The end of harmony
How the benefits of political order are slowly eroding
A BASIC rule of intellectual life is that celebrity destroys quality: the more famous an author becomes the more likely he is to produce hot air. Superstar academics abandon libraries for the lecture circuit. Brand-name journalists get their information from dinners with the great and the good rather than hard digging. Too many speeches must be given and backs slapped to leave time for serious thought.
Francis Fukuyama is a glorious exception to this rule. Mr Fukuyama earned global applause with the publication of “The End of History and the Last Man” in 1992. He won more plaudits in the early 2000s with his broadsides against the neoconservative movement that had nurtured him. But rather than milking his fame he has devoted the past decade to producing a monumental study of the history of what he calls “political order”. In its first volume, “The Origins of Political Order”, he took the story from prehuman times to the late 18th century. This second and last volume brings the story up to date. The two books rest on an astonishing body of learning.
This burst of intellectual energy was inspired by the half-failure of the liberal revolution that Mr Fukuyama once celebrated. “The End of History” proposed that markets and democracy were part-and-parcel of a single triumphant formula. But the past two decades have produced a more depressing picture. China has adopted a mixture of state capitalism and authoritarianism. Democratisation has failed in Russia and a host of Middle Eastern countries. Mr Fukuyama suggests that a major reason why history has proved to be more complicated than he imagined lies in the quality of political institutions. Neither democracy nor markets can flourish properly in the absence of a competent state. But such a state can produce many of the virtues of modernity without the benefits of either democracy or free markets.
State-building is difficult. Mr Fukuyama argues that Europe and America have long led the world in doing the hard lifting. They inherited strong medieval legal codes. They introduced merit-based civil services in the 19th century. For the most part they introduced mass franchises after creating efficient state machines. The man who once talked about “the end of history” now talks about “getting to Denmark”.
Mr Fukuyama contrasts the accomplishment of Denmark et al in creating successful states with two types of failure. The first is a failure of institutions to keep up with social change, as in much of Latin America. After a spate of reforms in the 1980s Brazil’s government is a hotch-potch of first-rate departments and patronage dumps. The second is wholesale institutional failure. The failure of the Arab spring was essentially a failure of governmental capacity. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood failed to understand the difference between winning an election and winning total power, so the country’s middle class reluctantly re-embraced authoritarianism.
Yet this is not a simple story of the West versus the rest, or the developed world versus the underdeveloped world. Mr Fukuyama notes that southern Europe lags a long way behind northern Europe: Greece and Italy continue to distribute jobs on the basis of patronage. But he is at his most interesting on East Asia. China produced a highly competent state, staffed by first-rate civil servants chosen by written examinations and capable of monitoring the affairs of a vast empire. Mr Fukuyama argues that what we are seeing in China now is the revival of this tradition after a century-long collapse: the Chinese Communist Party is reaching back into history to prove that you can create a competent state without the benefit of the Western traditions of democracy or the rule of law.
The book is sometimes frustrating. Mr Fukuyama frequently overloads the reader with his learning, and the first two parts of this book, on the state and foreign institutions, are too lengthy and the second two parts, on democracy and political decay, too short. But two things more than make up for Mr Fukuyama’s occasional failures.
The first is the quality of his intellect. He litters the book with insights that make you stop and think. The United States preserved the main features of Henry VIII’s England long after England had abandoned them, he says, including an emphasis on the authority of the common law, a tradition of local self-rule, sovereignty split among several bodies and the use of popular militias. Africa’s botched state-building can partly be explained by the fact that it is the most lightly populated continent in the world: it was only in 1975 that its population density reached the level that Europe enjoyed in 1500.
The second is his despair about the current state of American politics. Mr Fukuyama argues that the political institutions that allowed the United States to become a successful modern democracy are beginning to decay. The division of powers has always created a potential for gridlock. But two big changes have turned potential into reality: political parties are polarised along ideological lines and powerful interest groups exercise a veto over policies they dislike. America has degenerated into a “vetocracy”. It is almost incapable of addressing many of its serious problems, from illegal immigration to stagnating living standards; it may even be degenerating into what Mr Fukuyama calls a “neopatrimonial” society in which dynasties control blocks of votes and political insiders trade power for favours.
Mr Fukuyama’s central message in this long book is as depressing as the central message in “The End of History” was inspiring. Slowly at first but then with gathering momentum political decay can take away the great advantages that political order has delivered: a stable, prosperous and harmonious society.