The Origins of Political Order


Where do politicalinstitutions come from? How do they develop, and what makes them work? Theseare the questions at the heart of Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the FrenchRevolution. Readers should not be misled,though, into thinking that Fukuyama’s intention is merely to give us ahistorical treatise. This weighty new tome (which is, moreover, only the firsthalf of a two-volume work) is animpressively erudite work of history, but it is also something more. If itcontinues to advance Fukuyama’s now familiar thesis, first expressed in hisfamous 1992 book The End of History andthe Last Man, that “liberaldemocracy as the default form of government became part of the acceptedpolitical landscape at the beginning of the twenty-first century,” thisnew work simultaneously expresses a certain concern, and indeed a certainanxiety, about the health of particular liberal democracies, most especiallythe United States. Ultimately, thehope of The Origins of Political Orderseems to be that looking backward is going to help us, in a dark time, discernthe way forward.

Questions about the genealogy and proper functioning ofpolitical entities are easy to ask and notoriously difficult to answer. Thepolitical systems and institutions that shape the world in which we live havebeen in existence for some time and are pervasive in their effects on ourlives—so much so that it is quite difficult to see them for what they are: thetemporal and contingent results of unpredictable, frequently unstablehistorical processes. Moreover, basing normative claims on historical data isalways risky at best. Knowing what didhappen is not enough to establish what wouldhave happened had some factor or other been different—a fact that shouldinspire a certain minimum level of skepticism with respect to any effort toread philosophical or ideological lessons from historical facts.

Fukuyama is not unaware of these difficulties. Hisstrategy is to begin at the most fundamental starting point, with human natureitself, in order to determine just how human beings went from being organizedin terms of tribes to dividing themselves up among organized political states.(He does not, on the other hand, see himself as having to explain how we wentfrom no social organization at all to tribal organization; in his view, humanbeings are essentially social creatures, and there was thus never a time duringwhich we were not social.)

Fukuyama’s approach emphasizes the role of ideas inpolitical development. (In this and many other ways, he follows the lead of hisacknowledged predecessor Samuel Huntington.) “It is impossible,” hewrites, “to develop any meaningful theory of political development withouttreating ideas as fundamental causes of why societies differ and followdistinct development paths.” This will seem like common sense to anyonewho is even shallowly acquainted with the history of philosophy, but asFukuyama notes, it is not uncommon for social scientists to deny the profoundcausal role ideas have had on human history and to claim, instead, that “theirrational utility-maximizing framework is sufficient to understand virtually allforms of social behavior.”

Particularlyimportant, in his account, are ideas having to do with the fundamental equalityof all human beings, and the question of how that equality ought to bepolitically recognized—a line of thought that leads to the social contractconception of political authority, and hence to modern ideas about theaccountability of government to its citizens. “There is a very shortdistance,” he correctly notes, “from [the philosopher John Locke's] Second Treatise on Government to theAmerican Revolution and the constitutional theories of the Founding Fathers.”

But the history that leads to that moment is long andcomplex, and, as Fukuyama is careful to insist, it is a mistake to assume thatthere must be one single well-defined path leading from pre-history to liberaldemocracy. Nor is it the case that the various goods manifested by modernliberal democratic systems—rule of law, political accountability, and high percapita levels of economic productivity, for instance—must necessarily come as aunified package, or even in a certain specific temporal sequence: the Chineseexample is sufficient to show otherwise. Many centuries ago, Fukuyama argues,China invented modern bureaucracy and, in essence, the modern state. “Butit created a modern state that was not restrained by a rule of law or byinstitutions of accountability to limit the power of the sovereign.”

China, then, is an exceptional case in so far as itsucceeded in attaining some characteristically modern elements very early on,while managing throughout its entire history to avoid certain others. Europe,in Fukuyama’s view, is also exceptional, and in certain ways surprisingly akinto China:

The process of Chinese stateformation is particularly interesting in a comparative perspective, since itsets precedents in many ways for the process Europe went through nearly onethousand years later. Just as the Zhou tribes conquered a long-settledterritory and established a feudal aristocracy, so too did the Germanicbarbarian tribes overrun the decaying Roman Empire and create a comparablydecentralized political system. In both China and Europe, state formation wasdriven primarily by the need to wage war, which led to the progressiveconsolidation of feudal lands into territorial states, the centralization ofpolitical power, and the growth of modern impersonal administration.

Europe’s progression to modernity turns out to be highlyidiosyncratic in its own way, due to the influence of Christianity, a sociallyand politically potent religion with no real analogue in Chinese history. TheGermanic tribes that overran the Roman Empire were soon converted toChristianity by the Catholic Church, with the result that a shift from kinshipto individualistic contract-based relations occurred much earlier in Europethan elsewhere. From this Fukuyama concludes the following:

The reduction of relationshipsin the family to “a mere money relation” that Marx thundered againstwas not, it appears, an innovation of the eighteenth-century bourgeoisie butappeared in England many centuries before that class’s supposed rise. Puttingone’s parents out to pasture in a nursing home has very deep historical rootsin Western Europe. This suggests that, contrary to Marx, capitalism was theconsequence rather than the cause of a change in social relationships and custom.

For a variety of complex reasons, these and successivedevelopments happened even earlier and more quickly in England than in otherparts of Europe, with the result that that country became, in effect, thebirthplace of modern liberal democracy.

There is a good deal more in volume one of The Origins of Political Order, and agood deal more to come in volume two; a brief review can only skim the surfaceof what is here, and indeed cannot even skim the entire surface. As mentionedabove, though, it becomes clear by the end of volume one that Fukuyama’s intentis not merely to write history. Rather, he wants to draw lessons from historythat can be usefully applied in the present day. Like a lot of his fellowcountrymen, he is concerned about the United States’ current situation andfuture prospects:

And then there is the UnitedStates, which has been unable to seriously address long-term fiscal issuesrelated to health, social security, energy, and the like. The United States seemsincreasingly caught in a dysfunctional political equilibrium, wherein everyoneagrees on the necessity of addressing long-term fiscal issues, but powerfulinterest groups can block the spending cuts or tax increases necessary to closethe gap. The design of the country’s institutions, with strong checks andbalances, makes a solution harder. To this might be added an ideologicalrigidity that locks Americans into a certain range of solutions to theirproblems.

More than once he compares the contemporary Americansituation to the France of the ancienrégime, a society that was prevented from implementing badly needed reformsby institutional calcification and resistance from the country’s privilegedelites. “The ability of societies to innovate institutionally,” as hewrites elsewhere, “depends on whether they can neutralize existingpolitical stakeholders holding vetoes over reform. . . . This is, in effect,the essence of politics.” That passage leads, in turn, to a statement thatwill thrill some readers and deeply disturb others: “Violence isclassically seen as the problem that politics seeks to solve, but sometimesviolence is the only way to displace entrenched stakeholders who are blockinginstitutional change.”

It shouldbe said that Fukuyama’s aim, even here, is as much descriptive as prescriptive:in part he is simply supporting his claim that, historically speaking, violenceis the main motivating force both for state formation and for politicalprogress. Still, the somewhat casual reference to the necessity of violence isat least a bit disturbing, and if Fukuyama does not explicitly cite ThomasJefferson’s famous statement that “the tree of liberty must be refreshedfrom time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” it is hard notto feel Jefferson’s sentiment lurking behind those words. On the other hand,Fukuyama’s remarks regarding the current state of affairs in the U.S. areundeniably perceptive. For someone who once identified himself as aneoconservative, he displays a refreshing lack of antipathy for taxation and anadmirable skepticism about extreme libertarianism, dryly observing at one pointthat “many parts of sub-Saharan Africa are a libertarian’s paradise,”and pausing at another to remark that “even in today’s mobile,entrepreneurial capitalist economy, rigid defenders of property rights oftenforget that the existing distribution of wealth doesn’t always reflect thesuperior virtue of the wealthy and that markets aren’t always efficient.”

In a broader sense, his diagnosis of America’s current situation and his forecasts for its future are hard to evaluate. This is sonot only because we have only the first volume of the total work before us—awork whose historical account comes to a halt over two hundred years ago—butalso because historical comparisons and future prognostications are inevitablysimplifications that attempt to render an impossibly complex array of empiricalfacts down to a small set of graspable and conceptually palatable theses. Theparallels between ancien régime Franceand the contemporary U.S. are striking, but the differences, too, are deep, andwhether it is the parallels or the differences that will determine our fatewill itself be determined not by historians but by history.

Fukuyama himself does not expect the current Americancrisis, as challenging as it is, to erupt into a twenty-first century versionof the French Revolution. Still, one senses, by the end of the current book, acertain pessimism on its author’s part as to whether the United States will beable to overcome its present difficulties without considerable hardship for itspeople. Fukuyama’s pessimism (some would simply label it realism) will not, Ihope, dissuade anyone from reading this book. Indeed, whatever one may think ofits particular claims and predictions—and there is surely something foreveryone to disagree with here—TheOrigins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution isan extraordinary achievement and a work of considerable brilliance.