Book Summary: “The Origins of Political Order” by Francis Fukuyama


Title: The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution
Author: Francis Fukuyama
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Fukuyama overviews human history before the French Revolution and attempts to find the reasons for the evolution of the state, the rule of law and accountable government.

Key Take-aways

  • To evolve a state, a region needs:
    • Agriculture
    • Elites and division of labor
    • Constrained geographically so that population density grows
    • Tribes need to be willing to give up their autonomy to state.
  • Individualism was stronger in the West, while kinship was dominant elsewhere. The Catholic church played an important role in replacing kinship within individualism.
  • This individualism in the West enabled the growth of civil society. Civil society balanced the growth of the centralized state. This led to rule of law and accountable government.
  • The type of government of Europe was determined by the relative strength of the:
    • central monarchy
    • an upper nobility
    • a broader gentry class (that is, small landowners, knights, or other free individuals)
    • city dwellers (the incipient bourgeoisie).

Other Books by Author

Important Quotes from Book

Political institutions develop, often slowly and painfully, over time, as human societies strive to organize themselves to master their environments. But political decay occurs when political systems fail to adjust to changing circumstances. There is something like a law of the conservation of institutions. Human beings are rule-following animals by nature; they are born to conform to the social norms they see around them, and they entrench those rules with often transcendent meaning and value. When the surrounding environment changes and new challenges arise, there is often a disjunction between existing institutions and present needs. Those institutions are supported by legions of entrenched stakeholders who oppose any fundamental change.

The purpose of this book is to fill in some of the gaps of this historical amnesia, by giving an account of where basic political institutions came from in societies that now take them for granted. The three categories of institutions in question are the ones just described:

1. the state

2. the rule of law

3. accountable government

Europe was very different from these other societies insofar as its exit from tribalism was not imposed by rulers from the top down but came about on a social level through rules mandated by the Catholic church. In Europe alone, state-level institutions did not have to be built on top of tribally organized ones.

A parsimonious theory of political change, comparable to the theories of economic growth posited by economists, is in my view simply not possible…. What I am aiming for in this book is a middle-range theory that avoids the pitfalls both of excessive abstraction (the vice of economists) and excessive particularism (the problem of many historians and anthropologists).

Most purportedly general theories of development fail because they don’t take into account the multiple independent dimensions of development. They are, rather, reductionist in seeking to abstract a single causal factor out of a much more complex historical reality. And they fail to push the story back far enough historically to the conditions that explain their own starting points and premises.

The recovery of human nature by modern biology, in any case, is extremely important as a foundation for any theory of political development, because it provides us with the basic building blocks by which we can understand the later evolution of human institutions.

The recovery of human nature by modern biology, in any case, is extremely important as a foundation for any theory of political development, because it provides us with the basic building blocks by which we can understand the later evolution of human institutions.

Some people today argue that religion is primarily a source of violence, conflict, and social discord.  Historically, however, religion has played the opposite role: it is a source of social cohesion that permits human beings to cooperate far more widely and securely than they would if they were the simple rational and self-interested agents posited by the economists.

Human nature provides certain structured paths toward sociability that give human politics its particular character. These include:

• Inclusive fitness, kin selection, and reciprocal altruism are default modes of sociability.

• Human beings have a capacity for abstraction and theory… This is the basis of religious belief, which acts as a critical source of social cohesion

• Human beings desire intersubjective recognition,

In its early stages, human political organization is similar to the band-level society observed in higher primates like chimpanzees. This may be regarded as a default form of social organization.

We seem to be getting closer to a fuller explanation for pristine state formation. We need the confluence of several factors. First, there needs to be a sufficient abundance of resources to permit the creation of surpluses above what is necessary for subsistence. This abundance can be natural… But more often abundance is made possible through technological advances like agriculture. Second, the absolute scale of the society has to be sufficiently large to permit the emergence of a rudimentary division of labor and a ruling elite. Third, that population needs to be physically constrained so that it increases in density when technological opportunities present themselves, and in order to make sure that subjects cannot run away when coerced. And finally, tribal groups have to be motivated to give up their freedom to the authority of a state. This can come about through the threat of physical extinction by other, increasingly well-organized well-organized groups. Or it can result from the charismatic authority of a religious leader.

The Chinese government of the Former Han Dynasty fulfilled virtually all of these criteria of modern bureaucracy.

Left to their own devices, elites tend to increase the size of their latifundia, and in the face of this, rulers have two choices. They can side with the peasantry and use state power to promote land reform and egalitarian land rights, thereby clipping the wings of the aristocracy. This is what happened in Scandinavia…

Or the rulers can side with the aristocracy and use state power to reinforce the hold of local oligarchs over their peasants. This happened in Russia, Prussia, and other lands east of the Elbe River from the seventeenth century on… The French monarchy under the Old Regime was too weak to dispossess the aristocracy or remove their tax exemptions, so it ended up placing the burden of new taxes on the peasantry.

The French monarchy under the Old Regime was too weak to dispossess the aristocracy or remove their tax exemptions, so it ended up placing the burden of new taxes on the peasantry

in India a unique pattern of social development unfolded that would have huge implications for Indian politics down to the present day. Right around the time that states were first being formed, a fourfold division of social classes emerged known as varnas: Brahmins, who were priests; Kshatriyas, warriors; Vaishyas, merchants; and Sudras, everyone else not in the first three varnas (at that time, mostly peasants). From the standpoint of politics, this was an extremely important development because it separated secular and religious authority. In China, there were priests and religious officials.

A second critical social development was the emergence of jatis, or what came to be known as castes. Jatis subdivide all of the varnas into hundreds of segmentary endogamous occupational groups, from priests of different types to traders and shoemakers and farmers. They represent what one observer labeled the sacralization of the occupational order.  The jatis were superimposed on top of the existing lineage structure, fixing limits on clan exogamy. That is, exogamous agnatic lineages had to marry within the limits of the jati, so that a shoemaker’s daughter would have to marry the son of another shoemaker of a different clan.

The experiences of China and India suggest then that a better form of freedom emerges when there is a strong state and a strong society, two centers of power that are able to balance and offset each other.

Ottoman society resembled China at the time of the contemporaneous Ming Dynasty insofar as it combined a strong, centralized state with relatively weak and unorganized social actors outside the state. (It differed from China, however, insofar as political power was limited by law.)

The single most important difference between the dirlik system and European feudalism was, as Machiavelli recognized, the fact that unlike in Europe, the Turkish appanages could not be turned into heritable property and given to the sipahi’s descendants. Owing to the fact that most land in the empire had been recently conquered by an upstart dynasty, the vast bulk of it— some 87 percent in 1528— remained state owned and was granted to the timar holder only for his lifetime.

European society was, in other words, individualistic at a very early point, in the sense that individuals and not their families or kin groups could make important decisions about marriage, property, and other personal issues. Individualism in the family is the foundation of all other individualisms.

States were formed on top of societies in which individuals already enjoyed substantial freedom from social obligations to kindreds. In Europe, social development preceded political development.

This shift was driven by the Catholic church, which took a strong stand against four practices: marriages between close kin, marriages to the widows of dead relatives (the so-called levirate), the adoption of children, and divorce.

Later church edicts forbade concubinage, and promoted an indissoluble, monogamous lifetime marriage bond between men and women.

These changes had a correspondingly devastating impact on tribal organization throughout Western Europe. The German, Norse, Magyar, and Slavic tribes saw their kinship structures dissolve within two or three generations of their conversion to Christianity.

Whereas the early development of European states was rooted in their ability to provide justice, from the sixteenth century on the process was driven almost entirely by the need to finance war.

The story of political development from this point in European history is the story of the interaction between these centralizing states and the social groups resisting them. Absolutist governments arose where the resisting groups were either weak and poorly organized, or else were co-opted by the state to help in extracting resources from other social groups that weren’t co-opted. Weak absolutist governments arose where the resisting groups were so strongly organized that the central government couldn’t dominate them. And accountable government arose when the state and the resisting groups were better balanced.

The outcome of these struggles was not a bilateral fight for rights between the state and society as a whole. In very general terms, the struggle tended to be a four-legged one among the central monarchy, an upper nobility, a broader gentry class (that is, small landowners, knights, or other free individuals), and a Third Estate that included city dwellers (the incipient bourgeoisie).

Four European state-building outcomes:

  1. Weak absolutism. The French and Spanish monarchies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries epitomized the new absolutist state,
  2. Successful absolutism. The Russian monarchy succeeded in co-opting both its nobility and gentry, and turning them into a service nobility completely dependent on the state.
  3. Failed oligarchy. The aristocracies of both Hungary and Poland succeeded early on in imposing constitutional limits to the power of the king, who then remained weak and unable to construct a modern state.
  4. Accountable government. Finally, England and Denmark were able to develop both strong rule of law and accountable government, while at the same time building strong centralized states capable of national mobilization and defense.

Human beings have an innate propensity for creating and following norms or rules. Since institutions are essentially rules that limit individual freedom of choice, one can equivalently say that human beings have a natural inclination to create institutions.

Human beings have a natural propensity for violence.

Human beings by nature desire not just material resources but also recognition.

Political systems evolve in a manner roughly comparable to biological evolution. Darwin’s theory of evolution is based on two very simple principles, variation and selection.

First, in political evolution, the units of selection are rules and their embodiments as institutions, rather than genes as in biological evolution.

Second, in human societies, variation among institutions can be planned and deliberate, as opposed to random.

In contrast to biological evolution, institutions can spread through imitation. Some societies with weaker institutions are either conquered or eliminated by stronger ones, but in other cases they can adopt the institutions of their competitors in a process known as “defensive modernization.”

Competition is critical to the process of political development, just as it is in biological evolution. If competition did not exist, there would be no selection pressure on institutions, and therefore no incentives for institutional innovation, borrowing, or reform. One of the most important competitive pressures leading to institutional innovation has been violence and war.

The actual historical roots of different institutions often seem to be the products of a long concatenation of historical accidents that one could never have predicted in advance.

The particular historical source of an institution matters less than the institution’s functionality. Once discovered, it can be imitated and used by other societies in completely unanticipated ways.

Institutions once formed tend to be preserved, due to the biological proclivity noted above to invest rules and mental models with intrinsic significance.

The ability of societies to innovate institutionally thus depends on whether they can neutralize existing political stakeholders holding vetoes over reform. Sometimes economic change weakens the position of existing elites in favor of new ones.

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