June 18th, 2011 // 11:16 am @ Oliver DeMille
A review of The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution by Francis Fukuyama
Francis Fukuyama’s recent book is an excellent commentary on the history of politics and the underpinnings of our current political systems. Readers may find things to disagree with in a book that covers so many periods of history, but this well-researched work sparks a lot of deep thinking about important and timely topics.
Three Major Advancements
Ultimately, Fukuyama sees the development of political society from tribal through modern times as the result of three major advancements. The future, he suggests, belongs to societies that maintain and effectively institutionalize all three of these organizational advantages. This view flies in the face of some widespread views, but Fukuyama’s arguments are compelling.
Consider, for example, the following likely characteristics of the decades immediately ahead:
1. The invention of centralized governments which allowed societies to grow beyond families and small tribes
The industrial age created an expectation (especially in the British and American worlds) of “sustained intensive economic growth.” Today we feel entitled to unending economic expansion. Any downturn in the economy is seen as a reason to blame our political leaders. We seem to believe that a high level of consistent economic growth is our birthright.
This is a significant development. Never has a generation in the past held such expectations. No longer are citizens content with the up-and-down economic cycle that has characterized all of history. Whether this new expectation can be maintained remains to be seen, but this is our expectation now, and we’ll continue to punish any government official who doesn’t both promise and deliver sustained economic growth.
If it turns out that constant growth is unrealistic, that there really is a natural economic cycle of ups and downs, we’ll consistently elect and then dump every politician from every party—the voters will never be satisfied. With such feelings of entitlement, we’re destined to be perpetually angry at and disappointed with our government.
Globalization has created a world of independent international elites and locally-dependent middle and lower classes.
“In the days when most wealth was held in the form of land, states could exercise leverage on wealthy elites; today, that wealth can easily flee to offshore bank accounts.”
2. The establishment of “uniform laws that apply to all citizens
This is a world-altering event in human history. The advent of widespread human freedom and prosperity came as a result of uniform laws that applied to all citizens—regardless of status, wealth, race, gender, ability or religion. Globalization trumps all this, allowing a global upper class to operate largely above the law while the masses are required to follow the laws of their local nations.
The economic benefit of being in the upper class under such an arrangement is huge—the gap between rich and poor will drastically increase as this reality grows.
Hardin Tibbs wrote:
“The proportion of people in cities is growing rapidly, and the numbers of people left in the countryside are falling. The sprawling urban megacity—somewhere like Sao Paulo, where you’ve got densely populated shantytowns right next to the enclaves of the super-rich—is a growing phenomenon around the world.” (EnlightenNext, Issue 47, 2011, pp 29-41)
3. The creation of governments which are “accountable to their constituents
Two groups will be the winners in the new system: mostly the mobile global upper class, and secondarily the masses in nations where the government is truly accountable to the people. This will impact nations around the globe, as we are already witnessing in the Arabic world.
For China, this is either good news or really bad news. If China’s government remains unaccountable to the people, its economic and military strength will at some point become a weakness. If, on the other hand, the Chinese government reforms and becomes accountable to the people, China may well become the great superpower many have predicted.
According to Fukuyama, the centralized structure of an authoritarian system can seem to “run rings around a liberal democratic one” for a time, because the leaders face little opposition from checks, balances, or other obstacles to their decisions. But this is a frailty if ever the leaders make bad decisions.
A few bad leaders or choices can bring down such a system very quickly. Societies with effective checks and balances on the centers of power are more resilient and less prone to huge decline in a single generation or even decade.
As for the United States and Europe, they must reverse the decades-old trend of centralizing power away from the people.
In short, we are seeing the rise of a global class system with increasing divisions between the haves and the have-nots. Major characteristics of this new reality include the unrealistic expectation of constant economic growth, a global upper class that is increasingly above the laws of nations, the growth of drastically divided cities, and governments that are widely controlled by the wealthy.
One great battle of the 21st Century will likely be about who controls government, the wealthy class or the people as a whole. As Fukuyama shows, through history the nations where government was accountable to the people ultimately achieved the most social success, freedom and prosperity.
The Origins of Political Order is the first of a two-volume set, and hopefully the second volume will tell us more about how the people can win this coming battle.
As the mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme wrote: “the universe is not a place, it’s a story…” (EnlightenNext, Issue 47, 2011, pp. 52-63) The same can be said of the 21st Century, and our story will likely hinge on whether government is ultimately accountable to the people or to a small group of elites.
This is an old battle, but this is the first time it is global in scale. The challenges are thus increased and the stakes are high.
He is the co-author of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller LeaderShift, and author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, and The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.