Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Origins of Political Order

I'm reading Francis Fukuyama's latest book, The Origins of Political Order, an ambitious survey of the development of political institutions and centers of power across civilizations. Sitting as we are, at a juncture between ascendent East and declining West, it's a good time to look back and extract some basic principles governing the rise and fall of civilizations.

Fukuyama starts off with instinctive human nature, the social and political baggage our species carries from our not-too-distant primate past. Primitive humans and other apes live in communities with definite social structure. But, up until recently, it was thought that primitive man was solitary. This view was held by enlightenment philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, originators of the theory of the social contract, and the idea of natural human rights, respectively. It's a bit discomfiting to consider that inaccurate ideas about the isolation of man in a state of nature strongly influence the American founding father's views on individualism.

In the time period covered by the book, up to the French Revolution, societies are mainly agrarian and structured into classes - a ruling nobility, land owning aristocracy, and peasantry. From this largely hereditary state, the middle class begins to emerge and modern states coalesce.

Fukuyama's three crucial characteristics of the modern state are a strong state, rule of law, and accountability. States successfully implementing all three of these institutions are generally free, prosperous, and stable. Fukuyama calls the process of reaching this happy balance getting to denmark.

Given these institutions and social classes, Fukuyama seeks to derive a theory of political development and decay - not a fully predictive theory, but a contingent theory, like evolution, dependent on historical accidents and circumstances.

Capable, accountable, rule-bound governments emerge when a delicate balance is struck between the classes / power centers. Absent this balance, various pathologies result in the form of dominance of one class or a coalition of classes against the others. Political systems rise, but they also decay. The rats always find a way in. "Over time, elites are able to protect their positions by gaming the political system [...] transmitting these advantages to their children through favored access to elite institutions"

The book builds its argument by surveying the history of political development in several countries. As a conscious effort to avoid Eurocentrism, China's early development of meritocratic bureaucracy is examined first. India, the Middle East, Europe and Russia follow. In each region, driven by agriculture, religion and warfare, political systems rise and fall striking different balances of power, always attended by the persistent reassertion of rent-seeking elites.

The Chinese state, which achieved a powerful state and meritocratic bureaucracy in Qin and Han dynasties around 200 BC, never succeeds in subordinating the state to rule of law. India develops rule of law and accountability, but with a weak central state. The Middle East gains and looses rule of law and accountability. In Russia, the rulers dominate unchecked by either law or any notion of accountability. The French monarchy was beholden to its aristocracy by debt, resulting in a weak central state and widespread corruption.

England is first to achieve all three ingredients. With the Magna Carta in 1215, the aristocracy obligated the monarchy to recognize their rights. Over time these rights came to apply increasingly widely across society, particularly to the rising middle class.

NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land.

I might have been put off if I had known that the author was, at one time, associated with the neoconservative movement and had previously declared the "end of history". That would have been a shame. The Origins of Political Order is a fascinating read. The book is carefully constructed to avoid pushing ideological buttons, and makes its case largely independent of partisan politics. England and Denmark are held up as successful examples. The historical development proceeds from Chinese history first. I don't know my history well enough to evaluate the individual examples, but the framework for thinking about political development and centers of power seems to have a lot of value.

The planned second volume picks the story up in the modern age after the industrial revolution. Applying the same framework to the modern world is complicated by the post-colonial legacy, greatly increased communication, and globalization, along with entirely new actors such as corporations. It should be even more interesting than the first volume.

Reviews and commentary

On it's release, in April of 2011, the book generated lot of commentary, including write-ups in a slew of major newspapers, plus a bunch of blogs linked below. The author appears on several interview shows and podcasts. I'm going to hold off on all of this until after I finish the book, to give myself time to think about it.

Interviews, audio and video

Other links

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Slacker Economy

Recently, there's been a spate of articles about the virtues of slack, in this time of unemployment. CNN asks Are jobs obsolete? Thanks to automation and technology, the basic needs of society can be met using the productivity of a fraction of the population. So, the question becomes, what do the rest of us do?

So far, the answer seems to be the service economy, along with increasingly esoteric definitions of work and more frivolous things to spend money on. But, that runs out of steam, eventually. Most of us have too much to eat and all our time is spent working or consuming distracting amusements.

But, what if we're not driven to accumulate ever more marginally useful stuff, but rather reach a point where enough is enough. What, then, is the source of growth? In Work for post-materialists, the author confesses to being a “threshold earner”, as described by Tyler Cowen in The Inequality That Matters.

A threshold earner is someone who seeks to earn a certain amount of money and no more. [...] That person simply wants to “get by” in terms of absolute earning power in order to experience other gains in the form of leisure—whether spending time with friends and family, walking in the woods and so on.

In the old days, before I was a respectable family man, I used to work consulting gigs. That business attracts some sleazy characters, but that's another rant for another time. Anyway, for a stretch of a few years, I managed to get summers off. I prefer to think of myself as a gentleman hacker, but I guess that's another word for threshold earner.

[New York Times]

This phenomenon has a generational aspect to it. In The Experience Economy, David Brooks tells the tale of Sam, a hardworking American, born in 1900, who ran a business making brakes and his post-materialist grandson, Jared.

Sam’s grandson, Jared, was born in 1978. Jared wasn’t really drawn to the brake-systems business, which was withering in America. He works at a company that organizes conferences. He brings together fascinating speakers for lifelong learning. He writes a blog on modern art and takes his family on vacations that are more daring and exciting than any Sam experienced. Jared lives a much more intellectually diverse life than Sam. He loves Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia and his iPhone apps. But many of these things are produced outside the conventional monetized economy. Most of the products are produced by people working for free. They cost nothing to consume.

But, while Jared is traipsing around the Burning Man festival in nothing but lime green body paint, someone has to do the dirty work. Soldiering, mining, cleaning hotel rooms, making car parts. Thinking about how we get some unfortunate people to do those unpleasant things in a world of overflowing plenty might not make you feel too good.

[Burning Man, Jim Urquhart/Reuters, Boston Globe]

Technology plays a role in generating high productivity in the first place, not to mention exaggerating inequality in the process, but also in providing cheap mostly-harmless virtual goods for us to consume. In 1996, William Gibson wrote The Net Is a Waste of Time. But, I've often had a different thought. The purpose of the internet is to absorb the excess productivity of mankind.

There's a lot to be said about the nature of work in the networked age: globalized, distributed, bursty. And thinking to be done about worthy purposes for all those liberated brain cycles, Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus. But, we'll leave those for later. In the meantime, I hope you're enjoying my non-remunerative contribution to the post-materialist slacker geek-fest gift economy that is the internet.

A political economy

A recent piece in the Economist ( A new anthology of essays reconsiders Thomas Piketty’s “Capital” , May 20, 2107) ends with these words: &q...