Governments around the world have fallen on hard times, and the crisis seems especially acute among the liberal Western states that until recently enjoyed decades of unprecedented prosperity and stability. Western powers that ushered in the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the liberal order are now barely able to perform rudimentary tasks. When beleaguered Western leaders look over their shoulders, they see authoritarian Asian countries -- especially China and Singapore -- gaining ground. These two recent books offer competing but complementary visions of the past, present, and future of government.
Maier’s world-historical tour de force reminds readers that, for all its current troubles, the modern state has enjoyed a pretty good run over the past few centuries. Its foundations can be traced to the legal and political breakthroughs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when notions of territorial sovereignty and statehood took hold across Europe. Maier dubs the state that emerged at that time Leviathan 1.0, after Thomas Hobbes’ famous 1651 treatise. But what interests Maier most is the next great era of political transformation, stretching from the 1850s to the 1970s, when the modern nation-state -- Leviathan 2.0 -- came of age and spread around the world, representing “the most efficient engine of expansion and governance that the world had seen for centuries.” Maier reveals the deep contradictions, across decades of wars, revolutions, and modernizations, of the state, which has served as a source of both emancipation and oppression. As Maier chronicles in his gripping account, the modern state wrapped itself in legal authority, harnessed technology, established markets, acquired wealth, and launched violent campaigns of territorial expansion. By the 1970s, the modern state had vanquished all the major alternative forms of political organization: a remarkable world-historical moment.
Micklethwait and Wooldridge cover some of the same ground. But the two editors of The Economist are more interested in the state’s future than in its past -- and they are worried. In this clever and sharply argued book, they warn that the liberal democracies of the West have grown too big, a development they describe in evocative terms: “bloat,” “elephantiasis,” “omnipresent nanny,” the “supersizing” of the state. The unchecked growth of government, they claim, contributes to all the ills of today’s Western democracies: frayed social safety nets, demographic imbalances, fiscal crises, legislative gridlock, influence peddling, toxic partisanship. Micklethwait and Wooldridge argue that to fix those problems and fend off the challenge posed by the updated models of authoritarianism put in practice by the Chinese and others, Western democracy must be reinvented. Their main prescription is for governments to shrink, especially by making use of information technology to decentralize public administration. Such an approach might reduce government overreach, but the authors do not explain how it would address much bigger problems, such as rising inequality, social fragmentation, and crumbling infrastructure.