political order and political decay
Hopefully when one considers the monumental scope of the work I am here reviewing, the extended period between the last book review and this one will be forgiven. Political Order and Political Decay, the final volume in a 2 volume series, will likely be considered Francis Fukuyama’s magnum opus. Whereas the first volume covers prehistory up through the events of 1789, this volume covers political development in world societies since the French Revolution. Part history, part political theory, and part comparative political analysis, the book covers such wide-ranging topics as The Glorious Revolution of 1688, corruption in Nigeria, and theories on the origin of gridlock in present-day Washington. He tracks trends in world governments, and asks why some countries have developed strong laws and institutions, while others languish in corruption and squalor. His answers are a breath of fresh air from the overly simplistic, determinist theories that abound in less rarified discussion. The author accepts that the answers to the questions he is asking are by nature so complex that any one of them could consume a book at least as long as the present one. Nonetheless, Fukuyama’s tone makes this book highly accessible to the average political wonk. His multitude of sources constitute a who’s who in world political scholarship. An especially ambitious reader would practically be eligible for a B.A. in comparative politics were she to study all the works that are cited by the author in his voluminous footnotes.
“getting to Denmark”
Fukuyama’s primary argument throughout the book is that the order in which countries obtain rule of law, a strong state, and democratic practices determines whether a state will “get to Denmark.” Getting to Denmark refers to developing these three institutions in the right order and at the right time, and subsequently maintaining the proper balance between them.
The order in which countries obtain rule of law, a strong state, and democratic practices determines whether a state will “get to Denmark.”
A bedrock of strong state institutions, followed by rule of law, followed by economic development, and finally the advent of democracy provides the surest way to a stable liberal democracy.
Alas, getting to Denmark is not so easy — it took two world wars for Europe to get there and the process is still not complete. Many countries in Europe (such as Greece and Italy) are still strugging. Greece provides a good example of clientelism, the result of states adopting democratic institutions before an effective bureaucracy is established. This has also historically been a problem in the United States: witness the Jacksonian rise of clientelistic politics in the mid-19th century prior to the progressive reforms of the early 20th. However, Fukuyama argues, clientelism can actually be a benefit on the road to Denmark. Not so patrimonialism.
Patrimonialism, as described in the first volume of the work is a more formidable problem. The behavior pattern of wielding power in a way that benefits our friends and family is one with deep roots that hearkens back to our days as bands of roving primates. It is the basis for the tribal lifestyle that marked much of prehistory before rule of law was invented. We live with these instincts to this day; they are in constant conflict with the ideal of impersonal rule of law and bureaucratic function as defined by Max Weber.
The Weberian ideal of bereaucracy is another concept integral to Fukuyama’s theory — impersonal, rule based government that treats all members of a society equally in its implementation. Fukuyama makes excellent use of the history of the U.S. Forest Service under Gifford Pinchot as an example of the Weberian ideal. The Prussian state is another example.
Fukuyama next turns his attention to the extraneous factors that affect the institutions we observe in countries today: geography, climate, trade, war, and nationalism, to name a few. As pointed out above, Fukuyama rejects any hypothesis that tries to explain the development of different political orders based on any one factor, such as the climate or a country’s placement with regards to trade routes. While these may get us part of the way there, they cannot in and of themselves be sufficient. They are just one part of a broader model. However, in the final analysis, Fukuyama argues that the political order or lack thereof is the most important factor in determing how close a state gets to the ideal.
One of the examples he gives is particularly effective in supporting this argument: the differences between Costa Rica and Argentina. While both lived with the legacy of colonialism, Costa Rica was a poorer plantation-based economy that struggled along through the 19th century, creating a so-called democracy that really was just a proxy for class warfare. This class warfare eventually broke out into civil war in 1948. Argentina, on the other hand, started with a “clean slate”- it was largely unpopulated at the time colonial settlers arrived (except for small tribes of indigenous peoples) so settler populations were transplanted into the area rather than being forced to accept the western format. By the 19th century, Argentina had risen to become an “economic miracle.” The country’s growth “lasted more than a hundred years from independence  up until the Great Depression in the 1930s.” Indeed, “Argentine per capita GDP reached a level slightly higher than that of the United States in the year 1800.”
After 1930, however, Argentina’s economy entered a period of sluggish growth with massive implications for the future of the country. Stagnation during the middle of the century led to debt crises in the 1980s and the early 2000s. To this day, the Argentine economy is only a semblance of what it once was. The reason?
“A proximate answer to this question is simply bad economic policies implemented by generations of officials and political leaders. Any textbook on international monetary policy or financial crises will feature Argentina, since it has repeatedly brought upon itself cycles of rapid growth, inflation, devaluation, and economic collapse.”
Costa Rica is a remarkable contrast. After the civil war of 1948, though power struggles did take place, they resulted in reforms that strengthened the constitution, rule of law and actually even abolished the standing army. Social democratic reforms took place that strengthened the position of the working class and eliminated class warfare.
While Latin America struggled with the legacy of democratic and state institutions transplanted wholesale from Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia provide interesting contrasts that help explore other parts of Fukuyama’s hypothesis.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s epidemic of supremely weak institutions was brought about by a combination of factors, primary among them the type of colonization that took place there in the latter decades of the 19th century. The European powers at that point were not necessarily looking for a new El Dorado. They were looking for new spheres of influence, cards to play in the great game of world politics that pitted the great powers against each other at the time. As a result, new colonial holidngs were snatched up on the cheap, and maintained with the barest minimum of investment. Few new governing institutions were created and little effort was made to teach the people of Africa the democratic way.
As these countries gained independence in the mid-20th century, they were left with little in the way of strong state institutions. They were, however given democratic institutions, which, in the absence of any semblance of national identity or rule of law led to the chaos that still plagues the region today.
This is in stark contrast to East Asia where colonization was unable to dramatically alter the region’s ancient institutions. Fukuyama points out that China was the first country to ever invent a modern bureaucracy, thousands of years before anything even resembling a modern state popped up in the west. While this bureaucracy wasn’t a permanent fixture in the dynasties after its inception, Confucian traditions and cultural values made the authority of the centralized Chinese state an indelible feature of the region.
Sub-Saharan Africa was close to the opposite: when colonists arrived, they realized that its historically sparse population and wide open geography had left it with tribal indigenous governments that were not that much different from what one might have seen thousands of years before Christ. There were no centralized state institutions to be found.
People living in those regions today are living with the results: Chinese struggle with a lack of democracy and rule of law. The people of Singapore long for a more democratic government. But the strong state has created a stable environment for rapid economic growth in the region. Africans, on the other hand, are stuck in a cycle of democratic elections in which the winning side provides patrimonial benefits to their particular tribe, often resulting in violence and corruption. Add in the weakness of state institutions (made so by such patrimonialism) and you have an explanation for why countries like Nigeria face the problems that they do.
the biggest three
The fourth of the book focus on Fukuyama’s predictions for the future of international politics: what are democracy’s prospects in the future? How will the Arab Spring turn out? What challenges will mankind face in the future? Such questions, while fascinating to ponder are outside my area of interest- I like to keep myself grounded in the domestic political game, so I’ll leave the reader to formulate her own thoughts on this section.
In the final part of the book, the author gives us his thoughts on what’s wrong with America these days. He covers the institutional decay of the U.S. Forest Service, so vaunted as an example of what can go right in American politics. He also covers the gridlock in Congress, arguing that a “repatrimonialization” of American politics is taking place as a result of the citizens united and McCutecheon decisions. Finally, he shines his light on American “vetocracy,” his term for our system rife with veto-weilding actors, the result being what he calls a state of courts and parties. Mr. Fukuyama has pointed out what I would like to dub the “biggest three” systemic problems that face America today.
I think that many conservatives would do well to take in the ideas presented here. There are ideas here that I can’t help but scoff at, such as his assertion that “…many working-class voters support candidates promising to lower taxes on the wealthy, despite the fact that this hurts their own economic siutations…The theory has proved remarkably tenacious in the face of considerable evidence that it is not true” (this is the one place that Mr. Fukuyama seems to have forgotten to provide a footnote, but I’ll be a good sport and provide a link or two, or three to research showing that lowering taxes for everyone does actually help the general public’s economic situation).
But he does make a good argument in that American distrust (or, more accurately, misunderstanding) of government has led to the decay of our institutions and led to legislating by other means. Similar arguments have been made by conservatives. There are many functions that the government should perform, and wholesale dismantling of parts of the system à la Rick Perry, which has become commonplace in our political narrative these days, is just not constructive. In the author’s words:
“Conservatives often fail to see that it is the very distrust of government that leads the American system into a far less efficient court-based approach to regulation…”
There is a balance that must be reached here: as citizens of a democracy, we must jealously guard our freedoms from government encroachment. NSA spying on American citizens, threatened gun rights, police brutality, disrespect for private property rights, and the slow erosion of liberty through excessive taxation are just a few of the issues that require a vigilant electorate. However, when the government creates a mandate to accomplish something like regulating public forests, excessive political intervention into agencies at the behest of voter distrust of those bureaucracies is counterproductive. It’s a Cartesian circle of dwindling government effectiveness and citizen mistrust.
Another example is the IRS. Nobody likes the IRS. But effectively collecting taxes in accordance with the tax code is a public good that cannot be undermined, as the Greek example shows (also covered in the book). Republican efforts to cut the IRS budget can only undermine the federal government’s ability to collect taxes and diminish the rule of law.
Fukuyama’s views on American Repatrimonialization are also very thought-provoking. The single greatest challenge our country faces today is that of entitlement reform. Changing demographics and population growth make our entitlement commitments in the future mind-bogglingly expensive. These programs are known as the “third rail in politics,” and for good reason: no one with a modicum of political sensibility will touch them. But simple math shows us that the biggest entitlement programs — medicare, medicaid and social security must be reformed if we are to have any hope of maintaining long-term fiscal solvency.
The question is, can democracy as a system address this problem? The quick answer, often served up with a scoff at the Uncle Owen’s dinner table is something along the lines of “if any of those damned politicians in Washington had any stomach, the problem would be solved tomorrow!” However, upon closer inspection, one can see that it is precisely the fact that many politicians act with too much gusto, too much certitude, and too little mandate to compromise that the problem seems so unsolvable in the first place.
Why have these competing mandates from the electorate made their way to Washington? It is the polarization we see in the campaign rhetoric: outside groups, allowed to say whatever they want on television anonymously feed divisive information to an electorate that will only make their way to the polls if an issue makes them angry. It is also the fact that in the post-citizens united era, parties have been weakened to the point of having to submit to the whims of a small number of donors who hold views way outside the mainstream. Another factor that has been discussed is the idea of “too much democracy.” Put another way, politically motivated people who vote in primaries are much likely to hold more radical views, giving the general electorate nothing but bad choices.
His final analysis on the problem of Vetocracy is also instructive: that the number of veto points new legislation faces on the road to becoming accepted law is staggering and results in a state of “courts and parties” in which legislation is formed to a large degree in court rooms rather than in the legislature. Both liberals and conservatives play a huge role in making this so: a huge step towards equality for African Americans was taken by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education, and conservatives’ last best hope to undermine the Affordable Care act has taken the form of a Supreme Court case.
Fukuyama has brilliantly pointed out the three biggest systemic problems that our nation faces. And this is only one part of his book. While I enjoyed the book in its entirety, these final chapters were worth the price of admission alone. This monumental work should find its way onto the bookshelves on all political junkies not only for its stunning breadth and prescient analysis, but for that fact that it could serve as a starting point for a lifetime of study. If you want to get smart fast, start reading this book. But don’t forget to bring a healthy dose of skepticism.