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Fukuyama’s Recipe for Political Order

Is it still possible that history is going toward a definite destination?

This book is the second half of a two-volume work in which Fukuyama’s goal has been to set out the conditions that produce political order, so that we may increase our ability to produce it. The first volume covered the time from our distant past as bands of hunter-gatherers up to the Industrial Revolution. This volume starts where that one left off and proceeds to the present.

In many respects, the work is similar to a natural history of the human body written with the goal of determining what conditions produce health. Fukuyama refers to this optimal state of political flourishing as “Denmark,” employing the actual country as a synecdoche for any well-functioning polity. He proposes that there are three key elements in political health: a strong state, the rule of law, and democracy. The three interact in complex ways, and Fukuyama suggests that the order in which these are achieved can be crucial to how things turn out. In particular, democracy preceding a strong state and the rule of law can be problematic.

As in the first volume, Fukuyama genuflects towards biology, discussing how kin ties and reciprocal altruism are “hard-wired” into humans. But this biologism plays little role in what follows: it would have sufficed for him to note they are important.

Honest scholars who are nonbelievers, such as Fukuyama, acknowledge the historical evidence showing the positive role that religion has played in ordering social life. For instance, when he offers a speculation as to the source of the rule of law, he writes: “The rule of law, understood as rules that are binding even on the most politically powerful actors in a given society, has its origins in religion. It is only religious authority that was capable of creating rules that warriors needed to respect.”

Fukuyama’s first major section discusses the role of the state in political order. But in justifying the existence of the state, Fukuyama overstates his case: “even the most committed free-market economist would readily admit that governments have a role in providing pure public goods.” Is Fukuyama really not aware of the existence of anarcho-capitalists? Or does he just not consider any of them economists? But then he offers a strong argument as to why the state is important:

The most basic form of redistribution that a state engages in is equal application of the law. The rich and powerful always have ways of looking after themselves, and if left to their own devices will always get their way over nonelites. It is only the state, with its judicial and enforcement power, that can make elites conform to the same rules that everyone else is required to follow.

Fukuyama turns his attention to Prussia, which he argues is the first modern state in Europe, in that it first created a “Weberian bureaucracy”—referring to the work of the famed German sociologist Max Weber on “rational” bureaucracy. But Prussia, and subsequently united Germany under the Kaiser, lacked democratic accountability, and this led to too strong a bureaucracy, so that the independent German military could push the nation into the disastrous First World War.

Fukuyama goes on to discuss “low-trust” societies like Italy and Greece. Many anarcho-capitalists believe that in the absence of a state private defense firms can provide justice. But as Fukuyama notes, we have a real world example of private defense firms in action: “Diego Gambetta… presents an elegant economic theory of the Mafia’s origins: mafiosi are private entrepreneurs whose function is to provide protection of individual property rights in a society in which the state fails to perform this basic service.”

In Sicily before the creation of the Italian state, there was effectively no state at all. The Mafia filled this vacuum.

Turning his attention to the Anglosphere, Fukuyama notes that both Britain and the United States lagged behind Germany in creating efficient, professional bureaucracies. In Britain the problem was traditional patronage for the elite, which Britain’s efficient parliamentary system was able to dispense with in just two decades, between the 1850s and the 1870s. Meanwhile, the United States, having achieved democracy but with a weak state, was the first nation to develop what Fukuyama calls “clientelism,” which is essentially patronage on a mass, democratic basis. Fukuyama argues that, due to America’s less-efficient presidential system, it took two generations for the U.S. to achieve a similar degree of reform to Britain.

Fukuyama goes on to discuss what he considers an early, exemplary instance of the United States establishing a rational bureaucracy: Gifford Pinchot’s U.S. Forest Service. Skeptics of the benefits of independent bureaucracies might note here that Pinchot led the way in ensconcing “scientific” forest management as policy, an approach that Yale scholar James C. Scott has shown had negative long-term effects on the forests thus managed.

Fukuyama mentions that his mentor, Samuel Huntington, argued that a strong state along with the rule of law ought to come before democracy, but he is skeptical that such a course is feasible today, even though it may have worked in the past: the democratic ethos is now simply too established to permit that course of development. But curiously, Fukuyama seems to provide his own counter-examples, such as China and Singapore.

In his next section, entitled “Foreign Institutions,” Fukuyama looks at how democratic liberalism has fared in attempts to export it from its native turf. He examines several determinist views of history, such as Jared Diamond’s from Guns, Germs, and Steel, in the interest of seeing whether the development of a liberal state is something that can be deliberately achieved. While he admits these theories all capture some truth, he insists that none tell the full story: the decisions of individual humans always play a role in how things turn out, even if their choice set may be constrained by geographical or institutional circumstances. As evidence, Fukuyama offers a pair of cases: Nigeria/Indonesia and Argentina/Costa Rica. The first two are similarly tropical, resource rich, and were similarly poor and artificially cobbled-together nations with a legacy of colonial exploitation. Determinist theories imply that they should have similar polities today. But Indonesia, due to choices made by early leaders, has been able to forge a strong state and become more prosperous, while Nigeria has remained mired in an economy of bribes and rent-seeking.

The other pair, Argentina and Costa Rica, is employed to debunk strict geographical determinism. According to theories of this kind, tropical countries develop low-growth, plantation economies, while those in temperate zones, forced to rely more on manufacturing, wind up with more dynamic economies. Costa Rica ought to be a banana republic, and Argentina ought to be like the U.S. or Canada. But the actual situation is close to the reverse. Again, Fukuyama tells a plausible story suggesting that individual political choices played a large part in that outcome.

Examining the impact of colonialism, Fukuyama differentiates three types of European settlements: “clean-slate” colonies, such as the U.S. or Australia, where European settlers arrived in a lightly occupied land and essentially wiped out the native population, and thus were easily able to establish European-style institutions; long-term colonial projects, such as India, where Britain spent a great deal of time exporting its institutions; and colonies where Europeans invested very little in administration, which was the case for most of those in Africa. The latter were turned loose into a worldwide European-style state system with very little preparation, which could explain the relative success of Indian democracy compared to that of most African states.

Fukuyama then turns his attention to the Far East, where strong states already existed before extensive contact with Europeans. In the case of China, in fact, he argues that the empire had established a “Weberian bureaucracy” many centuries before any European state did so. The Confucian ethos that spread from China to Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, he contends, made the history of those nations after European contact very different from that of South America or Africa. In particular, it made authoritarian rulers feel a moral imperative to rule for the common good and so produced better governance.

Fukuyama makes a surprising historical mistake regarding Japan: “Having sat out World War I, [Japan] experienced a vigorous period of economic expansion…” In fact, Japan declared war on both Germany and Austria-Hungary in August 1914, fought forces from both empires in the Far East, and sent its navy all the way to the Mediterranean to provide escort for troops of the Triple Entente.

Addressing China, Fukuyama claims that the concept of the rule of law—unlike a strong state—has not gained a firm foothold there because “There was never a transcendental religion, and there was never a pretense that law had a divine origin.” Are Buddhism and Taoism not “transcendental religions”? If not, why not? Fukuyama does not explain. And did not the “mandate of heaven” that justified the emperor’s rule give law a divine origin? (Fukuyama does touch on the “mandate of heaven” in his first volume, but not in a way that convinces me he is correct here.)

He perceives an interesting continuity between ancient and modern China:

I would argue that the state that has emerged in China since the beginning of reforms in 1978 bears more resemblance to this classical Chinese state than it does to the Maoist state that preceded it … . Contemporary China has been engaged in the recovery of a long-standing historical tradition, whether or not participants in that process were aware of what they were doing.


Fukuyama next examines representative government. He notes several arguments against full democracy, in particular, those of Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, Walter Bagehot, Gaetano Mosca, and Vilfredo Pareto. (In Fukuyama’s list of critics of democracy, Plato is a notable omission. This is indicative of Fukuyama’s general neglect of the classical and Christian traditions of political thought.) Fukuyama “answers” all these anti-democratic arguments by saying that they “do not amount to a convincing argument for systematic franchise restriction.” This hardly represents a counter-argument; it’s mere dismissal.

Fukuyama makes another historical error in the view he attributes to Marx of crises in capitalism: “capitalist use of technology would extract surpluses from the labor of the proletariat, leading to greater concentration of wealth and the progressive immiseration of workers … . Ever increasing levels of inequality would lead to a shortfall in demand, and the system would come crashing down upon itself.” Thomas Sowell, in his book Marxism, corrects this common misperception: “Crises are inherent in capitalist commodity production because producers cannot accurately predict the demand of the consumers or the supply of other producers … . Neither underconsumption nor a permanent ‘breakdown’ plays any role in this picture.”

Fukuyama goes on to consider Mosca’s and Pareto’s theory that no human society has ever existed without an elite class. Somewhat bizarrely, the failure of the Soviet Union to eliminate elitism is presented as partial evidence against this theory.

In defense of democracy, despite the many problems that he concedes it engenders, Fukuyama argues, “Democratic accountability is critical to the proper functioning of political systems because it is ultimately the basis for authority, that is, the legitimate exercise of power.”  Here he seems to be adopting a contract/consent theory of legitimate government, which must fail since there was never any contract and there is no universal consent. If consent really were the basis of legitimate government, then anarchists would be correct: there is no legitimate government.

Again, Fukuyama’s neglect of the classical and Christian traditions of political thought is apparent: in those traditions, governments are justified when they are doing the job of maintaining decent social order, whoever might have consented to their efforts. Of course, consent is a good sign that they are fulfilling that role, but it is not the basis of their legitimacy.


Fukuyama finally addresses the question of what causes relatively good political conditions to decay. He cites two main factors: what he calls “repatrimonialization,” by which he means a return to kin-based and exchange-of-favor-based political relations, and ideological rigidity. Not at all sanguine about the current state of politics in America, he believes both are currently plaguing the republic: “For example, Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act in 2010 turned into something of a monstrosity during the legislative process as a result of all the concessions inside payments that had to be made to interest groups, including doctors, insurance companies, and the pharmaceutical industry. The bill itself ran to 900 pages…”

Indeed, it is likely that the good done by the ACA—if one accepts that broader health-care provision guaranteed by the state is a good—could have been achieved with a 10-page bill subsidizing insurance coverage for everyone making under some specified amount per year. That means there are 890 pages of unnecessary complications in there.

Fukuyama is also not a fan of the American Constitution. In a discussion of how the American system of checks-and-balances and federalism produces wildly inefficient legislation, Fukuyama notes that “Congress created fifty-one separate programs for worker retraining, and eighty-two projects to improve teacher quality.” marapr-issuethumb

Fukuyama has an interesting perspective on why this occurs. He contends that these legislative Rube Goldberg devices Americans create arise primarily from the way our system of checks-and-balances and federalism has worked out in practice: multiple branches, agencies, and levels of government are involved with almost every political issue in the United States. Rather than working to limit government, as the Founders had intended, this multiplicity of authorities has created a byzantine government. Fukuyama believes parliamentary systems work better, but he despairs of creating one in the U.S., due to ideological rigidity.

While Fukuyama has toned down the extreme claims he made in his book The End of History, he has not abandoned the fundamental orientation on display there. History has still been on a “road” democracy. Societies are still judged by whether they have achieved “stable” democracy. Western European-style polities (“Denmark”) are still the goal for him, and everyone is, or at least should be, trying to get there. Societies that were approaching the end goal of liberal democracy, per Fukuyama, have sometimes been “hijacked” by other movements that diverted them from that predestined course.

Evidence of Fukuyama’s retreat from his earlier, extreme Hegelian position is on display in the following: “No one living in an established liberal democracy should therefore be complacent about the inevitability of its survival. There is no automatic historical mechanism that makes progress inevitable, or that prevents decay and backsliding.” But the very phrasing of this caveat shows that Fukuyama has not completely abandoned his earlier stance. History is going to a definite destination, although sometimes it “backslides”; he still holds that “there is a clear directionality in the process of political development.”

Perhaps there is such directionality, but “clear”? What was clear to Polybius was that Rome was destined to rule the world. What was clear to Charles II was that absolute monarchy was the wave of the future. What was clear to Marx and Engels was that capitalism was doomed and would soon be replaced by communism. What was clear to fascists in the early 20th century was that liberal democracy had had its day and must be supplanted by a better system. Why should we think that Fukuyama’s “clear directionality” will not seem just as much a product of his circumstances in a century or two? History may or may not have a destination, but it seems presumptuous to think that we, as beings embedded in it, can suss it out even if it does.

In the end, though, none of these criticisms should obscure the fact that Fukuyama is a deep and important political thinker, and that this book, the surface of which I have only been able to skim, is well worth reading for anyone interested in the issues it addresses.

Gene Callahan teaches economics at SUNY Purchase and is the author of Oakeshott on Rome and America.



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