Pray Brethren

Pray Brethren

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Review: The Origins of Political Order

Francis Fukuyama’s Origins of Political Order (volume one) is a rich source of information for those who want to understand the historical roots of our modern political institutions. The nations did not pop up over night, and Fukuyama takes great care in showing the different paths towards a strong nation. His method is not in advocating a deterministic model built on the laurels of Athens and the Magna Carta. Instead, he roots his argument first in human nature, after which he offers us a truly global approach to the creation of the first modern governments at the dawn of the American and French Revolutions.

From the outset it should be said that Fukuyama’s work seeks to update Samuel Huntington’s book, Political Order in Changing Societies. As a protégée of Huntington, Fukuyama has been greatly influenced by his ideas and now seeks to update them for the 21st century. The Origins of Political Order begins and ends with the rejection of progressivism: the notion that things always get better. Indeed, when we look out across the globe in the two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we have not seen democracies flourish. Russia seems to be backsliding into authoritarianism, Islamic radicals are doing whatever they can to keep democracy out of the Middle East, South America still struggles with dictatorships, Africa remains impoverished, and China is as tyrannical as ever. Fukuyama points out, however, that one cannot talk about decay until one shows how order came about in the first place.

Hence the need for a book called The Origins of Political Order.

Political order, according to Fukuyama, comes about when three important institutions are emplaced among a people. These political institutions are: the state itself, the rule of law, and accountable government. Why are these three institutions so important? In short, because human nature necessitates them. In a rejection of Hobbes’ and Rousseau’s conception of the state of nature, Fukuyama uses archeology, sociology, and anthropology to argue that man is a social being from the beginning and as such human societies most naturally tend towards an association called reciprocal altruism (what Fukuyama likes to call “patrimonialism”). This reciprocal altruism can be defined as the favoring of one’s family and friends over others in the realm of protection and production in social and political structures. Because this kind of system is often rife with corruption, nepotism, and inefficiency, there arises the need for impersonal institutions to create a just and ordered society where personal merit, not personal connections, determines one’s position in the societal hierarchy.

In order to generate the nation, the three aforementioned state-level institutions are requisite. First there must exist the state itself, represented and imaged by a strong executive (i.e. king, emperor, president). The state is important because it is able to concentrate enough power to protect the nation from external threats while breaking the power of an entrenched nobility who might seek the benefits of their own individual family. Following the creation of the state, an effective rule of law created strong private ownership whereby wealth could be created and accumulated by a newly developing middle class (what Fukuyama likes to call the Third Estate). The rise of free cities in Europe, which allowed peasants to escape from the local lords and take on specialized jobs, and were protected by kings – thus further weakening the nobility. Lastly, in places like England and Denmark, accountable government was able to place checks on the king’s authority and the new middle class began to invest itself in the state-building project.

Fukuyama notes that once these three institutions were founded in England, the English citizenry were willing to tax themselves at rates of up to 30% in times of need while in France, where there was no accountability and no personal investment in the nation, the king was never able to succeed in collecting taxes at 10-15%. In short, these three institutions were able to take a small, island country and propel it to dominance above such seemingly powerful absolutist nations like France and Spain. Fukuyama also alludes to his notion of social capital as a force behind the final formation of the nation. Strong self-government (at a local level) and religious ties created an environment of cooperation and solidarity among those differing in social status. In Denmark, for example, the Protestant notion of sola scriptura led to high literacy rates in the peasantry, thus preparing them to take on jobs which required higher levels of education.

That being said, religion and culture are not Fukuyama’s primary concern in this volume. Because he concentrates on the origins of political institutions, Fukuyama draws on economics, culture, and religion only when they played a role in shaping and creating the necessary institutions. As such, we see that the lack of organized religion in China helped it create a strong state early on but the same absence harmed China’s development of a rule of law and accountable government. Fukuyama also shows that religion in India made for such a complicated social and political structure that no strong state ever emerged. Islam and Christianity are also discussed in detail, both of which focused on bringing men out of their family groups and binding them to sovereigns unrelated by blood.

After having read this book, a man formed by a Catholic worldview like myself can walk away with some of the following insights:

1. Institutions are Important: Samuel Huntington, Fukuyama’s academic mentor, defined institutions as “stable, valued, recurring patterns of behavior”. Those who claim to dislike “institutional” or “organized” religion and a ritualistic liturgy fail to remember that their bodily livelihood depends not only on the need for “stable, valued, recurring patterns of behavior” at a state-level but also on the “stable, valued, recurring patterns of behavior” in their own chest (i.e. the much valued need for a steady and stable heartbeat!). We should not find it surprising that when people withdraw from the spiritual institution of the Church, they also begin to withdraw from social institutions of the nation, and heart disease becomes the number one killer of men and women.

2. The Need for Recognition: Men naturally seek status and honor, and to be respected by equals is a potent force for political and national development. Fukuyama notes that even kings can be dissatisfied by receiving honor from a nation of slaves. Tyrants, like the rulers of the Ottoman Empire, may be satisfied with cheap honor but real men are not. In religious terms, this provides an effective argument against those who deride Christianity as a religion which makes men God’s slaves, as if God simply wants an army of zombies to worship Him. Precisely the opposite is at play: Through baptism, God claims us as His adopted sons in the one Son, Jesus Christ, and by re-creating us with a share of His own nature, God makes us fit for worship as His obedient sons, not slaves. This model of sonship, filial obedience, and status change should be a clarion call for our own civic interactions. In such a way, sacraments are not only the outward signs of invisible grace, but they are the icons for public order.

3. Marriage and Private Ownership: Fukuyama tends to reduce the rule of law to merely the means of protecting private property rights from encroachment by the state or by the nobility. At the same time, he spoke in detail regarding the role of marriage in Europe and in India. In the former, the Catholic Church helped the state break up the tribal associations of the barbarian invaders while in the latter, cross-cousin marriage and the caste system hampered national development. The insight I have drawn, though not found specifically in the text, is the need for the institutions of marriage and private property. If institutions are important (insight #1) and if men have a need for recognition (insight #2), then not only is it man’s best interest to invest himself in his nation, but he also stands the best chance at a natural sense of pride and recognition through the ownership of a home and in having a wife and family. Marriage as an institution, the lifelong union of a man and a woman, was invented not by women who sought the security of a man but rather by men who could secure for themselves a wife while limiting the ambitions of the alpha male. The social acceptance (not the merely legal toleration) of divorce, coupled with the sexual revolution has done more harm to man’s need for honor, a wife, and a home than atom bombs ever could.

4. Transcending Family Values: Catholics who are naturally appalled by the Democrat's support of abortion and gay marriage have flocked to the Republican Party, delivering the presidency to George W. Bush in two elections – and they would have done it again had the GOP ran a consistently pro-life and pro-marriage candidate in 2008. Nevertheless, Catholics who adopt the secular arguments of the GOP (comprised of Protestants) fail to realize a point made by Fukuyama and manifested in the Catholic Church: family values are not enough. Indeed, in order to create the nation, the strong ties between families and friends had to be severed – either willingly or forcibly. This is certainly not a rejection of marriage and family (see insight #3), rather it is an ordering of loves – and in a nation like the United States whose sovereign is God, agape (divine love) is able to purify, shape, and order philia (brotherly love). Republican candidates like Rick Santorum are not taken seriously because they focus on the narrow issue of abortion. Strong pro-life candidates must not only condemn the damage of an eroticized culture, but they must also offer a national vision of duty, the sovereignty of God, and the deep bonds of philia which enable men to transcend the family and build the nation. Priests do this to build up the Church, we as lay Catholic men must do it to make the nation.

The few things I’ve said here only scratch the surface of Fukuyama’s work. More insights are sure to find themselves popping up in future blog posts, but suffice it to say that I highly recommend The Origins of Political Order as an excellent source of interpretive history, political theory, and the interplay of many fields of study with the development of nations.

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