they should consider India’s progress in reducing hospital costs and Brazil’s welfare program based on conditional cash transfers, which requires recipients to meet certain goals, such as making sure their children attend school and receive vaccinations. 

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. 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.

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