Friday, September 16, 2011

Excerpts: The Origins of Political Order

The Origins of Political Order
From "The Origins of Political Order," by Francis Fukuyama:

Open quote 
Thomas Hobbes lays out the basic 'deal' underlying the state: in return for giving up the right to do whatever one pleases, the state (or Leviathan) through its monopoly of force guarantees each citizen basic security."

After the jump, my review and more excerpts.

Sweeping in its breadth, "The Origins of Political Order," by Francis Fukuyama covers all of human history (and even pre-history) from hunter-gatherer stage to just before the French Revolution, from ancient China and India to the spread of Islam in the Middle East and the rise of Christianity in Europe. His goal is to explain the emergence of order in the world. By order, Fukuyama means a strong state, the rule of law, and accountable government. Not all civilizations followed the same path or have achieved the same level of political order. Fukuyama compares and contrasts many examples of political development, drawing lessons applicable to us today.

Fukuyama stops at the threshold of the French Revolution because by that time, the three requirements for political order - a strong state, the rule of law, and accountable government - had all appeared in one or another region of the world. In the years since then, many examples of societies with all three have arisen, but no significant innovations in political order have emerged.

"The Origins of Political Order" makes for dry reading, often academic in tone. It focuses not on great deeds by great men, but on the underlying currents of history that drive the rise and fall of nations. In some cases the ingredients for success are missing; in others, they are there but fail to come together; in still others, political order arises. The process is complex. The outcome is not preordained. The differences in political order throughout the world today is more understandable given Fukuyama's explanation of the path each region of the world took to get to where it's at today.


"The struggle to create modern political institutions was so long and so painful that people living in industrialized countries now suffer from a historical amnesia regarding how their societies came to that point in the first place."

"Everything that modern biology and anthropology tell us about the state of nature suggests the opposite: there was never a period in human evolution when human beings existed as isolated individuals; the primate precursors of the human species had already developed extensive social, and indeed political, skills; and the human brain is hardwired with faculties that facilitate many forms of social cooperation."

"Although China was the first civilization to invent the modern state, it never succeeded in suppressing the power of kinship on social and cultural levels."

"The only part of the world where tribalism was fully superseded by more voluntary and individualistic forms of social relationship was Europe, where Christianity played a decisive role in undermining kinship as a basis for social cohesion."

"The church systematically cut off all available avenues that families had for passing down property to descendants. At the same time, it strongly promoted voluntary donations of land and property to itself. The church thus stood to benefit materially from an increasing pool of property-owning Christians who died without heirs."

"European feudalism was a mechanism for binding unrelated lords to unrelated vassals, facilitating social cooperation in a society where complex kinship no longer existed. In China, by contrast, the primary political actors were not individual lords but lords and their kinship groups."

"Especially since the rise of radical Islamism in the late twentieth century, a lot has been made of the fact that church and state are separated in the West but fused in Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia. This distinction does not withstand scrutiny. The Western separation of church and state has not been a constant since the advent of Christianity but rather something much more episodic."

"The capitalist revolution in the West was preceded by a cognitive revolution in early modern times that created the scientific method, modern universities, technological innovations that produced new wealth from scientific observations, and a system of property rights that incentivized people to innovate in the first place."

"The essence of the rule of law is a body of rules reflecting the community’s sense of justice that is higher than the wishes of the person who happens to be the king."

"The kinds of minimal or no-government societies envisioned by dreamers of the Left and Right are not fantasies; they actually exist in the contemporary developing world. Many parts of sub-Saharan Africa are a libertarian’s paradise."

"Neither rule of law nor political accountability exists in contemporary China any more than they did in dynastic China. The vast majority of abuses that take place are not those of a tyrannical central government but rather of a dispersed hierarchy of local government officials who collude in the stealing of peasants’ land, take bribes from developers, overlook environmental and safety rules, and otherwise behave as local government officials in China have behaved from time immemorial."

"The twentieth century has taught us to think about tyranny as something perpetrated by powerful centralized states, but it can also be the work of local oligarchs. In contemporary China, many of the worst abuses of peasant rights, violations of environmental and safety laws, and cases of gross corruption are the work not of the central government in Beijing but of local party officials or of the private employers who work hand in hand with them. 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. In the United States, the ending of Jim Crow laws and racial segregation in the two decades following World War II was brought about only when the federal government used its power to enforce the Constitution against the states in the South."

"The degree to which people in developed countries take political institutions for granted was very much evident in the way that the United States planned, or failed to plan, for the aftermath of its 2003 invasion of Iraq. The U.S. administration seemed to think that democracy and a market economy were default conditions to which the country would automatically revert once Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship was removed, and seemed genuinely surprised when the Iraqi state itself collapsed in an orgy of looting and civil conflict."

"The experiences of China and India suggest then that a better form of freedom emerges when there is a strong state and a strong society, two centers of power that are able to balance and offset each other over time."

"Successful liberal democracy requires both a state that is strong, unified, and able to enforce laws on its own territory, and a society that is strong and cohesive and able to impose accountability on the state."

"The failings of modern democracies come in many flavors, but the dominant one in the early twenty-first century is probably state weakness: contemporary democracies become too easily gridlocked and rigid, and thus unable to make difficult decisions to ensure their long-term economic and political survival."

"I have asserted from the beginning that a modern political system consists of a strong state, a rule of law, and accountability. Western societies possessing all three developed vigorous capitalist economies and became globally dominant under them. But China is today growing rapidly with only a strong state in place. Is this situation sustainable in the long run?"


glbeach said...

Hi Mark, in the 5th paragraph of 'excerpts' Fukuyama says 'The church systematically cut off all available avenues that families had for passing down property to descendants'. That simply doesn't sound correct unless there is context that is absent, what about the right of primogeniter, which existed - with support of the church - throughout the middle ages? Of course, this also makes one wonder, how would it all have been different if Constantine had not 'converted' to Christianity? Would western-type government had developed regardless?

Mark Steger said...

The Church discouraged cross-cousin marriages, men marrying their dead brother's widow, concubinage, divorce. All of these were practices that allowed individuals to produce heirs. At the same time, the Church promoted property rights for women. This ensured a growing number of widowed women dying owning property and having no heirs. The Church was often the beneficiary.