The Agenda

Francis Fukuyama on the Historical Roots of America’s Dysfunctional Government

Francis Fukuyama’s “The Decay of American Political Institutions” is the ideal companion to Steven Teles’s “Kludgeocracy in America” — it is an indictment of the ways in which America’s “state of courts and parties” has left us with a highly inefficient government plagued by adversarial legalism:

Ordinary people feel that their supposedly democratic government no longer reflects their interests but instead caters to those of a variety of shadowy elites. What is peculiar about this phenomenon is that this crisis in representativeness has occurred in large part because of reforms designed to make the system more democratic. Indeed, both phenomena—the judicialization of administration and the spread of interest-group influence—tend to undermine trust in government, which tends to perpetuate and feed on itself. Distrust of executive agencies leads demands for more legal checks on administration, which further reduces the quality and effectiveness of government by reducing bureaucratic autonomy. It may seem paradoxical, but reduced bureaucratic autonomy is what in turn leads to rigid, rule-bound, un-innovative and incoherent government. Ordinary people may blame bureaucrats for these problems (as if bureaucrats enjoy working under a host of detailed rules, court orders, earmarks and complex, underfunded mandates coming from courts and legislators over which they have no control). But they are mistaken to do so; the problem with American government is less an unaccountable bureaucracy than an overall system that allocates what should properly be administrative powers to courts and political parties.

In short, the problems of American government flow from a structural imbalance between the strength and competence of the state, on the one hand, and the institutions that were originally designed to constrain the state, on the other. There is too much law and too much “democracy”, in the form of legislative intervention, relative to American state capacity.

One of Fukuyama’s more provocative arguments is that what we are seeing is a state of affairs in which kin selection and reciprocal altruism have overwhelmed the weak American administrative state:

I have noted that kin selection and reciprocal altruism are the two natural modes of human sociability. They are not learned behaviors, but are genetically encoded into our mental and emotional makeup. A human being in any culture who receives a gift from another member of the community will feel a moral obligation to reciprocate. Early states were what Max Weber labeled “patrimonial” because they were regarded as the personal property of the ruler, who used his family and friends to staff his administration. Such states were built around these natural modes of sociability.

Modern states create strict rules and incentives to overcome the tendency to favor family and friends. These include practices like civil service examinations, merit qualifications, conflict-of-interest rules, and anti-bribery and corruption laws. But the force of natural sociability is so strong that it keeps coming back; guarding against it requires perpetual vigilance.

We have dropped our guard. The American state has been thoroughly re-patrimonialized.In this respect, the United States is no different from the Chinese state in the later Han Dynasty, or the Mamluk regime in the century prior to its defeat by the Ottomans, or the French state under the ancien régime. The rules blocking overt nepotism are still strong enough to prevent patrimonial behavior from becoming ubiquitous, but reciprocal altruism runs rampant in Washington. It is the primary channel through which interest groups have succeeded in corrupting government. Interest groups can influence members of Congress in perfectly legal ways simply by making donations and waiting for unspecified return favors. In other cases, the member of Congress initiates the gift exchange, favoring an interest group in the expectation of a reward down the line, whether campaign contributions or other chips to be cashed in at a later date. In many cases the exchange does not involve money. A Congressman attending a conference on derivatives regulation at a fancy resort will hear presentations on how the banking industry does or does not need to be regulated, without hearing credible alternative arguments from outside the industry. The politician is captured in this case not by money (though there is plenty of that to go around), but intellectually, since he or she will have only positive associations with the interest group’s point of view.

Though there is much to disagree with in Fukuyama’s essay, he does an excellent job of drawing a coherent line from the origins of the American state, which he describes as “Tudor in its basic structure,” to its present dysfunctional state. Alas, Fukuyama doesn’t leave us with any easy answers, as he is keenly away of the barriers, psychological, political, and otherwise, to the kind of dramatic institutional reform be believes the U.S. needs. The optimistic scenario is that U.S. society will find ways to innovate around state dysfunction, as Kevin Williamson envisions in his provocative new book. But this prospect seems less promising to those, like Fukuyama, who believe that there is no adequate substitute for an effective administrative state in a world that is being transformed by complex, decentralized threats. This, to me, is the most interesting long-run question: will the future belong to the most effective states, or to the peer-to-peer, decentralized networks? Perhaps the relevant futures are a Singapore world of efficient microstates or a Bitcoin world in which networked diasporas trade, and flourish, without intermediaries. The latter still scenario strikes me as utopian, and getting there might entail considerable disruption, so I suppose I’m with Fukuyama. But the latter scenario shouldn’t be entirely dismissed. If reform proves impossible, and Fukuyama certainly thinks it is close to impossible, “exit” of one kind or another will look increasingly attractive.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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