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Jocelyn (The Reading World)

I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;) 


Political Order and Political Decay by Francis Fukuyama

Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy - Francis Fukuyama

Second of two in a series, following The Origins of Political Order. This covers history from the Industrial and French Revolutions onward, though it does take a brief projection beyond that in the section on the Inca and Aztec empires.

Fukuyama's thesis, put forward in the first book, continues to be central. The ideal government consists of three things: 1) a centralized state, 2) a rule of law, and 3) democratic accountability.

Being an American, I was most eager for the discussion of the United States that he promised to bring in the first book (why Donald Trump, why???). The attempt to take things from the long view, I thought, might help clear it up a bit. Why can't Congress get anything done? Why are our state bureaucracies so confusing, slow, and useless? How did this all come to be?

Apparently, it wasn't all bad. He highlights the beginning years of the Forest Service as a shining example of efficient and functional bureaucracy when Gifford Pinchot managed to keep it staffed by highly skilled, uncorrupt professionals. The American military has generally high ratings of approval, especially compared to Congress. A bureaucracy needs to have a certain degree of autonomous power and discretion to make its own decisions to achieve objectives for the common good, but the US never achieved it in its national government because it was founded on a distrust for an overly powerful state.

The chronology of how the three important components of government--the state, rule of law, and accountability matters. In the liberal democracies of Europe, it was the rule of law, the state, then democracy. In the United States, it was the rule of law, democracy, then the state. Since political participation was expanded beyond the educated, class elites to the masses before state institutions were fully consolidated in the Progressive Era and New Deal, political candidates and parties were able to appeal to short-term goals at the expense of long-term benefits. The government can't get too many useful things done without being lobbied and hampered by multiple competing interest groups, theoretically intended to give everyone an equal voice but in practice favors the most coherently organized and best funded groups. Today, that usually means large corporations.

As an example, Obama was only able to pass the Affordable Care Act by abandoning any role in legislation and making multiple concessions to congressional committees, insurance companies (among other groups I can't remember off the top of my head).

Another fascinating question I never knew I had was about the Aztec and Inca Empires. How was it that such large, impressive, and wealthy kingdoms were so easily toppled by European conquistadors? Multiple theories have been made: disease, superiority of weapon technology, the influence of geography (put forward by Jared Diamond's famous Guns, Germs, and Steel).

Fukuyama goes again back to his thesis of a universal pattern of political development here. His answer is that the Aztec and Inca Empires, though large and impressive, were actually not that far developed politically. His analogy is to China during its feudal period during the Eastern Zhou, prior to Qin Shihuang's unification in 221 B.C. Or India under the Mauryas, the unification of which did not last long. Unlike China in its more mature imperial period, the Aztecs and Incas lacked a unified written language and culture around which its people could coalesce to oppose European colonization. Power distribution resembled feudalism, decentralized around entrenched nobles that were not (yet) united around and fully loyal to a centralized state and made it easier for the European conquistadors to divide and conquer.

He agrees with Diamond that the north-south geography of longitude lines played a role in political development, but points out that the diseases took a toll on native populations after the empires of Mexico and Peru were toppled--finishing the job instead of starting it, so to speak. (I haven't read Diamond by the way, just FYI).

Finally, Fukuyama tries to explain why in the modern world after colonization, it is the Asian countries who have been most successful, and why that part of the continent was most successfully able to resist colonization.

Again, it comes down to institutions. China, despite its large population and diverse geography, has a long history of centralized state-building. It lacks an organically developed rule of law, due to the absence of transcendental monotheistic religions and lets the employees of its bureaucracy to manage things on local, municipal, and provincial level based on individual discretion and circumstantial context while still staying accountable to the national levels of power. Japan was ruled by the same imperial dynasty for over 2500 years and inherited its bureaucratic tradition from China, in addition to a unified language and culture.

The last element is especially important for one crucial ingredient for state-building: nationalism. Nationalism provides a narrative of legitimacy that further binds people to a country's state power. It also overrides any potential ethnic and racial divisions (not really a problem for China and Japan, both very ethnically homogenous countries). I can't remember much about the discussion of other Asian countries unfortunately, China and Japan is all I can recall.

Anyway, the result is that even after a brief period of submission and humiliation, China and Japan were quickly able to oust the Western powers, get back on their feet, and join the globalized world in their own right. Japan is a first-world country today, and the size of China's rapidly growing economy ranks among the top with the United States and European Union.

This is a big book...too much to cover completely here. I will say that I'm still slightly skeptical of Fukuyama's assertion of democracy as part of the inevitable ideal of political development and wish he'd gone over more thoroughly the many times in recent history in which exportation of democracy completely failed by the United States in Iraq, Afghanistan (can't remember them all) as a counterbalance to his thesis. He acknowledges that "getting to Denmark" is a path that must be built on indigenous traditions, but it still feels like there's a stronger point to be made when the points in this book are applied in practice. Isn't it possible that developing countries are forced to take risky institutional gambles in the name of Western ideological perfection before their national identity, ability to eat, ability not to have civil wars etc. are fully consolidated? Hasn't it already happened, in fact? That's just my point of view, and I don't disagree with Fukuyama (one look at his bibliography and he's obviously WAY better read than I am). Overall, one of the more interesting works I've read in a while.