Political Order and Political Decay, Part I

I’m currently making my way through Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order and Political Decay, the second half of the project that began with his earlier book, The Origins of Political Order. I’ll be using this space to work through my thoughts on the book, try and synthesize things, etc.


So to begin (as does the author), a short recap of the arguments from that first book, which addresses the question of, well, the Origins of Political Order. Namely, how did human beings ‘get to Denmark’ (Denmark being a stand-in for a “prosperous, democratic, secure, and well governed” state [p. 25]) from the natural state of decentralized bands and tribes? Fukuyama argues that the modern liberal democracy has three constituent political institutions that developed in different times and places throughout history, which are: the state, the rule of law, and democratic accountability.


(As a quick aside, what I especially appreciate about his approach, as a holder of a degree in evolutionary biology, is that he looks at human organization through an animal behavior lens. Political institutions of all stripes have to deal with the natural human instincts towards kin selection and reciprocal altruism, and indeed the biggest struggle in the development of the modern state seems to be this need to overcome our biological impulses.)


The first of these three to develop was the state, defined as that body with a legitimate monopoly on coercion over a defined territory. These earliest states, the ones we all learn about during the history of civilization, (the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Chinese, etc) were patrimonial in nature: the state apparatus was composed of networks of family and friends of the rulers. The first modern style state, in which there is a bureaucracy selected by merit rather than connections with the ruler, and a citizen’s relationship with the state is impersonal, developed in China amidst a backdrop of constant warfare. In such survival conditions, the most efficient and effective state apparatus will outcompete the others.


The second institution to develop was the rule of law, which has its origins in religion. The idea of law as separate from the ruler developed in Europe in the wake of the collapse of the Roman Empire; as the Roman state receded, the religious hierarchy remained in place and led to constraints on the actions of subsequent political rulers. This was probably the most fascinating part of the first book for me. If you’re at all familiar with the basics of Catholic theology, it has a very legal character to it. In part, I suppose, because that’s where the law came from.


The final institution to develop was democratic accountability. In Europe, this originated in the power struggle between monarchs and the upper nobility and landed gentry. As the monarchs of these nascent states tried to centralize a scattered system in which the nobility owned land, and thus the livelihoods of the laborers in these agricultural societies. For example, to raise taxes on the populace, kings would have to first go through the nobility, which often objected. In response, the monarch would often then try to skip the nobility appeal directly to the masses In places where the nobility and was evenly matched, like England, this resulted in a shared balance of power between the monarch and the elites that became Parliament. Okay, but how does become democratic accountability? After all, early suffrage was limited only to the upper class. In Fukuyama’s telling, the rhetoric that was used by Enlightenment thinkers in justifying these systems, particularly in the American Revolution, took on a life of its own and led to what were perhaps unintended consequences.


What I mean is, one can certainly make the case that for a large number of participants in the American Revolution, while the rhetoric of ‘all men are created equal with inalienable rights’ was certainly useful, they probably didn’t actually believe it; even ignoring the obvious instance of slavery, the Founders clearly designed a political system around elites making the decisions. Some were downright horrified by the prospects of ‘universal’ (white male) suffrage. And yet, within just a generation or two, that’s precisely what happened during the Jacksonian era in large part due to these ideas being baked into the American project from the beginning.


Which brings me to what I take to be one of Fukuyama’s main points in this work: ideas have power. The history of political development is not simply a tale of materialist consequences of environment, geography, resources, etc. Ideas themselves are major players in this history. But ideas are also highly contingent. To go back to the example of rule of law: this was able to happen in Europe because Christianity happened to be a transcendental religion. It potentially could have been the case that hundreds of years earlier,if theologians had decided differently on seemingly obscure matters of theology, the rule of law would not have developed as it did.


So having set the stage, the focus of the book is on political development since the Industrial Revolution. In the next part, I’ll summarize his four particular examples of paths political development can take: Prussia, Greece, Italy, and the United States.