Wondering about the budget showdowns in Washington? Can you predict the outcomes of uprisings in Arab countries? Sometimes it is a good idea to step back, take a deep breath and review the larger picture of what passes for political order.
That's an invitation to read "The Origins of Political Order."
Erudition fills the air in what will be a classic of the history of the state. Francis Fukuyama's new book offers a clear and cogent exposition of how political order came to be formulated over centuries -- "looking across time and space in a comparative fashion" -- with plenty of surprises and unintended consequences along the way.
This approach means that Fukuyama, a political scientist and senior fellow at Stanford University's Spogli Institute for International Studies, puts theory after history in his treatment of political development, "hoping to recover something of the lost tradition of 19th century historical sociology or comparative anthropology."
Fukuyama looks at history first, he tells us. He does not build a big theoretical framework to begin with. This way, he infers theory from the facts, not the other way around.
This is an alternative to historical writing that the author characterizes as ODTAA -- "one damn thing after another." Instead, he wants " to extract general rules or causal theories that can be applied in other circumstances," to rid the reader of a historical amnesia about the nature and the necessity of politics. He calls his view a "middle range" theory that calculates factors in the mix such as warfare, religion and kinship and avoids the pitfalls of excessive abstraction or particularism.
Analyses of human development are not new. Recently, "Why The West Rules -- For Now," a monumental effort by Ian Morris, professor of classics and history at Stanford University, encapsulated 50,000 years of history to estimate the future based upon patterns of human behavior. This book was even broader in scope than Bill Bryson's "Seeing Further," an encomium about the future of science, and Diarmaid MacCulloch's tome, "Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years."
Scholars attempt these books because they are looking for a unifying theory -- historic, scientific, religious -- to capture and understand patterns of human behavior and the world around us.
Fukuyama begins his study of the origins of political order with human nature as a constant, using disciplines outside his own -- anthropology, economics and biology -- to analyze societies over long periods of time in a comparative way. He writes, "We take institutions for granted but in fact have no idea where they come from." As a result, Fukuyama argues that we are subject to "recurring patterns of behavior across time and across cultures."
The analysis in this book covers man's primate ancestors, hunter-gatherers and includes the origins of the state, the rule of law, and accountable government to the French Revolution. About this time line the author cautions: "Readers of this volume might get the impression that some of the long historical continuities described here mean that societies are trapped by their histories, but in fact we live today under very different and more dynamic conditions."
And so "Origins" takes the reader on an expedition to the root of the idea of politics, something we cannot do without, no matter how hard we try. Fukuyama emphasizes, "If we are seeking to understand the functioning of contemporary institutions, it is necessary to look at their origins and the often accidental and contingent forces that brought them into being [and to look] at the historical origins of political institutions as well as the process of political decay and more." But things began very differently much earlier, and Fukuyama outlines where he is going.
His book begins with a section that considers the necessity of politics. He speaks to contemporary anxieties about liberal democracy, how both the left and the right entertain fantasies about abolishing government, and more.
Fukuyama makes it clear that he does not want to write Whig history, an inevitable progression toward liberal democracy. He says, "My argument is that the rule of law comes out of organized religion, and that democracy is a weird accident of history it was a complete historical accident that the English Parliament could fight a civil war and produce a constitutional settlement that became the basis of modern democracy."
Still, that noble accident was the beginning of what came to be called by the beginning of the 21st century, "liberal democracy as the default form of government," a term coined by Amartya Sen, the 1998 Nobel Prize winner in economics."
How is it that liberal democracy became the desired goal of so many of the globe's nations? A so-called "third wave" of democratization began in the 1970s, emerging in some parts of the developing world but not everywhere. In 1973, 45 of the world's 151 countries "were counted 'free' by Freedom House " By the late 1990s, some 120 countries, more than 60 percent of the world's independent states, had become democracies, according to Fukuyama. Why? People rejected oppressive governments, were better educated and aided by technology, communications and cheap travel, voted with their feet.
But these remarks, necessary to set the scene for what is to come, anticipate a second volume by Fukuyama, that will include "the story up to the present, paying special attention to the impact that Western institutions had on institutions in non-Western societies they sought to modernize," to include political development in the contemporary world.
Fukuyama's "Origins" should be required reading for those in office and aspiring to political service.
Michael D. Langan has served both in the U.S. Treasury and Labor Departments.
The Origins Of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution
By Francis Fukuyama
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
585 pages, $35