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Notes on Political Order and Political Decay


I finally finished reading Francis Fukuyama’s seriously deep comparative analysis of political systems; how they emerge and how they decay this week.
Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the globalisation of democracy is, as the title may suggest, not light bed time fare. It is the second volume of Fukuyama’s investigation into political order following on from The Origins of Political Order which looked at social order from the chimpanzees to pre-modern societies to the French Revolution. Political Order and Political Decay was published back in 2014 and there have already been lots of excellent reviews so here are just some key points summarising Fukuyama’s argument:

• Democracy without the counterbalancing forces of the rule of law, a professional bureaucracy with sufficient autonomy to efficiently and effective implement policy, and a culture of meritocracy and impersonal decision making is unlikely to be stable.

• Clientelism (the practice of political parties forming policy and offering patronage through employment opportunities in the bureaucracy to favoured specific sectional interest groups) predominates at early stages of political development.

• Nationalist identity (rarely created in a benign fashion I would note) plays a useful function in forging identities beyond those of the small scale tribal bands which characterise pre-modern societies.

• Most states in Africa have failed to develop stable political orders in part, because of:

a) colonial powers’ failure to bequeath good institutions. Fukuyama argues this was because the “scramble for Africa” was late stage colonialism when colonisers were less interested in establishing those institutions; and
b) the retention of tribal loyalties as a primary identity above the artificial nationalities which colonisers attempted to create.

Fukuyama’s thought has evolved since writing the End of History and the Last Man but he still strongly endorses the universal appeal of liberal democracy as a rights respecting and welfare enhancing political order.

• The middle class typically serves as the prime group agitating for democratic reform. The middle class have often recently acquired property and have new expectations that their rights be recognised by the political elite. This point relates to Alexis De Tocqueville’s observation that the large number of property owners in a democracy served as a buttress against revolution:

Not only are the men of democracies not naturally desirous of revolution but they are afraid of them. All revolutions more or less threaten the tenure of property: but most of those who live in democratic countries are possessed of property; not only are they possessed of property, but they live in the condition where men set the greatest store upon their property.

People in the middle class are harder to bribe which means, at least in theory, policy of a wider public interest is more likely to be pursued in democracies with a strong middle class. However, as we have seen with western democracies facing the steep fiscal costs of unfunded pension liabilities, this group is not necessarily immune to clientelism.

• Weak state capacity and political institutions opened the door toward pervasive clientelism in both Greece and Italy. In Greece, Fukuyama notes both the centre left socialist PASOK party and the centre right conservative New Democracy party were notorious for using jobs in the bureaucracy as a source of political patronage.

• The United States has suffered political decay because of the inherent rigidity in its political order. The founding fathers deliberately established a defined separation of powers in each branch of government, legislature, judiciary and executive so that the degree of power vested in each branch was tightly constrained.

• However Fukuyama argues, I think convincingly, that too much authority has been vested in the courts to implement and enforce public policy – a role to which this branch is not well suited. It is a strange quirk of the American system that, unlike Westminster parliamentary democracies, such as the UK, Aus or NZ, decisions of social reform do not happen by legislative change as a result of a public coalition which could convince a plurality of the demos for change but instead by affected groups filing legal suit. (The most recent example is gay marriage which in NZ and Ireland was endorsed respectively through the legislature and by referendum) I have touched on this in a previous post.

• Fukuyama notes founding father James Madison* thought a diversity of interest groups would, in a sense, balance each other out and strengthen democracy but those interest groups, Fukuyama argues, can result in agencies with conflicting mandates unable to do anything well.

• Fukuyama has an excellent chapter (largely recapitulated in this Foreign Affairs essay) on the decline of the US forest service. This was an agency staffed by professional agronomists to perform a technocratic role of sustainably managing the resources of the US national by selling timber on the open market. Once seen as a high performer, the USFS is now regarded as an utter failure but Fukuyama argues this is because it has been forced to meet conflicting and contradictory mandates because of the successful lobbying of interest groups. Owners of property adjacent to forest lobbied the government to protect their property from wildfires. The problem with this was, as ecological science started to reveal in the second half of the 20th century, small wildfires actually allowed forest trees to come back stronger. The politics of protecting property owners from fire meant a rational cost benefit analysis became near impossible and, as Fukuyama writes, “the government could easily spend $1 million to protect a $100,000 house” . Decay is not the same as decline so while Fukuyama is concerned about the state of US government he doesn’t think some sort of drastic reversion is imminent.


Fukuyama’s depth of analysis and scholarship is highly impressive and this book is recommended for those with an interest in political development, economic progress and human flourishing.

*I have not read the federalist papers wherein the founding fathers of the USA considered how best to govern their new republic but a learned friend recently suggested I delve into them so they are on my radar for future reading.


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