Singapore, under the firm leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, provides an Asian model. It provides health care and pensions comparable to America's at half the cost, with co-payments at every stage.
This Asian model is too authoritarian for Western tastes. In Singapore, Lee's party wins every election, and Lee's system is much admired and to some extent copied by obdurately undemocratic China.
But, as Micklethwait and Wooldridge argue, nations that are starting out can produce innovations impossible in nations where entrenched interests resist change, just as many countries leapfrogged landlines for cellphones.
Change is difficult, the authors argue -- but also inevitable. One reason is Herbert Stein's maxim that what can't go on won't. The other is technological change. The Webbs' welfare state is out of sync with the information revolution.
Evidence: healthcare.gov. The Obama administration had 42 months to prepare, as long as from Pearl Harbor to victory in Europe. It failed and promised to employ "private sector" methods instead.
Obamacare is an attempt to control health care on the assumption that centralized government can make better decisions than citizens can make for themselves.
That assumption, perhaps valid a century ago, is being discredited now. "The desire to control everything," the authors write, "is giving way to pluralism, uniformity to diversity, centralization to localism, opacity to transparency, and immobilisme, or resistance to change, to experimentalism."
"Trim the state and revitalize democracy," they recommend. Let a Simpson-Bowles-type commission revise entitlement law, just as the Federal Reserve handles the money supply.
End crony capitalism. Sell off federal land. Limit tax breaks -- mortgage and local tax deductions, the non-taxability of employer-provided health insurance -- for the affluent.
Here's another idea. Elect a president, unlike this one, able and willing to negotiate solutions on entitlements and taxes.