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Book Review: Political Order & Political Decay

Far too many political books and articles are written based on the successes and failures of certain political figures. Author Francis Fukuyama takes a much different approach: the system itself creates the success or failure of any nation.

Fukuyama spends considerable time analyzing Chinese history, from the Third Millennium B.C. to the Industrial Revolution and a little into modern times. Fukuyama considers China as the first modern state, meaning a centralized state that could effect significant change within its population and its geographical area. However, Chinese history is marked with a cycle of strong central control lasting a few centuries with decades-long civil wars with old rulers being replaced by new rulers. The new rulers then manage to again assert strong central control.

Fukuyama uses a term to explain all these cycles: “patrimonialism.” When I looked up this term in Wikipedia, I got several definitions that were a bit confusing. But if I may paraphrase Fukuyama’s working definition, patrimonialism is a natural behavior of humans to pass on whatever privileges they may have to their offspring.

When a Chinese dynasty was in a period of decay, most of the privileged positions—such as government offices, military command, or commerce—were earned from an ancestor’s ability to pass on those positions to their descendants. And, far too often, those positions were no longer being held by competent people. Not only was the Chinese dynasty functioning not-so-well, but resentment was also building in the common people that they and their offspring could no longer improve their lot in life. A weakened state with a restless population creates conditions for another civil war. And civil war is what had happened in China—more than a few times!

One thing that amazed me in Fukuyama’s account is that usually the new Chinese leaders fully understood the devastating effects of patrimonialism—and sought to mitigate this social reality. So privileged positions were restructured based on merit. Not only did the state become stronger and fairer, but common people also had hope that their offspring could do better in this new meritocracy.

But as time went on, the patrimonial forces slowly crept back into Chinese society. Privilege was based less on merit and more on family status—which then led to decay and another civil war.

Fukuyama takes us through many more societies, showing how patrimonialism works. He uses the example of the Kingdom of Hungary, which was a player in European affairs in the Middle Ages. However, this kingdom never became a strong central state where the “king” could command the entire kingdom. Rather, Hungary was a collection of baronies cobbled together, with each barony more or less in full control of its little territory with its own taxes and militia. And each baron passed his ruling privileges to family members, with little regard for the common people under his dominion—or the Hungarian nation as a whole. When the Ottomans began their northward expansion in the 1500s, the Kingdom of Hungary was ineptly managed, barony-by-barony. Because it was not united, it offered little military resistance to the Ottomans. Again, giving privilege to family members weakened this state to the point where a second state, with much less patrimonialism and more central control, was able to conquer the first state.

While patrimonialism was identified by Fukuyama as a driving force of human societies, he also spent some time with another aspect of human nature. Human beings often organize themselves in terms of how they do favors for each other—and this “quid-pro-quo” [my words] also leads to political decay. Or maybe let’s just call it “systemic corruption.” It is not hard to see that if a ruler has strong patrimonial inclinations, he will also be kind to his cronies. Such a leader is only thinking in the short-term. But it’s not the leader at fault: it is the system.

The two examples in this review—China and Hungary—show the importance of a strong central state, with an ability to act decisively in both immediate action and for long term planning.

Fukuyama also cited two more parameters to create advancing societies: (1) rule of law and (2) political accountability. England was the first society to accomplish all three parameters, which is why this nation was so strong in world affairs from 1650 to 1950, ceding its position to the USA after WW2, a country which also had a good handle on the three parameters.

Fukuyama takes us through Russia, France, Spain, United States, Latin America, Denmark, Germany, Japan, and a few places not far removed from hunter gathers to show how the various societal parameters — patrimonialism, systemic corruption, central government, rule of law, and political accountability—all contribute to the strength of any society. He explains how religion also played an important part of strong and weak states.

He ends the book with China. China today is a strong, centralized nation, like in much of its history. But it lacks the rule of law and political accountability when compared to other strong nations. He mentions a second volume to explain this paradox of China’s strength. I suspect he is creating a comprehensive checklist for a better society. But we must wait for this work.

For any political watcher wondering about the foundation to a strong society, this book is a must read. There are bigger forces than the politicians we like to cheer or jeer.

Published on Medium 2020

Book Review: Political Order & Political Decay, Volume 2

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