Saturday, November 30, 2019

Political Decay in Our Time. A review of Fukuyama’s vol. 2.

I have reviewed Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order (OPO) here and here, and I could have written at least two additional reviews. It is a great book in many respects. Its sequel Political Order and Political Decay (POPD) is less so. It is a very good book but in its overarching essential idea and originality of discussion it is not at the level of its predecessor.

Technically, POPD has two objectives: first, to continue with the exposition of how the three pillars of good governance (strong state, rule of law and accountability) have been created in various parts of the world from the Industrial Revolution to today, that is to continue with the line of discussion from OPO which ended at the time of the Industrial Revolution;  and second, to look at the causes of political decay (institutional rigidity and repatrimonization). The first objective is much less clearly achieved than in the previous book: the country stories, while interesting, are hardly new and it is not always clear if they were truly necessary to highlight  a given idea. The second objective is discussed practically only in the last part of the book with reference to the United States.

I have to start the review with some negatives. The historical episodes that are discussed, at times with verve, are unfortunately also often somewhat cliché-ed. The capsule version of histories of Greece, Southern Italy, Nigeria, and Argentina resemble Wikipedia summaries which are useful if you want to learn history of a given country in ten pages, but otherwise neither new nor exciting. Moreover, just a couple of paragraphs (rather than the capsule version of history) would have been enough  to provide examples the author needs. The book is thus unnecessarily long (more than 600 pages) and at times seems to consist of  notes that an author takes from his readings in order to use them later in his own book. (Yes, some people do read Grundrisse, but do we need every writer’s Grundrisse pasted in his book?)

Lots of that unnecessary length is also due to quasi verbatim repetitions of certain points. I found these word for word repetitions rather annoying because they seem to be somewhat condescending to the reader. Early on Fukuyama makes a very interesting and important point that countries that democratize too early before a strong civil service has been created, almost inevitably develop clientilistic politics. He uses, among others, the examples of Germany (democracy after civil service) and Italy and Greece (the reverse) to illustrate his point. But then repeats this at least twenty times in the following chapters. One grows a bit tired of this repetition. Moreover, it is only on page 201 that we learn that the original idea about the sequencing of civil service and democracy belongs to Martin Shefter. I was thus left under the impression that no one, including possibly even the author, has read the book—as a book—from page 1 to page 609, because such copy-and-paste repetitions would have been deleted.

Let’s now move to substantive points.  

I found Fukuyama’s discussion of clientelism illuminating. He considers clientelism as a kind of proto-accountability. Full accountability of the rulers implies the existence of democracy and an impersonal (non-patrimonial) state. But short of that ideal, clientelism nevertheless imposes constraints on political leaders because they have to deliver “goods” to the electorate or more exactly to their voters. Fukuyama uses, in addition to the already mentioned Greece and Southern Italy, US in the 19th century (after Andrew Jackson) as a prototype of a clientilistic state. It was the Progressive Era in the 1920s and then FDR that managed to create a more impersonal civil service, even if never to the extent that it existed in advanced European countries. But currently the US is sliding, or even rushing, toward repatrimonization (I will address this later).

Another important point is Fukuyama’s disagreement with the idea of “extractive institutions” allegedly inherited from colonialism (Acemoglu and Robinson) and with geographical determinism (Engelman ad Sokoloff). Both are fundamentally the same: “While Acemoglu and Robinson criticize what they  characterize as economic determinism of writers such as Sachs and Diamond, and point to good institutions as the cause of development, they nonetheless trace the origin of institutions in turn to conditions of climate and geography.” (p. 235). Fukuyama’s disagreement is most clearly stated in the case of Africa where the European legacy is not “extractive institutions” but no institutions at all (p. 392); but in Latin America too, Argentina and Costa Rica illustrate the development paths that are exactly at the opposite of what geo-institutionalists would expect.

The last part of the book (some 100 pages) is dedicated to the decay of political institutions in the United States. It is important to underline that the book was written before Trump, so facile ascription of all evils to Trump and “populism” which is the bread-and-butter of political scientists today does not apply here. Problems that Fukuyama uncovers go much deeper than Trump. They are of four kinds.

The fist two are judicialization of the legislative function and adversarial legalism whereby normal legislative functions of a parliament (Congress in the US) are delegated to courts. It is through legal process that individuals, NGO and lobbyists decide what is the public interest. The shift towards many of the decisions being taken through the legal process (rather than a vote of representatives) might seem at first to be more democratic or participative until one realizes that the public interest is then left to be defined by whoever has most resources to pursue expensive legal suits or most patience to do so. Thus both lobbyists and NGOs come for criticism. And the legislature as well which has abdicated its natural role to define what is the public interest and is in the process of returning the US to being the country of “courts and parties” that it used to be in the 19th century.

The third is the “gift exchange” which is the essence of lobbyism and the core of the influence of private interest on government. Since the “gift exchange” (say, high paying job in the private sector for a former “friendly” politician) is not an immediate quid pro quo, but is delayed in time, it does not fall under the category of bribery although it fundamentally is.   

The last is vetocracy or the existence of too many veto players which makes political decision-making very difficult or totally stalled. While the first three ills are examples of political decay due to repatrimonization, the last one is an example of decay due to institutional rigidity: “Americans regard their Constitution as a quasi-religious document, so get them to rethink its most basic tenets would be an uphill struggle” (p. 505).

In the Afterword written in 2015, Fukuyama responds to the critics who found his views of the US political system too harsh. It seems, on the contrary, in the light of what has transpired since 2015, that Fukuyama’s views have been rather confirmed.

Despite book’s problems (which could have been fixed by a good editor), and the fact that it is a less incisive book than its predecessor, POPD is still an excellent book, definitely worth reading. At times, after a few paragraphs that seem to come straight from one of the boilerplate Obama speeches, and with one’s attention flagging, there is suddenly a brilliant sentence that displays the magic of an erudite thinker. It is like Maradona lulling his opponents to sleep just in order to strike a more improbable goal.

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