Can China Best the West at Statecraft?

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

For centuries, China’s mandarins ran the world’s most advanced government, until the Europeans and then the Americans forged ahead, Micklethwait and Wooldridge point out:

Better government has long been one of the West’s great advantages. Now the Chinese want that title back.

Western policy makers should look at this effort the same way that Western businessmen looked at Chinese factories in the 1990s: with a mixture of awe and fear. Just as China deliberately set out to remaster the art of capitalism, it is now trying to remaster the art of government. The only difference is a chilling one: Many Chinese think there is far less to be gained from studying Western government than they did from studying Western capitalism. They visit Silicon Valley and Wall Street, not Washington, D.C.

The West pulled ahead of “the rest” because it created a permanent contest to improve its government machinery. In particular, it pioneered four great revolutions. The first was the security revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, when Europe’s princes created modern nation states. As Spain, England and France competed around the globe, they improved statecraft in a way that introverted China never did.

The second great revolution, of the late 18th and 19th centuries, championed liberty and efficiency. Aristocratic patronage systems were replaced with leaner, more meritocratic governments, focused on providing services like schools and police. Under Britain’s thrifty Victorians, the world’s most powerful country reduced its tax take from £80 million in 1816 to less than £60 million in 1860 — even as its population increased by 50%.

This vision of a limited but vigorous state was swept away in the third revolution. In the 20th century, Western government provided people with ever more help: first health care and unemployment pay but eventually college education and what President Lyndon B. Johnson called the Great Society. Despite counterattacks, notably the 1980s half-revolution of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the sprawling welfare state remains the dominant Western model.

In the U.S., government spending increased from 7.5% of GDP in 1913 to 19.7% in 1937, to 27% in 1960, to 34% in 2000 and to 42% in 2011. Voters continue to demand more services, and politicians of all persuasions have indulged them — with the left delivering hospitals and schools, the right building prisons, armies and police forces, and everybody creating regulations like confetti.

In all three of these revolutions, the West led the way. But now, as China’s ambitions illustrate, the emerging world is eager to compete again.

And why not? Over the past two years, while the U.S. political system has torn itself apart over Obamacare, China has extended pension coverage to an additional 240 million rural people. Lee Kwan Yew’s authoritarian Singapore offers dramatically better education and health care than Uncle Sam, with a state that is a fraction of the U.S.’s size. If you are looking for the future of health care, India’s attempt to apply mass-production techniques to hospitals is part of the answer. So too, Brazil’s conditional cash transfers are part of the future of welfare. At the very least, the West no longer has a monopoly on ideas.


  1. Victor says:

    The author of this piece attributes the political development of Europe to its colonial expansion: “As Spain, England and France competed around the globe, they improved statecraft in a way that introverted China never did.” But in England and France, the centralization of power and political development had more to do with religious conflicts, e.g. The English Civil War & Glorious Revolution and the French Wars of Religion, than with colonial expansion.

    It would in fact be better to say that religion had a greater influence on political development in the West than colonial expansion.

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