Political Order and Political Decay by Francis Fukuyama

Friday, February 23, 2018

Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order and Political Decay is a wide-ranging examination of the factors giving rise to the golden trifecta of statecraft: rule of law, an effective state apparatus, and democratic accountability. It follows on from his previous volume, The Origins of Political Order, which covered human history up until the French revolution.


Fukuyama’s basic argument is that the quality of institutions is highly influential on, or even the biggest determinant of, good government.

Among the most difficult of the conclusions reached in this book is his argument that, historically, war has been the most significant factor in the successful creation of the modern, impersonal state.


Prussia created the first modern bureaucracy in Europe. Its Great Elector realised in the wake of the Thirty Years’ war that the survival of the landlocked Duchy relied on its military power, driving him to reform the army to make it more merit-based. This idea later helped Napoleon conquer Europe. War gave governments the moral backing to collect taxes and helped form national coherence. A desire for fairness, particularly among the middle classes, helped merit-based appointments spread to other areas of bureaucracies and other parts of the world.


Conversely, Fukuyama argues Latin America failed to develop strong states partly because it has seen relatively few interstate wars.


He does, however, point out that although military competition has been an important driver of state modernisation in the past, it is “in itself neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition to achieve this end.” Countries like Australia, Norway, Iceland and Canada have ended up with high-quality governments through colonial inheritance, while Singapore and Malaysia copied from elsewhere in response to the perceived communist threat.


Notwithstanding the disastrous years of the Mao era, modern state building in China has drawn as much from its own historical tradition as it has borrowed from Japan, Germany or France. As Fukuyama reminds us, “China built a centralised, merit-based bureaucracy that was able to register its population, levy uniform taxes, control the military, and regulate society some eighteen hundred years before a similar state was to emerge in Europe.”


Nonetheless, Fukuyama’s insight on the role of war in state building serves as a reminder not to forget that all human societies are founded upon violence, whether war, genocide or other forms of political strife, even if they have vanished from living memory: “Britons and Americans should not forget their contemporary national identities are also the beneficiaries of bloody struggles in the distant past.” The borders of Western Europe today largely reflect ethnic and linguistic boundaries because of historical ethnic cleansing and war. Likewise, Australia’s peaceful and prosperous society is based on the founding crime of the genocide of its indigenous peoples.


And so, says Fukuyama, “All good things do not necessarily go together.” We should be able to admit the crimes of the past at the same time as acknowledging contemporary peace and prosperity.


Another discomfiting contention is that democratisation in the absence of a pre-existing, modern state apparatus tends to result in clientelism. This is why the Greek and Italian states have never managed to shake off nepotistic practices. The same happened in the United States in the nineteenth century, though a combination of strong presidential leadership and noisy social movements eventually forced the spread of merit-based appointments in the bureaucracy.


In fact, he sees clientelism not as a relic of pre-modern times, but as a common part of development and even a form of early democratic engagement.

Obviously, these points sit uncomfortably with anyone who values peace and democracy, and Fukuyama has indeed been criticised for not elucidating clearly enough what the alternative paths are.


Early developers in Europe and North America largely had to learn the lessons of state building the hard way, but of course this does not necessarily mean developing states today will have to endure the same hardships. Nonetheless, this insight helps explain some of the problems in Africa and parts of Asia today — and why transplanting democracy into countries lacking institutions tends to fail.


Fukuyama is not determinist, however. A commonly heard argument for the failure of states like Iraq is their ‘artificial’, colonial-drawn borders. But leadership and policy choices still play a huge role in the success or failure of a state. Building on the work of Peter Lewis, he makes the case that Indonesia could have turned out the same way as poor, violence-ridden Nigeria. Both were the product of a colonial amalgamation of different ethnic and language groups, and potentially offer resource wealth for crony capitalists to prop up weak states. Nonetheless, “Indonesian national identity was entrenched in a way that Nigerian national identity would never be – through articulation of a clear integrative ideology, establishment of a national language, and the backing of both by authoritarian power based on a national army”. This has meant stronger institutions and more peace and prosperity for Indonesians.


His thoughts on the state of American democracy will no doubt prove controversial. Fukuyama argues that, in a sense, the US is too democratic. The introduction of hyper-partisanship into its checks and balances has created a vetocracy, causing bureaucratic bloating and unclear lines of authority, exacerbating low trust in government, and preventing the creation of an effective welfare state.


 Unlike the more centralised Westminster countries, the US has become hostage to what were meant to serve as accountability mechanisms. At the same time, the increasing influence of interest groups and their ability to use these flaws have lead to the partial repatrimonialisation of American democracy. Moreover, he sees no way out of the impasse: too many people have too much of an interest in the continuation of the current, muddled system, and the public is too ideologically wedded to the present structure.


Political Order and Political Decay at times makes for uncomfortable reading. It is, however, a very worthwhile endeavour for anyone interested in seriously examining what makes some states rich and influential while others are left behind.

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Author: David Donaldson