“Political Order And Political Decay” is the second volume of Francis Fukuyama’s two-book exploration of the political formation of societies. Or, more precisely, how they ultimately form, or fail to form, Fukuyama’s perfect political society, which is an idealized Denmark. And, how even if they do reach that point, they can then fall backward—not as a whole, but in their political organization, away from Fukuyama’s ideal.
Very explicitly, Fukuyama is not focused on all aspects of society. This is not a modern attempt to update Gibbon, Spengler or Toynbee. Rather, Fukuyama is focused on political organization. In this volume, he continues his analysis of global political order, now focusing on events subsequent to the Industrial Revolution, with an eye to how we can all “get to Denmark.”
I did not find this book as satisfying as the first volume. It’s not bad, but it is somewhat repetitive, and mostly piggybacks off the excellent framework, comparative historical analysis, and discussion of the first volume. My biggest overall criticism, though, is that Fukuyama is a technocrat, with a technocrat’s insights and a technocrat’s blinders. Most importantly, he views the role of technocrat, in the form of a powerful bureaucracy in the service of a strong central government, as the critical one for every society. In his view, a society without empowered technocrats, one without that form of central planning and authority, is a society that is bound to politically fail—either totally, or fail to reach its potential.
This is not to say that Fukuyama is the anti-Hayek. He does not thinks that, for example, a centrally planned economy is good. If anything, Fukuyama is center-right in his politics. In this book, as in the first, he denigrates the primacy of economic motives, focusing instead on other aspects of human nature. But he is very much not a fan of a minimal, libertarian state. So at no point is the possibility that the costs of such technocracy outweigh its advantages considered, and this is a major flaw in Fukuyama’s framework. This flaw was not so visible in the first volume, which was mostly historical analysis, as opposed to the prescriptive analysis of this volume, which exudes technocratic tunnel vision.
Fukuyama’s core thesis in both volumes 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. 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.” Political decay means moving away from that position; it does not necessarily imply broader societal decay.
So, Fukuyama begins this volume by extensively considering “The State.” He is exercised by the evils resulting from the lack of an adequately strong, central state. By this he means, for the most part, a strong, independent and capable bureaucracy, capable of delivering the type of services and organization necessary for the needs and wants of a particular society. To lack of such a state he attributes both the failures of the Arab Spring and the failures of much of the rest of the world to become stable, healthy and prosperous. In essence, he attributes the Great Divergence to wrong institutions everywhere but the West and certain Asian countries. And the main such wrong institution is a weak state.
He even says that Afghanistan, Haiti and Somalia are poor because “they don’t have effective states.” The implication is that if they got better states, they would escape the Malthusian Trap, and be well on their way to “Denmark.” But maybe they lack strong states, and are stuck in the Malthusian Trap, because they have crappy cultures. It’s not like Fukuyama ignores cultures—in the first volume, he analyzes the cultures of India and China across thousands of years, and the impact of their cultures on political development. In this volume, though, he ignores culture, in favor of deterministic focus on questions like the staging of institutions—did the state arrive first (or never), and then democracy (or never), or vice versa? He makes a good case for those things being relevant, but never considers, for example, whether the fact that Afghanistan was a nightmare in 300 B.C. and is a nightmare today might have something to do with the culture found in Afghanistan.
This is, unfortunately, a common defect in the technocratic wing of those analyzing development today. It’s like Acemoglu’s and Robinson’s book, “Why Nations Fail,” from 2012. Like Fukuyama, they attribute modern differentials among nations to their political systems, finding “extractive” ones inferior in results (Fukuyama equates this with his focus on “patrimonialism”). The authors addressed cultural differences among nations, and wholly rejected that cultural differences could explain any differences among national results, with their WHOLE AND ONLY argument being that “Canada and the United States were English colonies, but so were Sierra Leone and Nigeria. The variation in prosperity within former English colonies is as great as that in the entire world. The English legacy is not the reason for the success of North America.” This is so obviously dumb as to require no comment, but is also a perfect example of the blinders fitted to such technocratic analysis.
Anyway, back to Fukuyama. To analyze modern state formation, Fukuyama considers a range of modern states, from 19th Century Prussia on one end, through Britain and the US in the middle, to Greece and Italy on the other end. His explicit goal is to “explain why some developed countries managed to enter the twenty-first century with reasonably effective and uncorrupt governments, while others continue to be plagued by clientelism, corruption, poor performance, and low levels of trust both in government and in society more generally.”
As to Prussia, war brought the need for a centralized, meritocratic bureaucracy, that created accountability in the Emperor, without democracy, by creating a web of rules to which the Emperor himself was subject. Because a strong central government was created prior to the advent of German democracy, corruption in the forms of patronage and clientelism never took hold, because there was no need to buy votes. In both the US and Britain, on the other hand, democracy preceded the formation of a strong central state, so patronage and clientelism (roughly, payments to voters and political supporters) took hold, delaying the formation of a competent bureaucracy. In Italy and Greece, patronage and clientelism still dominate, largely because in a low-trust society they are the only mechanisms that allow political action—in higher trust societies, programmatic political parties can gain traction as people don’t need to have their votes bought, but not in low-trust societies.
Fukuyama is not wholly opposed to patronage as a form of political organization. He notes that it is preferable to the type of prebendalism found in modern Afghanistan, where outside money allows the powerful to simply confiscate the money and not return services or favors to the larger population. This is one reason why foreign aid, as discussed elsewhere by Angus Deaton and William Easterly, among others, undermines political stability, because it allows the powerful to avoid the need to be accountable, while patronage does not.
Fukuyama is at considerable pains throughout the book to note that the United States “to the present day has never succeeded in establishing the kind of high-quality state that exists in certain other rich democracies.” In Fukuyama’s presentation, until the late 19th century, in terms of state formation, the United States was a defective “libertarian paradise,” leading to inefficiency and corruption that crippled the nation, until virtuous Progressive reformers imposed technocratic administration and eliminated the patronage spoils system. He actually believes that “Administrators [i.e.., bureaucrats] were simply agents who only job would be effective implementation.” He never considers whether the scope and lack of accountability of the modern American administrative state, together with its total capture by the Left, gives it features of Afghan prebendalism, because his technocratic blinders prevent him from thinking in such paths.
In Part Two, Fukuyama views other modern countries, all former colonies of the West, through the lens set up in Part One. His basic premise in this section is that the drivers of post-colonial institutions in the non-Western world include what Westerners did during colonialism, and what remnants of the West they left behind, but mostly are whether there were established institutions of state, or a proto-state, prior to colonialism. He rejects theories like Jared Diamond’s geographical determinism, instead (unsurprisingly) pointing to institutions, though admitting geography can affect the initial state of institutions.
So, in Latin America, despite the existence of “empires” such as the Aztec and Inca, pre-existing state institutions were actually very weak (and they collapsed BEFORE the spread of disease) or non-existent. As a result, the institutions set up by Europeans solely determined the future institutions of Latin America. With high inequality, low population, but very little war, the incentives that created strong states in the rest of the world did not operate, and the result was fragmentation and, using the framework from the first volume, ineffective “weak authoritarian” states. This was more true where geography helped state formation and less true when it didn’t, so geography does play some role—but it’s hardly determinative, given the success of Costa Rica, not geographically blessed, and the failure of Argentina, geographically blessed. Fukuyama chalks up those exceptions to “human agency”—the choices made by their ruling classes, including accommodating new power groups during modernization, and deliberately choosing to avoid violent resolutions to internal conflicts—nothing more, and nothing less.
In contrast, in East Asia, strong, modern states dominated prior to colonialism. It’s to a pre-existing sense of national identity, combined with strong pre-existing state structures, that Fukuyama ascribes the post-colonial success of East Asia. In fact, the issue with East Asia is lack of rule of law and accountability, not lack of an adequate state. Fukuyama says whether a nation is free market or not doesn’t matter—it’s the existence of “competent, high-capacity states” that matters. Fukuyama basically loves a strong bureaucracy—but, very importantly, only if, like in 19th Century Prussia, it itself embodies the rule of law and is “free of pressures to satisfy rent-seeking political constituencies, allowing [it] to promote long-term goals that serve a broad public interest.”
What Fukuyama never seems to consider is whether such a thing is possible in all societies, or whether the culture of most societies dictates that the bureaucracy will be captured by those rent-seeking political constituencies. In fact, he explicitly says culture is irrelevant—“development is a coherent process that produces general as well as specific evolution—that is, the convergence of institutions across culturally disparate societies over time.” He does make a nod to “China’s millennia-long Confucian tradition of government [having] an important impact” on China’s “long-term understanding of self-interest and focus on legitimacy [that] does not come automatically to many governments”—but he doesn’t say how to get those other many governments to acquire it, given that we don’t really have a few millennia to spare. And otherwise, he ignores culture.
As to Africa, there were no states at all prior to colonialism. But there were pre-existing sources of authority, which colonialism undermined, without replacing. Even when, as with Britain, colonial administrators tried to shore up or work through local power structures, they often failed because they did not adequately comprehend those structures, with existing checks and balances they tended to override, or they were deliberately hoodwinked as to those structures. Since African colonialism was short in duration and focused primarily on extraction, Europeans did not leave any adequate, established state structures, and when they left, they left neither states nor other sources of authority, leading to either chaos (perceived incorrectly by many today as the natural state of Africa) or states that were fronts for patrimonialism. The only countries that avoided this were rare ones such as Tanzania, that were able to artificially create strong senses of national identity, and therefore effective central states (Fukuyama also includes Indonesia in this group).
In response to this dismal record of post-colonial development, Fukuyama is nonetheless optimistic (he always seems optimistic, which is a charm of his). He suggests fewer attempts to create modern states from scratch, citing disasters like East Timor and Afghanistan, and (although he does not discuss it much), he generally denigrates all modern development efforts. Instead, Fukuyama thinks we should focus on “good enough” state building, believing that from there a society is likely to evolve toward Denmark, especially if it can successfully build a national identity (though historically doing so has been fraught with costs of various kinds). In fact, Fukuyama makes a strong national identity as a condition precedent to an adequate state, and blames the current difference of outcomes among Africa, Latin America, and East Asia largely on the strength of national identities. Whether this program makes any sense probably depends on what you believe about the role of culture in development, as discussed above.
As far as his last section, “Political Decay,” Fukuyama distinguishes two types. One is simple failure to adapt when necessary, which failure is common because institutions are commonly designed to be difficult to change, and that’s the way people like it. Another is capture by elites and a gradual return to patrimonialism—reward by the powerful of their family and friends at the expense of broader society. That works OK, usually, until some internal or external shock leads to political crisis and exposes the weakness caused by decay. In either case, “decay” means not societal decay, but a failure of political institutions to work smoothly, effectively and efficiently, in the technocratic way Fukuyama regards as the ultimate goal of political development.
Fukuyama particularly focuses on America, which he regards as in the process of political decay. Our failure to adapt, Fukuyama complains, results from too many political actors having a veto. He regards this as a failure of the Framers’ system of checks and balances, which he regards as unsuited for a modern political system, creating “gridlock” rather than efficient provision of government services. Not that he offers much in the way of solutions, not being a utopian—his solutions, namely “try to trim veto points or insert parliamentary-style mechanisms” are feeble, and he admits as much—here, as elsewhere, Fukuyama correctly points to the near impossibility of organic radical change in a political system.
But it’s not at all clear that the “vetocracy” and “gridlock” are bad for America. In the age of Leviathan, where government is huge and its power multiplied beyond its simple size by its use of intrusive technology, gridlock is the only defense the average citizen has against the state. The modern state is Grendel’s mother, not the beneficent parent of Fukuyama’s imaginings. The failures of the American political system relate to an over-mighty government with a corrupt and perverse political class, supported by legions of politicized, uniformly leftist bureaucrats lining their pockets at the expense of the productive members of society, while strengthening leftist causes across all of society, and deliberately harming any and all conservative causes, all using the power of the state. Perhaps in 1905, when Fukuyama’s bureaucratic exemplar Gifford Pinchot ran the Forest Service, driven by “a kind of Protestant religiosity that has largely disappeared from contemporary American public life,” bureaucrats made helpful contributions to American life. But today, friction that slows decision making is a net benefit to America, because it slows the leftist project and allows Americans more leeway to live their lives as they choose.
Fukuyama oddly blames American conservatives for distrusting government and thereby creating a “court-based approach to regulation,” which he likewise criticizes as inefficient and contributory to gridlock, in lieu of a legislative (read: technocratic bureaucrat) approach. But this is simply wrong as a historical matter. The power given to courts was a deliberate program of liberals, beginning with Progressives, in order to end-run the democracy that was not producing the desired correct results and expansion of government power. To effectuate the giant expansion of the regulatory state desired by liberals, huge power was given to administrative agencies. For decades now, Congress has abdicated power, unconstitutionally, to these administrative agencies, AGAINST the desires of conservatives. The private lawsuits used as enforcement that Fukuyama bemoans are a purely liberal creation, designed to multiply the power of administrative agencies by allowing motivated (read: leftist) individuals to bring private lawsuits against those whom administrative agencies haven’t gotten around to administering against yet. This is now been further multiplied, though this is not in the book, by the filing of fake lawsuits by left-wing pressure groups by pre-arrangement with cooperative and sympathetic administrative agencies, who respond by “settling” and giving the pressure groups everything they want, avoiding the normal regulatory rulemaking process. In all cases, that the courts are involved is a feature dearly beloved by the Left, for it avoids the need for a democratic brake.
Fukuyama believes what we need is a Japanese- or Swedish-style bureaucracy that quietly administers laws, and resolves conflicts without courts, for the benefit of society as a whole. This is a chimera. Fukuyama actually repeatedly refers to modern bureaucracies as “meritocracies,” apparently really believing that the American administrative state bears some actual resemblance to his idealized bureaucracy—basically, 19th Century Prussia’s, without the militarization. But we are neither Japan nor Sweden—once again, Fukuyama ignores the critical role of culture shaping political institutions, and that our bureaucracy is the very opposite of a politically neutral meritocracy.
What we need is a crushing of our administrative state and the elimination of the power of administrative agencies, with legislative responsibility shifting back to Congress. And we need a return to the spoils system. When political power shifts from one party to another, all or essentially all bureaucrats should be fired and replaced—that is, we need a return to the patronage system, where government jobs are awarded based on political loyalty. Yes, it is possible that the quality of bureaucratic services would drop. But it is very low already in this age of government employee unions, the open and unpunished IRS persecution of conservatives, and the SWAT team attacks on Gibson Guitars, all of which is merely the tip of the iceberg of bureaucratic political corruption designed to further the goals of the Left. Fresh bureaucratic blood attuned to the political benefit of providing good, unbiased services might well provide much better services than the calcified, unaccountable, leftist monolith of today’s government bureaucracy. And if the bureaucracy were shrunk dramatically, the quality of its “services” would matter less, thus alleviating much of any potential problem resulting from the return of the spoils system.
So, in sum, I would not recommend this book except to devotees of development literature. It’s certainly not worthless. But it’s a very long book for what the reader gets out of it, especially if he has read the Fukuyama’s first volume, which provides an excellent framework from which the reader can develop his own, unblinkered, analysis of modern development.