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I'm the head of engineering at Tegus, a financial research startup. I write about politics, psychology, and software.

I've worked on a few open-source projects and infrequently blog.

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The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama

11 July 2015

Francis Fukuyama is an American foreign policy intellectual with a quality rarely seen in that group: he admits when he is wrong. He became associated with the neoconservative movement during the Reagan administration and achieved fame with his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man. He later distanced himself from the neoconservatives during the invasion of Iraq, citing its overt militarism. I read The End of History in college and thought that while it had plenty of intriguing ideas, it ultimately wasn’t very convincing. That said, it was good enough to convince me to read the first volume of Fukuyama’s magnum opus, The Origins of Political Order.

Published in 2011, Origins is an ambitious book. Fukuyama chronicles the political development of major human societies from our pre-tribal ancestors to the French Revolution, with the goal of finding principles behind the development of political institutions generally and the modern state in particular. (I haven’t read the second volume in the series, Political Order and Political Decay, which picks up where Origins leaves off and continues through the modern day.) The result is an expansive chronicle of much of human political history, with a particular focus on China, India, the Muslim world and Europe.

Fukuyama has a Burkean skepticism for the analysis of human societies and admits from the outset that he does not believe a fully predictive theory of political development is possible. However, I found the account of political development he describes convincing, if explicitly incomplete.

The most important idea in the book is patrimonialism: the tendency for human beings to favor their friends and family above the common interest. Political development in Fukuyama’s analysis is more or less the struggle to build and maintain institutions that resist patrimonialism. The most striking example of this in the book is the experience of the Muslim world from the Khwarazmian dynasty onward: Muslim rulers recruited their bureaucratic class from foreign slave-soldiers (Mamluks and later Janissaries) specifically because they could not trust the highly patrimonial elites from their own societies. When the taboos against these slave-soldiers having families broke down, they too reverted to patrimonialism, greatly weakening the Khwarazmian and Ottoman states.

Fukuyama identifies two major features of successful modern states that are undermined by excessive patrimonialism: the rule of law and accountable government.

The rule of law is the sense that the ruler of a society is bound to and must respect the laws of society. The prevalence of the rule of law is orthogonal to the existence of strong state: for example, the Chinese invented the modern state but defined the law purely in terms of the emperor’s wishes. Similarly, accountable government, the idea that the state should serve the best interests of the nation rather than just the ruling class, is orthogonal to the strength of the state and the rule of law.

Critically, Fukuyama presents patrimonialism as a biological imperative but the rule of law and accountable government as norms. Fukuyama continuously recognizes the power of ideas and norms to shape political behavior. He strongly opposes materialist accounts of development, at one point explicitly stating that the divergent paths of India and China starting around 600 BCE are impossible to explain without understanding the nuances of the Brahman religion. His attacks on materialism are not limited to Marxism; in one of my favorite passages in the book, Fukuyama roundly dismisses Austrian theories of the predatory state by simply comparing the low grain taxes of China under the Ming dynasty with the theoretical maximum the state could extract at that time.

While his theories have some predictive power, Fukuyama is careful to respect the complexity of human societies and avoids excessive generalizations. Moreover, he ends the book saying that many of the insights he derives from the ancient, Malthusian world have much less relevance after the Industrial Revolution. This made me feel that while Origins was an insightful book, I’ll need to follow up and read the sequel if I really want to grok Fukuyama’s view of the modern world.

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