Tuesday, October 11, 2011

More on The Origins of Polical Order

Mark Kingwell, a University of Toronto political theorist, reviewed in Francis Fukuyam's The Origins of Political Order in the August 2011 edition of Harper's. I went to this review specifically looking for a left-leaning rebuttal, and I found one, but it wasn't exactly what I expected. The Tomist: Francis Fukuyama's infinite regression says plenty with which I can't agree, but also has some interesting insights.

Kingwell pulls a quote out of Origins that's underlined in my copy:

"Entrenched interest groups tend to accumulate in any society over time, which aggregate into rent-seeking coalitions in order to defend their narrow privileges."

The book gives the reader an appreciation for the constant erosion of political institutions by forces of narrow self-interest and short-term expedience, illuminating not just the origins of political order but its decay and decline as well.

Kingwell hits on a favorite theme of mine, the inseparability of politics and economics, calling it a "strange blind spot" in Fukuyama's thinking. In Kingwell's well-placed words:

"The central occlusion concerns the relation of politics and economics. [...] One reason political commentators consistently fail to understand the social order is that they enjoy the habitual exercise of concept-separation: driving a conceptual wedge between politics and markets, between democracy and capitalism."

Kingwell wonders, as many readers will, about the transformation of the author of The End of History and former neocon into the Fukuyama who wrote The Origins of Political Order. It seems to me, without having read the earlier work, that we get a more cautious and nuanced take on the subject from the newer book. I remember rolling my eyes at the title of Fukuyama's earlier work and the soon-to-be-short-lived triumphalism of the Washington consensus back in the 90's, even while supporting principles like free markets and free trade.

Remind me never to argue with Kingwell, lest I be pummeled with rhetorical zingers like this one: "Fukuyama's conclusion only gradually seeps through the masonry of his prose." Ouch. But, I found Fukuyama quite clear and readable, if not particularly florid.

Fukuyama, avoiding polemics, sets out to abstract factors of development away from specific political agendas. Ideology is shown as a tool for legitimating or delegitimating rulers and institutions, but no particular doctrine is espoused over another. Rather, the keys to a functional society and good governance are defined in technocratic terms of a strong state, rule of law and accountability.

Kingwell seems to resent this analytical detachment, calling Fukuyama's neutrality a "wearying evenness", as if inflammatory partisan ranting was in short supply. This is a baffling criticism. A muscular clash of "big ideas" might be more satisfying on some level but, that ignores the question of why the world is full of people quite enamored of big ideas about freedom, justice and equality whose governments conspicuously fail to practice anything of the sort.

The "turtles all the way down" story is a sticking point for Kingwell, who sites "unjustified force", "the violent structure of the founding act" as the ugly first cause down at the bottom of the chain of causation. That it may be, but the turtles story illustrates a completely different and equally interesting point. Like evolution, political development is not a deterministic process but a contingent one. If you could "rewind the tape" and run the experiment again, the results would likely be different. That this property is shared by complex systems as diverse as evolving organisms and systems of political economy is worth pondering. Perhaps, other emergent properties common to complex systems manifest themselves in political economy.

Whether it's mistrust in a reformed neocon or just academic cat-fighting, Kingwell doesn't like Fukuyama's book. As funny as they sometimes are, Kingwell's objections miss the central point that Fukuyama offers a framework for thinking systematically about politics and development, laying out several case studies for the reader to practice on and generalize from. The fact that he does this even handedly is to be commended.

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...