NR Digital

The Long Climb

by William Voegeli
The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, by Francis Fukuyama (Farrar, Straus, 608 pp., $35)

‘In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men,” according to The Federalist Papers, “the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” Francis Fukuyama, in The Origins of Political Order, makes the same fundamental point: “Successful liberal democracy requires both a state that is strong, unified, and able to enforce laws on its own territory, and a society that is strong and cohesive and able to impose accountability on the state.” Every page of Fukuyama’s latest book conveys that grappling with this Goldilocks problem — establishing and maintaining a government that is neither too weak to do its essential work, nor too strong to be safely entrusted with the liberties and welfare of the people — has been the crux of political history.

Fukuyama, now a senior fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, was working for the State Department’s policy-planning staff in 1989 when The National Interest published his article “The End of History?” Appearing weeks before the Soviet Union relinquished control over the nations of Eastern Europe, the essay made its author famous for providing a sweeping interpretation of the meaning of America’s victory in the Cold War.

Some who hailed and others who attacked Fukuyama’s thesis sped past the article’s qualifications and nuances, beginning with that question mark in its title. Fukuyama was not contending that the Soviet demise marked the culmination of the epochal struggle to rid the world of tyranny and oppression, or a guarantee that mankind would live happily ever after. His point, rather, was that the collapse of Communism, as both a practical enterprise and a moral ideal, marked “the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.”

Moreover, argued Fukuyama, not only had Fascism and Communism been subtracted from the “common ideological heritage of mankind,” but it had become exceedingly difficult to see how any new isms would ever be added. That was the sense in which history had ended: Mankind would spend the imaginable future working within the liberal-democratic framework rather than attempting to fashion another.

Unfortunately for the human race, stipulating that liberal democracy is the only justifiable regime does not guarantee that it can be made to work. The least-bad alternative might not be good enough, either to flourish where it exists or to spread to new habitats. Fukuyama has written half a dozen books since publishing one based on the end-of-history article in 1992. They address a range of topics, but a recurring concern is the frailty as opposed to the inevitability of liberal democracy, given the way free societies depend on but do not necessarily reinforce social habits or moral understandings that lie beneath the level we typically think of as “political,” where such things as elections, wars, and policy debates take place.

The Origins of Political Order can, then, be viewed as Fukuyama’s attempt to move from discussing discrete aspects of political weakness and strength to making a comprehensive, systematic argument about the causes of political disarray and cohesion. “Comprehensive,” however, does not do justice to the ambition of Fukuyama’s enterprise. The Origins published in 2011 examines the coalescence of political order from the emergence of Homo sapiens as a distinct species up to the French Revolution. A forthcoming second volume will analyze how humanity has confronted this challenge over the past two centuries.

The first volume synthesizes a remarkable amount of material, not just from political science, history, and economics, but also anthropology, archaeology, genetics, and sociobiology. The reader will learn, for example, that ground squirrels “discriminate between full and half sisters in nesting behavior.” That matters because “individuals of any sexually reproducing species will behave altruistically toward kin in proportion to the number of genes they share,” which explains why human “nepotism is not only a socially but a biologically grounded reality.”

Humans are the only species with a history, in the sense that the clusters we live in together have, over the millennia, changed radically in size and complexity. Ground squirrels, chimpanzees, and all other animals appear to live in groups determined by their species’ natures, rather than their members’ choices, and thus have the same extent, structure, and functions today as they did 500 or 50,000 years ago. Fukuyama is, in this sense, an Aristotelian, believing that our nature directs human beings to seek security and happiness in social life.

He is, at the same time, a kind of Darwinian. For Fukuyama, the test of political arrangements is how well they succeed. Configurations that conduce to humans’ living longer, healthier lives; bearing and raising more children; satisfying the desires for distinction and meaning; and collectively acquiring the capacity to dominate other groups or to avoid being dominated by them — these are the arrangements that will be retained, imitated, and elaborated. The ones that fail these real-world tests, whose members are poor, sick, weak, hungry, infertile, defeated, subjugated, or miserable — these are the configurations that will be discarded in humanity’s long trial-and-error process.

Questions of comparative advantage would be irrelevant if Earth’s geography placed each distinct social group on its own distant island. We still occasionally discover previously unknown peoples, living as they had lived thousands of years ago, protected from contact with all other groups by some impenetrable jungle. Having devised a satisfactory approach to inhabiting a particular environment, they had no reason to alter that approach as long as the environment stayed the same. It is the interaction of groups of people that fuels the permanent experiment to see which social arrangements work best. Economic and cultural advances are good, as far as they go, but unless accompanied by military advances they will benefit only the aggressors who expropriate, conquer, or enslave the prosperous and civilized.

Small “groups of nomadic families” that “inhabit a territorial range that they guard and occasionally fight over,” in Fukuyama’s description, were the earliest form of human association, and for tens of thousands of years the only one. The development of agriculture permitted a new and significantly larger kind of social arrangement, the tribe, to supersede bands of hunters and gatherers. The tribe’s more elaborate division of labor and status included “the emergence of a separate caste of warriors.”

Nonetheless, bands and tribes were much looser associations of humans than any of us live in today. Fukuyama cites the anthropologist Morton Fried to the effect that pre-modern leaders had enough authority to say, “If this is done, it will be good,” but not enough power to say, “Do this!” Such power is the defining feature of the next step in political development, state-level societies. In them, a sovereign source of authority possesses a monopoly on legitimate force. States have a larger and more defined territorial extent than tribes, and a more stratified and unequal social structure, and are “legitimated by much more elaborate forms of religious belief.”

Echoing Rousseau, Fukuyama writes that “the transition from tribe to state involves huge losses in freedom and equality,” making it “hard to imagine societies giving all this up,” even to obtain economic or technological benefits. “Competitive state formation” is easy to explain: “States are usually so much better organized and powerful than . . . tribal-level societies that they either conquer and absorb them, or else are emulated by tribal neighbors who wish not to be conquered.” “Pristine” state formation, however, where a tribe evolves into a state without any threat or example from some other, preexisting state, is a mystery. There must have been at least one state that came into existence for reasons having nothing to do with other states, but in the absence of a known example and reliable account, its origins can be the subject only of untestable hypotheses.

Strong states protect their members against all enemies, foreign and domestic — invaders, rebels, and criminals. If that were the entirety of the political problem, then strengthening the state would be infinitely advantageous; but states in which the rulers possess power sufficient to defeat all enemies can also employ that power to abuse their own people. We might object to that prospect, hoping to be governed by nicer and more respectful rulers. But if constraining the state so that it cannot abuse its citizenry weakens its ability to defend them from enemies, then the Darwinian logic of successful experiments’ displacing failed ones would always be tilted toward the augmentation of government power, even entailing tyranny.

The hope that natural selection of political arrangements might allow non-tyrannical regimes to survive or even thrive rests on the possibility that political strength derives only partially from weapons and prisons, and can be augmented by the loyalty and enthusiasm of the governed population. To the extent this is true, states that can’t or don’t abuse their own people will compete successfully against objectively stronger states that are potentially or actively tyrannical.

The “end of history” may mean that popular consent and support really did confer a big advantage. Less reassuringly, it could just mean that, so far, liberal democracy has been very lucky. Clear thinking about human history requires constant resistance to the temptation of retrospective determinism, the assumption that because something did happen it had to happen.

Fukuyama does not commit this error in The Origins of Political Order, specifically rejecting the Whig theory of history, which treats ever-increasing liberty, prosperity, and security as mankind’s destiny. The bulk of the book is taken up with a thorough, wide-ranging, and provocative examination of the political history of China, India, the Muslim world, and European Christendom (and several states within it). The unifying thread is to account for how societies “get to Denmark”: that is, attain the three institutional requirements for a “successful modern liberal democracy.” Those are, first, a state able to “bring about compliance with its laws on the part of its citizens and to defend itself against other states and threats”; second, the establishment of the rule of law, constraining the state by “forcing it to use its power according to certain public and transparent rules”; and third, holding the state accountable, “ensuring that it is subordinate to the will of the people,” as that will is expressed in elections and other forms of popular political participation.

“Getting to Denmark” was a phrase coined by World Bank social scientists. The purpose was prescriptive, to guide international agencies in their efforts to help impoverished nations, badly or barely governed, become (in Fukuyama’s words) “stable, democratic, peaceful, prosperous, [and] inclusive,” and enjoy “extremely low levels of political corruption.” The problem, he says, is that “the struggle to create modern political institutions was so long and so painful that people living in industrialized countries now suffer from a historical amnesia regarding how their societies came to that point in the first place.” There may be no shortcuts to forging the social bonds, cultural dispositions, and political institutions that make Denmark Denmark.

In his second inaugural address Pres. George W. Bush said, “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.” To the extent this is true, the problem of getting to Denmark is everyone’s problem, not just one for people enduring life in those places on the globe least similar to modern liberal democracies. But those democracies are vulnerable not only to terrorist attacks incubated in failed states. They — we — are also threatened by the amnesia Fukuyama describes, which makes us complacent about the tenuous attainment of modern liberal democracy.

“The end of history,” Fukuyama wrote 22 years ago, “will be a very sad time,” one where “the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by . . . the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.” The triumph of liberal democracy will be self-negating if it renders our lives trivial and inane, and dangerous if our boredom and melancholy blinds us to the reality that civilization is “the work of centuries,” as Evelyn Waugh wrote, describing Kipling’s views: something “laboriously achieved” but only “precariously defended.” A liberal democracy that disdains the discipline needed to defend, educate, govern, and challenge itself consumes the economic, political, and social capital on which its existence rests. The Origins of Political Order will help remind its readers that climbing the hill has been long and difficult, but falling back down could happen suddenly and easily.

– Mr. Voegeli, a senior editor of The Claremont Review of Books, is the author of Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State and a visiting scholar at Claremont McKenna College’s Salvatori Center.

Send a letter to the editor.