Monday, March 25, 2019

A Grand Fresco: The Origins of Political Order

How do you write about a book that is almost 600 pages long (in small print), has 25 pages of references, and the ambition to explain political institutions from the dawn of mankind to the French Revolution, from kinship-based bands of hunters to Voltaire? This was Francis Fukuyama’s objective in this monumental (yet eminently readable) book, “The Origins of PoliticalOrder” (note the plural).

My review, given the size and importance of the book, will be done in two parts, First, here, I will review the logic of the arguments put forward by Fukuyama. In the second review, I will engage into some critique.

There is one key idea of the book. If you wish to have a functional political order that enables economic growth and gives people freedom from arbitrariness of the sovereign or from oppression by their peers, you need three components: (i) a strong state, (ii) rule of law, and (iii) accountability.

It may seem at first that this is nothing especially new, but the way that Fukuyama presents his case is. A strong state is needed to provide public goods (most important being domestic law and order, protection of property, and defense against external attack). But the strong state has  to be “penned in” from two sides. From the top (as it were) by an ideology or religion that imposes limits on the state: this is the rule of law. Sovereign himself, however powerful, has to be subject to law. The second constraint comes from below: the state needs to be accepted, that is, accountable to people (where “people” is variously defined). We thus achieve the seemingly impossible: we have a strong state that cannot behave as it pleases, and needs some form of consent of those it governs.

The three independent component parts allow Fukuyama to show how one of them was achieved by some societies, two by others, but that they came together, all three, only in the 17th century England. China is the case of what Fukuyama calls “precocious state formation”. Qin China was the first to create a state: a process which, according to Fukuyama, is fundamentally unnatural because to have a state means to fight “patrimonialism”, people’s innate tendency to favor their own kin and tribe. State on the contrary requires clear, impersonal rules and system of advancement based on some general criteria including merit. Qin China, through ruthless centralization, and the defeat of a number of regional aristocracies, achieved that. But, it achieved it, Fukuyama thinks, too early. China thus created a powerful state –a thing which eludes many communities still today, more than two millennia after the Chinese did it—but it never created rule of law nor accountability. It was absolutist, from the start until today.

The absence of the rule of law of course does not mean that there is no law. What is today called “rule by law” (as opposed to the rule of law) is what Legalism was in China: ability of the Emperor to create laws at will, and have them obeyed. There was no lawlessness nor anomie but there was neither rule of law that constrained the state: a set of rules that can be changed only through previously agreed procedures.

There were cases of states that had an early form of the rule of law: religious rules that limited sovereign’s ability to do whatever he wanted. But such societies lacked either accountability, or both accountability and a strong state. Religions, according to Fukuyama, were useful in producing the rule of law because they placed the sovereign under one higher law: divine. This was the case in Islam (Umayyads, Abbasids and later Ottomans and Memluks), India thanks to Hinduism and Buddhism, and Europe thanks to Christianity (or rather mostly thanks to Catholicism).  

The absence of rule of law in China is seen as due to the absence of a codified religion with its divinely-ordained rules. In effect, codification of religion—being  a “people of the book”—is what Fukuyama believes is needed for the creation of early rule of law. Writing down divine rules, and having them “embodied” in a group of scholars or religious orders (ulamas, Brahmins, Christian clergy) whose main purpose is to watch over their application, limited the arbitrary power of the sultans, Indian princes and European kings.

Ottomans come for a special praise because they were able to create a strong state and an early rule of law (the latter, as just explained, thanks to Islam). The strong state was built on the backs of devşirme, the practice of abducting Christian children from their parents in order to create an elite corps of soldier- and administrator-slaves. This (in many ways abhorrent) practice allowed Ottomans to create a non-patrimonial state, to keep the grandees at bay, and not let kinship and family relations dominate the state. Ottoman decay began when janissaries were finally able to parlay their advantage to their children and then, together with magnates, to repatrimonialize the state. A one-generation aristocracy is the best way to ensure a strong non-patrimonial state. But it is hard to achieve because of people’s desire to transmit their advantages to offspring.

Accountability is the last to get on the scene. Until the European democratic revolutions, accountability was mostly non-existent (the Sultans did not have to ask people for permission for their actions) and was, at best, limited. It worked through the power of aristocracy, clergy or gentry to provide checks on the sovereign, principally to control the introduction of new taxes (Cortes in Spain, regional parlements in France, zemskiy sobor in Russia). But until the advent of the English parliament accountability was not only limited to a few classes, but sporadically exercised and even more sporadically obeyed.  It thus waxed and waned depending on the relative powers of the sovereign and aristocracy.

When does the political order decay? When the state is incapable to reform itself  to respond to new challenges (say, a powerful neighbor) and when it gets repatrimonalized.  The decay section is not exactly novel (to  be unable to reform is not very original), but the emphasis on repatrimonization as the source of decay allows us to better see that the state remains an unnatural organization in the sense that it is permanently in danger of succumbing to the more atavistic instincts of human nature—to prefer own kin rather than be subject to impersonal rules.

To have a strong state is therefore to be engaged in a permanent struggle against family. Christianity, according to Fukuyama, was particularly good in fighting family ties; Chinese history can be summarized as one endless conflict between the state and family. Every time you give a job to your friend or cousin, you are repartrimonalizing the state. And think how unnatural it is to behave equally toward everybody for it means, as noted by Montesquieu, that “a virtuous man has no friends”.

In the next post, I will provide some thoughts on the organization of the book, and a few critiques.

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