Review: Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order

Photo by Fronteiras do Pensamento, CC-SA
Photo by Fronteiras do Pensamento, CC-SA

This is part of the DR Book Collection.

I’m writing this review 6 months after finishing the book for a pretty simple reason: I had precisely 100 notes to transcribe into Evernote before I was ready to write my review. That should tell you how much I got out of the book, by the way. There are a only a few books–The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion and The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning,  maybe The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates–that netted me more fascinating notes and quotes than this one did. I loved it.

I guess it’s a work of political theory, but for the most part it reads as history with a dash of evolutionary psychology. In exploring the origins of political order, Fukuyama starts by going way, way back before pre-history to make his first essential point: biology matters. In this regard, he’s echoing Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, but the relationship here is fairly specific. According to Fukuyama, the primary problem with thinkers like Rousseau or Hobbes isn’t that they got the particulars of pre-social humanity right, it’s that the concept of “pre-social humanity” is an oxymoron. Humans, as the expression goes, are social animals. And that means we’re political animals. Politics didn’t come later–after the invention of writing or agriculture –but have been there from the beginning, inextricably intertwined with our development of speech. So, from this “biological foundation of politics”, Fukuuama draws the following propositions:

  • human beings never existed in a presocial state
  • natural human sociability is built around two principles, kin selection and reciprocal altruism
  • human beings have an innate propensity for creating and following norms or rules
  • human beings have a natural propensity for violence
  • human beings by nature desire not just material resources but also recognition

After laying this groundwork, Fukuyama than goes on to describe in broad strokes the evolution of human societies from bands to tribes to states. He invokes principles from biological evolution explicitly here, arguing that societies compete against each other in ways that are sometimes (but not always) analogous to competition between animals. This analogy shouldn’t be taken too far: there are treacherous debates about whether organisms or genes compete, for example, and about the viability of group selection, but Fukuyama’s primary concern is actually with the differences between biological and political evolution, and so those nuances are forgiveably overlooked.

As for the bands -> tribes -> states progression, the basic notion is that bands (groups of no more than 100 or so at the most) are held together by actual blood relation. Tribalism is a social innovation that allows bands to come together by claiming (real or fictitious) common descent. Two bands might have the same patriarch or matriarch, and so in the face of a common enemy they can rapidly coalesce into a single unit. This capacity means that it’s fairly easy for tribal societies to defeat band societies, because every time a solitary band and a band that’s part of a tribal society come into conflict, the latter can call upon as many tribal allies as needed to win the fight. As a result almost no band societies are left in existence.1

But tribal segments are intrinsically unstable. Fukuyama cites an Arab expression: “Me against my brother, me and my brother against my cousin, me and my cousin against the stranger.” When there is no stranger to confront, the cousins go to war. When there is no cousin on the horizon, the siblings feud. And so states are yet another progression–as superior to tribes as tribes are to bands–because of their ability to support not only temporary, contingent cooperation but permanent, universal cooperation.2

Another argument he makes–and this one seemed just a little tangential but it’s interesting enough to go into–can be summarized as: ideas matter. Fukuyama says, for example, that “It is impossible to develop any meaningful theory of political development without treating ideas as fundamental causes of why societies differ and follow distinct development paths” and that ideas are “independent variables.” He’s reacting to the idea–exemplified in Marx–that to understand history in general and political development in particular, all you need are the physical factors: how much stuff do people have and what do they need to do to get more of it? He’s right to reject this idea. It’s wrong. But I think that–along with lot of other folks these days–he drastically overstates the extent to which anybody actually believes this.

It’s true that Economists talk about Homo economicus (the model of human beings as perfectly rational, self-interested agents), but never without an ironic edge. They know3 that this model is broken and doesn’t explain everything. That’s why the leading edge of critiquing human rationality intersects with economics: behavioral economics. Give economists some credit, they’ve already come up with bounded rationality as a fall-back, and you don’t do that unless you know that (unbounded) rationality is broken. Not that they’re satisfied with bounded rationality either, but economists are in the business of making models of human behavior and “all models are wrong.” Most of the folks who seem confused about this fact aren’t the economists, but the folks outside the discipline who don’t seem to be aware of the fact that economists are aware that their models are flawed.

Now, to Fukuyama’s main point: are ideas “independent variables”? I don’t think so. If Newton hadn’t figured out gravity, would some other clever chap have come along and figured it out by now? Probably so. I think that in most cases if you take out one particular genius, some other genius sooner or later comes to the same–or a very similar–realization. There’s no way to test it, but that’s my hunch. In fact, the whole business of a singular genius inventing this or that is often a delusion to begin with. Most of the really big breakthroughs–evolution and calculus come to mind first, but there plenty of others–were invented more or less simultaneously by different people at similar times.4 This is strong evidence to me that something about the historical context of (for example) Darwin and Wallace or Newton and Leibniz strongly directed people towards those discoveries. Which, if true, means that scientific discoveries are emphatically not independent. I have a hunch that’s what’s true of science is probably true to some degree of non-scientific ideas as well. If Marx had never been born, would we have Marxism? Probably not, but we’d probably have something pretty darn similar. (After all, we’d still have Engels, wouldn’t we?) It’s not like collective ownership is a new idea, after all. We’ve had the Peasant’s Revolt and the Red Turban Rebellion and many, many more. Take that basic idea, throw in a little Hegel (Marx just retrofitted Hegelianism) and presto: Marxism. If Marx hadn’t done it, and Engels hadn’t either, someone else would probably have done something similar. Maybe even using Hegel.

I don’t want to overstate my rebuttal to Fukuyama’s overstatement, so let’s pull back just a bit. I’m saying it’s probable that–in a world without Marx–someone else invents an ideology pretty close to Marxism. But does it take off? Does it inspire Lenin and Stalin? Does it lead to Mao and Castro? Do we still have the Cold War? I have no idea. And, while we’re at it, I’m not saying that if you didn’t have Shakespeare, someone else would have written Romeo and Juliet. I think that’s pretty absurd. My argument has two points: first, there’s interaction between ideas and physical contexts. Neither one is independent of the other. Second, human society is a complex system and that means it’s going to have some characteristics that are robust and hard to change (stable equilibria) and others where the tiniest variation could give rise to a totally different course of events (unstable equilibria). Maybe there was something inevitable about the general contours of socialism such that if you subtract Marx, and then subract Engels too, you still end up with a Cold War around a basically capitalist / socialist axis. Or maybe if even a fairly trivial detail in Marx’s life had changed, then Stalin would have been a die-hard free market capitalist and the whole trajectory of the post World War II 20th century would have been unrecognizable. I don’t know. I just do know that–just as ideas aren’t merely the consequences of physical circumstances–they also aren’t uncaused lightning bolts from the void, either. Ideas and the physical world exist in a state of mutual feedback.

But the primary concern of the book is this question: how do political order arise? For Fukuyama, political order has three components:

  1. State building
  2. Rule of law
  3. Accountable government

His account is contrarian basically from start to finish, but never (to my mind) gratuitously so. He argues, for example, that instead of starting with the rise of liberal democracy in the West, the key starting position is ancient China, the first society to develop a state in the modern sense. On the other hand, China never developed a robust rule of law. It was rather rule by law, a situation in which the emperor was not constrained by the idea of transcendent laws (either religious or, later, constitutional) and therefore China’s precocious, early state became as much a curse as a blessing:

[P]recocious state building in the absence of rule of law and accountability simply means that states can tyrannize their populations more effectively. Every advance in material well-being and technology implies, in the hands of an unchecked state, a greater ability to control society and to use it for the state’s own purposes.

Fukuyama’s historical analysis is far-reaching. He spends quite a lot of time on India and the Middle East as well. At last he turns his analysis on Europe where–quite apart from the conventional East / West dichotomy–he goes country-by-country to show how the basic problems confronted by states in China, India, and the Middle East also sabotaged the development of most European states. France and Spain became weak absolutist governments with state building and rule of law, but no accountability. Russia became a strongly absolutist government. The difference? The central rules of Spain and France managed to subvert their political rivals (the aristocracy), but only just barely. In Russia, the czars completely dominated their political rivals, ruling with more or less unchecked power.

Fukuyama spends a lot of this time on England, specifically, which he holds up as a kind of lottery winner where all sorts of factors that went awry everywhere else managed to line up correctly. And the story he tells is a fascinating one, because he inverts basically everything you’ve been taught in school. Here’s a characteristic passage where he summarizes a few arguments that he makes at length in the book:

[T]he exit out of kinship-based social organization had started already during the Dark Ages with the conversion of Germanic barbarians to Christianity. The right of individuals including women to freely buy and sell property was already well established in England in the 13th century. The modern legal order had its roots in the fight waged by the Catholic church against the emperor in the late 11th century, and the first European bureaucratic organizations were created by the church to manage its own internal affairs. The Catholic church, long vilified as an obstacle to modernization, was in this longer-term perspective at least as important as the Reformation as the driving force behind key aspects of modernity. Thus the European path to modernization was not a spasmodic burst of change across all dimensions of development, but rather a series of piecemeal shifts over a period of nearly 1,500 years. In this peculiar sequence, individualism on the social level could precede capitalism. Rule of law could precede the formation of a modern state. And feudalism, in the form of strong pockets of local resistance to central authority, could be the foundation of modern democracy.

It’s a fascinating argument–just because it’s original and well-argued–but I also found it convincing. I think Fukuyama is basically correct.

So a couple more notes. First, there are basically two problems that Fukuyama sees consistently eroding political order, and both of them go back to the biological foundations of politics. The first is what he calls repatrimonialization. To keep things simple, let’s just say “nepotism” instead. The idea is that the band-level origins of human nature never go away, and the temptation to use the state’s authority to enrich one’s own kin is omnipresent. His discussion of the Catholic church’s invention of the doctrine of celibacy to successfully stave off this threat (bishops kept trying to pass on their callings to their children before that doctrine was created) and the unsuccessful attempts of the Mamluk Sultanate to use slave soldiers to stave off this threat (eventually the slave soldiers grew so politically powerful that they “reformed” the prohibitions against passing on property) are some of the most historically illuminating in the book.

The second problem is human conservatism. Fukuyama doesn’t mean in the partisan sense. He’s referring to our tendency–a universal aspect of human nature–to invent and then follow norms and laws. The problem here is that once we invent our laws, we stick to them. And when circumstances change, the norms/laws (and institutions) should change too, but humans don’t like to do that. So one of the #1 causes of the downfall of political order is a historically successful state proving incapable of reforming institutions to meet a changing environment due to sheer inertia. The classic example is pre-revolution France, and here Fukuyama finds a convention with which he has no quarrel:

We have seen numerous examples of rent-seeking coalitions that have prevented necessary institutional change and therefore provoked political decay. The classic one from which the very term rent derives was ancient regime France, where the monarchy had grown strong over two centuries by co-opting much of the French elite. This co-option took the form of the actual pruchase of small pieces of the state, which could then be handed down to descendants. When reformist ministers like Maupeou and Turgot sought to change the system by abolishing venal office altogether, the existing stakeholders were strong enough to block any action. The problem of venal officeholding was solved only through violence in the course of the revolution.

That was the first note (what are the threats that political order must overcome), and we get into those in a lot more detail in his second volume: Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy.5

The second note I wanted to make was about partisanship. First, it’s important to note that although Fukuyama celebrates the rise of modern liberalism in England, he’s not promoting English exceptionalism. He spends a lot of time talking about what he calls “getting to Denmark.” His point there is that Denmark is also a widely-respected stable, modern, prosperous democracy and it didn’t follow the trajectory of England. The point is that he’s not saying: everyone, copy the English. Although he traces the origins of liberalism the farthest back in time in England, he specifically notes that if Denmark could find its own way into liberalism without retracing that path: so can other nations.

This is an important point, because Fukuyama is dealing in comparative politics, and he has no problem drawing rather sweeping (albeit justified, in my mind) generalizations when contrasting, for example, India and China. This is the kind of thing that anyone in my generation or younger (young Gen-X / Millennials) has been trained to reflexively reject. If you compare societies, it’s because you’re a racist. Given that Fukuyama is comparing societies–and that he arguably has the most praise for the English in terms of the philosophical origins of modern liberalism–there is no doubt in my mind that he’s going to be (has been) attacked as a kind of apologist for white supremacy, etc.

And that’s not true. First, because as I said he’s adamant about the fact that other nations can (and have) found their way to liberalism without imitating all aspects of English (let alone European) culture, society, or politics. Second, because he has plenty of non-European success stories. (Unfortunately, those are mostly from his second volume, since this one only goes up to the French Revolution and so doesn’t cover the explosion of democracy world-wide since that time.) Third, and finally, because he’s more than willing to look at pros and cons of differing systems. For example, going back to China and their problem with despotism, here’s a comment he makes towards the end of the book:

An authoritarian system can periodically run rings around a liberal democratic one under good leadership, since it is able to make quick decisions unencumbered by legal challenges or legislative secondguessing. On the other hand, such a system depends on a constant supply of good leaders. Under a bad emperor, the unchecked powers vested in the government can lead to disaster. This problem remains key in contemporary China, where accountability flows only upward and not downward.

This is the kind of clear-eyed, open-minded analysis that I think we need more of, not less of. It’s hard to argue, for example, with the success of S. Korea in leap-frogging from despotism to liberal democracy. There’s no reason–in principle–that China could not do something similar. (Other than problems of scale, that is.)

So here are my final thoughts. First: this is a fascinating book and it’s a lot of fun to read. It’s full of interesting history along with interesting theorizing. Second: I am convinced by Fukuyama’s arguments. And lastly, I have a lot of respect for his approach. He’s a centrist, and so he’s going to tick some people off for praising the kinds of things that radicals like to attack. If you think liberal democracy is the devil, Fukuyama is an apologist for Satan. On the other hand, it would be entirely wrong to dismiss him as a partisan hack. He interacts with Hayek a lot, for example, but this includes a mixture of praise on some points and also staunch criticism on others. He’s willing to laud capitalism (as the evidence warrants, I might add) but also to tip some of the rights sacred cows. “Free markets are necessary to promote long-term growth,” he says, but finishes the sentence with, “but they are not self-regulating.” He also savages the small-government obsession of the right, arguing that if you like small government, maybe you should move to Somalia. He’s not just ridiculing the right in that case, however, but pointing out that:

Political institutions are necessary and cannot be taken for granted. A market economy and high levels of wealth don’t magically appear when you “get government out of the way”; they rest on a hidden institutional foundation of property rights, rule of law, and basic political order. A free market, a vigorous civil society, the spontaneous “wisdom of crowds” are all important components of a working democracy, but none can ultimately replace the functions of a strong, hierarchical government. There has been a broad recognition among economist in recent years that “institutions matter”: poor countries are poor not because they lack resources but because they lack effective political institutions. We need therefore to better understand where those institutions come from.

In other words–and he returns to this point in the second volume–Fukuyama is dismissive of arguments about the quantity of government in favor of arguments about the quality of government.

His ideas are interesting, they are relevant, and they are compelling. I highly, highly recommend this book.