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Book Review: The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (Francis Fukuyama)

Like Daniel Burnham, Francis Fukuyama makes no small plans. “The Origins of Political Order” aspires to be nothing less than an all-encompassing explanation of how human beings created political order. This book carries Fukuyama’s analysis up to the French Revolution; a second volume carries the story to the modern day. This volume is mostly taken up with creating and discussing a coherent framework that explains political order before the modern era. Much of what Fukuyama discusses here is non-Western societies, which makes it particularly interesting.

The reason for the time break at the French Revolution is basically the Malthusian Trap. Before the West created societies in which productivity gains were so great that actual per capita income consistently rose, most of the world’s political orders were based on zero-sum games, where dividing the pie in your favor was the only road to wealth. This obviously has important implications for any political order (including that property rights create different incentives in a Malthusian world) and creates what appears to be a natural division (though, given that most of the non-Western world has not escaped the Malthusian Trap, it may not be a sensible division—I’ll have to see what the second volume says).

In any case, Fukuyama divides this book into four main sections: Before The State; State Building; The Rule Of Law; and Accountable Government. This is in keeping with Fukuyama’s core thesis, which is that a modern optimal state, by which he means a liberal democracy, must contain three key characteristics. These are (a) a state, by which he means an effective central government; (b) the rule of law; and (c) accountability of the state to all its constituents. Most of this book is a detailed exploration of each of these characteristics and how they developed, or failed to develop, in the context of different historical global political orders. Counterpoised to all three characteristics is the strong human tendency towards patrimonialism—having as one’s main goal rewarding family and friends. Fukuyama’s explicit exemplar of a “modern optimal state” is Denmark; he repeatedly refers to the goal being “getting to Denmark,” “known to have good political and economic institutions: it is stable, democratic, peaceful, prosperous, inclusive, and has extremely low levels of political corruption.”

Fukuyama begins his section “Before The State” with a review of how there are a lot of defective political orders today, even though towards the end of the 20th Century it seemed that liberal democracy was sweeping the world. He notes, as he does throughout the book, that there is no iron law of forward progress. Moreover, he makes clear up front that he is not a fan of the Nozickian state—as a core premise, he posits as essential a “strong, hierarchical government” resting on “a hidden institutional foundation of property rights, rule of law, and basic political order.”

Fukuyama therefore rejects the Nozickian libertarian state. A Nozickian would claim that the Nozickian state is actually the essence of things Fukuyama cites as essential, and any more extensive state is unnecessary to accomplish those things. Fukuyama would respond (and does, as discussed below) that the state must itself have a certain degree of strength beyond securing those essential things, primarily in order to prevent erosion of central power and the creation thereby of weakness attractive to outside enemies. More generally, though, Fukuyama does not fear Leviathan as long as it is bound by the rule of law and accountable; he apparently sees no inherent virtue in smaller and less intrusive government.

In this first section, occasionally Fukuyama stumbles, as when he quotes Amartya Sen to the effect that democracy is the “default political condition” and nowadays “taken to be generally right,” and then noting that “very few people around the world openly profess to admire Vladimir Putin’s petronationalism, or Hugo Chavez’s ‘twenty-first-century socialism,” or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Islamic republic.” This was not true even when the book was written in 2011. Mainstream left-wingers around the world, including the entire American left, openly and effusively praised Chavez during his entire career, writing glowing articles about his supposed success (yet another tedious example of the search for a supposed Third Way). Even now, as Venezuela collapses completely into ruin, most liberals, as usual, do not ascribe the gruesome failure to Chavez or to authoritarian socialism generally And since 2011, the number of people around the world openly admiring Putin has grown by leaps and bounds, and even Iran has been embraced by the community of nations, though neither nation has moved any closer to democracy. This, and most of Fukuyama’s few other analytical stumbles, seem to relate to a combination of his optimism and belief that, despite the many bad people out there, that most people are good and ultimately striving to “get to Denmark.” That’s probably not a safe assumption. Maybe they’re instead striving to get to Denmark’s valuables, like the migrants who flooded into Europe beginning in the summer of 2015.

Anyway, Fukuyama notes that the idea that humans voluntarily formed political orders out of some pre-social existence, whether according to the system of Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau or Paine, is silly. There was never some pre-social state of nature. Chimpanzees have a political order, and we adopted it. Band-level human organization is essentially the same as chimpanzee organization; it revolves around being tied to and favoring family and friends—patrimonialism.. Humans made such organization more complex and found ways to increase social cohesion, but it’s basically the same ways chimps act. Here Fukuyama also introduces another major theme of his book, which is that humans are driven by much more than economics—like chimps, they are driven as much, or more, by other drives, such as the desire to benefit kin, and the desire for status and recognition independent of economic benefits.

Fukuyama explains how all primitive societies have characteristics in common, one major one being the “tyranny of cousins”—family obligations are everything, and band-level societies are largely egalitarian, reducing the incentives for any one person to create additional value. At the same time, in primitive societies having large amounts of property held in common actually does not lead to the “tragedy of the commons,” and in fact works fairly well. Western-style property rights are not critical to functioning at this level. (Fukuyama also notes in passing that there is zero evidence any matriarchal society has ever existed, myths to the contrary notwithstanding.) He explains how “segmentary” band-level societies may fight with each other, but combine to fight outsiders. (To use an example Fukuyama does not use, the Hatfields and McCoys fought each other, but would likely have fought together against outsiders, or Yankees.)

Humans then created tribal-level societies—essentially bands forming together on the basis of descent from an (often fictive) common ancestor, usually with a chief having very limited powers at their head. Such tribes were capable of greater organization, greater warfare, and greater productivity. But the need to reward relatives, followers and clients was still the key—until the early Roman Empire, in fact, tribalism was in many ways the basic organizing principle of Rome, and is still very important in most of the world, including modern India and China. In such societies, there was neither a state, nor rule of law, nor accountability.

Next came state-level societies (chiefdoms, followed later by true states), distinguished from tribes by having centralized authority with a monopoly on legitimate coercion, and by being based on territory, not kinship status. Fukuyama rejects various theories of how this happened, from it being a voluntary compact to being necessary to create irrigation to merely having a dense enough population. His favored explanation is that once there is adequate wealth, population density and status differentiation, thereafter when there is organized violence arising from other people, particularly states, those not organized as states have a strong incentive to so organize, because it makes warfare much more effective. This effect is increased when geography makes movement away from conflict difficult or impossible, and by religious beliefs that also tend to legitimize central authority (e.g., Islam). He also notes that even so, in most modern states, tribalism lies just under the surface, and “complex kinship structures remain the primary locus of social life.” And so the human desire to reward kin and friends, patrimonialism, is always pulling in the opposite direction, very strongly in all societies, except in Europe, where Christianity early “undermined kinship as a basis for social cohesion.”

Fukuyama says that we don’t have to guess whether this is all true. We can prove it, using China as the exemplar. China was the first modern state, and much of its history is extremely well documented. So China is what Fukuyama turns to when starting his next major section, “State Building.”

Fukuyama defines a state as “an organization deploying a legitimate monopoly of violence over a defined territory”, which is “subject to a rational division of labor, based on technical specialization and expertise, and impersonal both with regard to recruitment and their authority over citizens.” Here, Fukuyama begins with discussing Chinese tribalism and the importance of family and kinship to all past and present Chinese social institutions, including agnatic (male-line) descent and its implications for inheritance and other social structures. (In several places in the book Fukuyama notes that traditionally a Chinese person’s obligations to his parents are greater than those to his children, a highly alien concept in the West.) China’s first proto-state was the Zhou “feudalism” around 1200 B.C., which was still largely a grouping not of lords under a ruler, but of lords and their kinship groups under a weak central state. But Fukuyama’s thesis is that what drove China to a true state structure, first under the Qin, was incessant warfare, leading to vastly greater mobilization of men for war than in ancient Rome or Greece. States were able to organize an efficient military; tax to fund that military; maintain a bureaucracy to organize that military; and administer that military over time and space.

Fukuyama emphasizes that while China created the first modern state, it totally lacked, at all times and places, both the rule of law and accountability, and thus was and is far from the “optimal state.” One particularly interesting (and lengthy) discussion here is the conflict in China between the ideas of Legalism and Confucianism. We think of Chinese moral thought, which is the only brake on the state given the Chinese lack of rule of law, as essentially equivalent to Confucianism, with its emphasis on a perfect past that must be emulated and resulting moral (but only moral) limits on societies and especially rulers. But during earlier periods, including the Qin, Legalism held sway, which was basically a positivist theory not dissimilar to modern leftist thought (and, as Fukuyama points out, to Chinese Communist thought). “The Legalists proposed to treat subjects not as moral beings to be cultivated through education and learning but as Homo economicus, self-interested individuals who would respond to positive and negative incentives—particularly punishments. The Legalist state therefore sought to undermine tradition, break the bonds of family moral obligations, and rebind citizens to the state on a new basis.” This means not even a moral brake on the power of the state. But ultimately Confucianism was restored to primacy, until Communism, such that at least a moral brake existed on the power of the state.

In the many hundreds of years of various Chinese states, the pendulum swung back and forth between central states, of varying strengths, and reversions to tribal-type patrimonialism. The reversions weren’t to true tribal-type patrimonialism, though. All actors aspired to re-create a central state—but many merely wanted that as a device to extend patrimonialism. They didn’t want to build up local power groups based on kin but rather to insert their kin into a reconstituted central government, which would act as a front for patrimonialist distribution of goods and power. Needless to say, this is not what Fukuyama considers an optimal political order.

Fukuyama then spends a great deal of time on comparative Indian history. All of it is fascinating. His ultimate conclusion is that India ended up the opposite of China—it never had a strong central state, nor aspired to it, largely because India always had very strong social groups, largely originating in and reinforced by the religious norms of Hinduism. Strong non-state social bonds and rules prevented strong state formation. In fact, India initially started down the same path of China of state formation, but detoured when Hinduism became the dominant religion. (In many ways, Fukuyama’s analysis of strong social connections preventing strong state control is reminiscent of Robert Nisbet’s theses in “The Quest For Community.”) In the context of state development, as well as more generally, Fukuyama is highly critical of those who see religion as merely a screen for other motivations, such as economic drivers, noting that “such explanations fail to penetrate the subjectively experienced coherence of the society and reflect nothing more than the secular biases of the observers themselves.” Fukuyama sees religion as both a key motivator of human actions, and very often a key component of most of the steps in the creation of states.

The third group analyzed for its state-like characteristics is the Islamic caliphate and its offshoots, including the Mamluk sultanate. Here Fukuyama emphasizes the well-known role of Islamic military slavery, whether Mamluk or Ottoman, in preventing backsliding into patrimonialism and therefore supporting a strong central state. And, of course, as those slave systems eroded, patrimonialism (a key component of human nature) returned, and the states lost power.

Finally, Fukuyama discusses how Europe was able to form states more effectively than anywhere else in the world, because the medieval Roman church undermined kinship groups, by providing both a separate power source and by encouraging legal structures that permitted property donation to the Church, thus reducing family legacy power. (He notes how, again contrary to myth, in England from an early time women could hold and sell property outside the family, as well as sue and be sued, and make wills and contracts without the permission of a male guardian.) Fukuyama posits that European feudalism, which was uniquely not kin-based and allowed smooth power and economic relations among non-related individuals, was an alternative to kinship-based systems. European feudalism was necessary to organize defenses to warfare when kinship systems had been eroded, but its creation smoothed the way to the formation of modern states, since it prevented patrimonialism.

The third major section of the book is “Rule Of Law.” Fukuyama defines this, commonly enough, as where “the preexisting body of law is sovereign over legislation,” whatever the source of that preexisting body of law. Here, most of the discussion centers around Europe, where the rule of law emerged early and which is the only set of societies that has consistently maintained the rule of law. (Fukuyama never makes it explicit, at least in this volume, but really only European societies have ever met his definition of optimal societies.) But rule of law is not, for Fukuyama, basically the same as property rights, as many libertarians would have it. He points out that, as in China, you can have “good enough” property rights and contract enforcement to permit economic growth, while still totally lacking the rule of law. In Fukuyama’s vision, the rule of law permeates all relations between the state and members of its constituent groups.

The start of Fukuyama’s analysis centers around England. He locates the origin of European rule of law in relatively strong central government in England, which led to the Common Law being centrally administered, eroding the ability of local elites to avoid the rule of law to benefit themselves. The king’s willingness to enforce the law against the such elites (combined with other features of England, like less separation between local elites and local non-elites than found elsewhere) allowed the law to be seen, countrywide, as impartial and beneficial to all. This reinforced the legitimacy of the English state, creating first in England the two legs of the tripod Fukuyama views as the essence of modern optimal government.

Outside England, though, it was the role of Catholic Church in promulgating a reinvigorated civil law based on Roman law that created a broader rule of law (although the Church also contributed to the English rule of law). After the investiture controversy between Gregory VII and Henry IV, the Church was firmly established as an independent player in European law, and was itself in many ways a modern state, a “modern, hierarchical, bureaucratic, and law-governed institution,” that had eliminated patrimonialism by mandating clerical celibacy. The Church used its authority to promulgate canon law, based on Roman law and made coherent by Gratian, thus “accustom[ing] rulers to the idea that they were not the ultimate source of the law.” And the separation of church and state also allowed room for the modern secular state, as opposed to a caeasaropapist state like Byzantium or Islam, to emerge. Fukuyama repeatedly rejects the Marxist and Weberian view of the Reformation as the key element in the creation of modern Europe as ahistorical. Instead, he points to the early exit out of kinship patrimonialism and the creation of a modern legal order, both caused solely by the Catholic Church in the early Middle Ages.

Outside Europe, Islam and India also had a form of the rule of law, though not to the degree of Europe. China never did, and does not to this day. Fukuyama emphasizes that contrary to common belief, medieval Islam was not theocratic, where religious leaders rule the state. Instead, it was caeasaropapist, where secular rulers dominate religion. This meant that in theory at least Muslim secular rulers recognized separate divine authority, which resulted in a species of the rule of law. However, the lack of any organized central religious authority in practice allowed secular rulers to never have to actually do anything they didn’t want to do. In an interesting aside, Fukuyama cites Noah Feldman to the effect that a significant driver of modern Islamism is the desire to leave the “lawless authoritarianism of contemporary regimes.” In this analysis, the demand for sharia law is not a theocratic reaction, but a demand for a more balanced regime featuring the rule of law. In other words, more religion, less tyranny. I find this compelling, though by no means the entire explanation, since there have been plenty of demands for pure theocracy in Muslim history, such as the Kharijites.

Fukuyama discusses at length the lack of rule of law in China, and the limiting device of the Mandate of Heaven. He points out that lack of rule of law doesn’t mean that Chinese despots simply squeezed the maximum out of people—in fact, quite the contrary. Fukuyama attributes this to a more general Chinese tendency to “not have the spirit of maximization,” noting how the voyages of Zheng He were a swiftly curtailed anomaly, and that the many inventions of the Chinese, such as the mechanical clock, were never pursued. Between that, lack of administrative capacity and the need for delegation, Chinese rulers hardly acted like monsters, as might have been expected with the rule of law being completely absent. Fukuyama in essence apparently believes that Chinese culture manages to work without the rule of law in a way other cultures wouldn’t—but that still makes it far from the “optimal state.”

Finally, Fukuyama addresses “Accountable Government.” He defines this as meaning “that the rulers believe that they are responsible to the people they govern and put the people’s interests above their own.” Such accountability can derive from a moral responsibility or from formal structures. Fukuyama compares how various states either became, or failed to become, accountable, thus (for some) making the final transition to a modern optimal state.

Fukuyama contrasts four different outcomes. First, weak absolutism, such as in France and Spain, where the state was generally accountable, but was unable to dominate the elites, thus functionally making the state, under the rule of law, only accountable to the elites. Second, successful absolutism, as in Russia, where accountability was totally lacking. Third, failed oligarchy, such as in Hungary, where the elites dominated the state, again preventing general accountability, and also fatally weakening the central state such that it became vulnerable to outside attack. Fourth, successful accountable government, as in England and, drum roll, Denmark! Such government arises from the right balance among the constituents of society, along with the rule of law.

As to Hungary, Fukuyama returns to his obliquely anti-libertarian message, noting “I have covered the case of Hungary in some detail to make a relatively simple point: that political freedom is not necessarily achieved by a strong, cohesive, and well-armed civil society that is able to resist the power of the central government. . . . Hungary . . . succeeded in weakening central authority to the point that the country could not defend itself from a clear and present foreign enemy [i.e., the Ottoman Turks].” “It is the responsibility of the central government to enforce its own laws against the oligarchy; freedom is lost not when the state is too strong but when it is too weak.” That doesn’t mean Fukuyama wants a strong state by itself; he wants a strong state balanced by a strong society at all levels. And, in a point relevant to modern America, “If the government cannot act cohesively, if there is no broader sense of public purpose, then one will have not laid the basis for true political liberty”—contrasting Hungary’s barons with the cohesion of English society, led by Parliament, in the late-17th and 18th Centuries.

Fukuyama ends his book with what is in essence an introduction to the next volume, “Toward A Theory of Political Development.” His major point is that political order in a post-Malthusian world is fundamentally different. I presume he develops this theme in the next volume, as well as relates his “tripod” analysis of the optimal state to modern political orders. So that’s my next stop!

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