It’s now clear that the end of the Soviet Union heralded an era of democratic complacency. Without a rival system to test them, democratic governments have decayed across the globe. In the United States, Washington is polarized, stagnant and dysfunctional; a pathetic 26 percent of Americans trust their government to do the right thing. In Europe, elected officials have grown remote from voters, responding poorly to the euro crisis and contributing to massive unemployment.
According to measures by Freedom House, freedom has been in retreat around the world for the past eight years. New democracies like South Africa are decaying; the number of nations that the Bertelsmann Foundation now classifies as “defective democracies” (rigged elections and so on) has risen to 52. As John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge write in their book, “The Fourth Revolution,” “So far the 21st century has been a rotten one for the Western model.”
The events of the past several years have exposed democracy’s structural flaws. Democracies tend to have a tough time with long-range planning. Voters tend to want more government services than they are willing to pay for. The system of checks and balances can slide into paralysis, as more interest groups acquire veto power over legislation.
Across the Western world, people are disgusted with their governments. There is a widening gap between the pace of social and economic change, and the pace of government change. In Britain, for example, productivity in the private service sector increased by 14 percent between 1999 and 2013, while productivity in the government sector fell by 1 percent between 1999 and 2010.
These trends have sparked a sprawling debate in the small policy journals: Is democracy in long-run decline?
A new charismatic rival is gaining strength: the Guardian State. In their book, Micklethwait and Wooldridge do an outstanding job of describing Asia’s modernizing autocracies. In some ways, these governments look more progressive than the Western model; in some ways, more conservative.
In places like Singapore and China, the best students are ruthlessly culled for government service. The technocratic elites play a bigger role in designing economic life. The safety net is smaller and less forgiving. In Singapore, 90 percent of what you get out of the key pension is what you put in. Work is rewarded. People are expected to look after their own.
These Guardian States have some disadvantages compared with Western democracies. They are more corrupt. Because the systems are top-down, local government tends to be worse. But they have advantages. They are better at long-range thinking and can move fast because they limit democratic feedback and don’t face NIMBY-style impediments.
Most important, they are more innovative than Western democracies right now. If you wanted to find a model for your national schools, would you go to South Korea or America? If you wanted a model for your pension system, would you go to Singapore or the U.S.?
“These are not hard questions to answer,” Micklethwait and Wooldridge write, “and they do not reflect well on the West.”
So how should Western democracies respond to this competition? What’s needed is not so much a vision of the proper role for the state as a strategy to make democracy dynamic again.
The answer is to use Lee Kuan Yew means to achieve Jeffersonian ends – to become less democratic at the national level in order to become more democratic at the local level. At the national level, U.S. politics has become neurotically democratic. Politicians are campaigning all the time and can scarcely think beyond the news cycle. Legislators are terrified of offending this or that industry lobby, activist group or donor faction. Unrepresentative groups have disproportionate power in primary elections.
The quickest way around all this is to use elite Simpson-Bowles-type commissions to push populist reforms.
The process of change would be unapologetically elitist. Gather small groups of the great and the good together to hammer out bipartisan reforms – on immigration, entitlement reform, a social mobility agenda, etc. – and then rally establishment opinion to browbeat the plans through. But the substance would be anything but elitist. Democracy’s great advantage over autocratic states is that information and change flow more freely from the bottom up. Those with local knowledge have more responsibility.
If the Guardian State’s big advantage is speed at the top, democracy’s is speed at the bottom. So, obviously, the elite commissions should push proposals that magnify that advantage: which push control over poverty programs to local charities; which push educational diversity through charter schools; which introduce more market mechanisms into public provision of, say, health care, to spread power to consumers.
Democracy is always messy, but, historically, it’s thrived because it has been more flexible than its rivals. In 1787, democracy’s champions innovated faster. Is that still true?