Copenhagen: "How do we get to Denmark?" © Mstyslav Chernov

The best-run states in the world

Francis Fukuyama's passion for democracy seems to have deserted him
October 15, 2014
The End of History and the Last Man, the book that made Francis Fukuyama’s reputation as a political thinker, was a product of its moment. Published in 1992, and based on an essay from 1989, it captured the heady, world-historical optimism that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet empire. With the disappearance of communism as a credible form of government, liberal democracy had triumphed over its last philosophical rival. What had ended was not history in the sense of things happening—commentators who try to rebut Fukuyama by pointing to the latest war or disaster are off the mark. Rather, Fukuyama argued that the age-old argument about the best kind of government had been concluded. Even if many people still lived under undemocratic regimes, said Fukuyama, democracy was the destination to which they were headed.

A quarter of a century later, however, the west’s mood has soured considerably. Liberal democracy is in retreat. After a brief window of liberalisation, Russia has returned to its traditional identity as an aggressive authoritarian state; China remains under the grip of the Communist Party; the revolutions of the Arab Spring have dissolved into civil strife and repression; America’s attempts to build democratic states in Iraq and Afghanistan have largely ended in failure. If democracy is so desirable, we may well wonder, why is it so hard to achieve? When will the rest of the world catch up to the west at history’s pleasant terminus?

In his new book, Political Order and Political Decay, Fukuyama puts the question this way: how do you get to Denmark? “By this I mean less the actual country Denmark,” he explains, “than an imagined society that is prosperous, democratic, secure, and well governed, and experiences low levels of corruption... The international community would like to turn Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya and Haiti into idealised places like ‘Denmark,’ but it doesn’t have the slightest idea of how to bring this about.”

“The international community,” here, seems more like a euphemism for the west and its NGOs. If you asked the leaders of China or Russia whether Denmark was their role model, you might get a very different answer. From the opposite end of the political spectrum, many American conservatives would also contest the Denmark ideal, seeing its extensive welfare state as a problem rather than a solution. But once you grant Fukuyama’s presuppositions, as most American and European liberals would be inclined to do, then the need for a road map to Denmark becomes urgent.

Political Order and Political Decay is the second and concluding volume of Fukuyama’s long attempt to provide such a map. The first volume, The Origins of Political Order, took the story of the world’s political development from pre-history up to the French Revolution. A successful society, Fukuyama argued, rests on three pillars. First is a strong and effective state, which possesses an independent bureaucracy run on technocratic principles. It is only once a strong state exists that you can begin to worry about limiting the power of that state through the second pillar, the rule of law. The third pillar is accountability—that is, mechanisms for making the state answerable to the people it governs.

Fukuyama’s thought has moved on since 1992. In keeping with our more sceptical and disillusioned moment, he no longer believes that these three pillars will emerge necessarily from the development of history. In The Origins of Political Order Fukuyama threw off the influence of Hegel. His new intellectual patron saint was Charles Darwin. Fukuyama now saw political evolution as similar to biological evolution—an undirected and highly contingent process. The Darwinian metaphor presents a number of problems when applied to politics—for one thing, Darwin denied that there are “higher” and “lower” forms of life, while Fukuyama argues that modern liberal democracy is the highest and most desirable form of government. Still, Darwin helped to cure Fukuyama of the Hegelian notion that History was an inevitable process.

Indeed, Fukuyama’s new theory, in what must be considered his magnum opus, consistently emphasises the extreme difficulty and unlikeliness of successful human government, when you consider the forces militating against it. Fukuyama sees good government as especially miraculous because, in keeping with his new Darwinian orientation, he believes human beings are “hard-wired” for kin selection and reciprocal altruism. In practical terms, this means that we will always favour our relatives first and our friends second, while trying to do down strangers. In his first volume, Fukuyama provided many examples of how kin-based tribes are the earliest and most enduring form of political organisation. In many parts of the world, tribal structures remain under the veneer of the impersonal state, and re-emerge once the state vanishes—as has happened in Afghanistan. And even advanced societies are vulnerable to what Fukuyama calls “repatrimonialisation”—the danger that elites will simply use the government to advantage themselves and their allies, instead of the people at large. This kind of takeover of the state by venal officeholders is what crippled the French monarchy in the 18th century, leading to the revolution. Today, Fukuyama finds the same phenomenon at work in the United States, in the guise of interest-group lobbying.

Political Order and Political Decay is more narrowly focused than its predecessor, and reads less like a work of political philosophy than as a treatise on comparative development. If you want to get to Denmark, you have to figure out how Denmark got there, and why, say, Argentina or Greece have not. Fukuyama attempts to answer that question through a concise but wide-ranging survey of political development around the world in the last 200 years. Once again, he inquires about the three pillars of development—state, law, and accountability—and tries to determine how they can be made to go together. Put this way, it may sound like Fukuyama’s book is the latest entry in the genre of “West is Best” books, in the tradition of Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules for Now and Niall Ferguson’s Civilisation. What sets Fukuyama apart is his refusal to reduce political development to a single overriding cause. When considering why some states succeed and others fail, Fukuyama believes that you have to consider the dynamic role of history and ideas, rather than static endowments like geography or climate. This approach is fundamentally optimistic, in that it grants human agency an important role in shaping our political destinies. Take, for instance, the fate of Latin America. Most of Latin America, Fukuyama writes, has been plagued by extreme wealth inequality and disastrous “strongman” leaders. It is tempting to blame this on the continent’s early dependence on extractive industries, or its tropical climate, or the havoc wrought by Spanish colonialism, or the importation of Spanish models of government. All these factors can be adduced to explain why Latin America didn’t follow the path of North America to become prosperous and democratic, and Fukuyama gives each of them their due.

But then there is Costa Rica. This small country has the same deep history and the same geography as its neighbours, yet its per capita income is four times that of Honduras, and “unlike El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, there were no military coups, dictatorships, bloody civil wars, death squads, or foreign interventions on the part of the US, Cuba, or other outside parties since 1948.” Instead, Costa Rica has enjoyed civilian government with regular, peaceful elections. At the other end of the spectrum, there is Argentina, which enjoys a temperate climate and a geography more like North America’s, and which until the 1930s seemed to be on track to become a southern Canada. What happened to drive it into the more typical Latin American pattern of dictatorship, civil war and economic chaos?

The answer in both cases, Fukuyama argues, is politics. In Costa Rica, a civil war in 1948 gave way to a political consensus between leftist and rightist parties, whose leaders pursued moderate agendas and accepted the legitimacy of the state. At around the same period, on the other hand, Argentina’s elite decided to defend its own interests at the expense of the democratic state, leading to a series of coups and counter-coups that paved the way for the populist dictatorship of Juan Perón. These contrasting examples show that materialist theories of development are inadequate, since “human agency matters a great deal in institutional development.” As Fukuyama pursues his tour of the developing world, it becomes clear that he does not view democracy as a panacea. On the contrary, Political Order and Political Decay displays a distinct lack of passion for democracy, which Fukuyama considers to be a problem as often as it is a solution. Given that the first requirement of good government, he believes, is a strong state, it can actually be a misfortune for a country to develop democratic institutions before it develops effective ones. That is the lesson of his analysis of the US, which he sees as the pioneer of the kind of clientelistic politics that now afflicts so much of sub-Saharan Africa. The US in the 19th century ran on a spoils system, in which parties wooed voters with the promise of jobs and favours. Not until the Progressive Era and the New Deal did the country develop a professional bureaucracy. In the absence of a strong, technocratic government committed to the public interest, Fukuyama argues, democracy can simply be a way for parties to vie with each other in looting the commonwealth.

The unsettling conclusion of Fukuyama’s study is that the best-run states in the world are not the older liberal democracies like Britain or, especially, the US, which he sees as increasingly paralysed by interest-group politics. Rather, his sympathies lean more toward Germany and Japan, which manage to combine strong executives and skilled bureaucracies with democratic accountability. That they were also the Axis powers in the Second World War is an irony Fukuyama notes but fails to grapple with fully. Germany and Japan followed Fukuyama’s preferred order of development, achieving an effective state before they developed democratic institutions. Today, he writes, they benefit from the legacy of the Wilhelmine and Meiji-period strong state, while also enjoying the democratic institutions imposed on them at the barrel of an American gun. But in the interval, the strong state that Fukuyama so admires turned out to be a hypertrophied state, tyrannical and militaristic, that brought untold misery to its neighbours and many of its citizens. Fukuyama acknowledges this rather cursorily, with the truism that our current felicity is built on a long history of violence and dispossession: “One of the tragic aspects of the human situation is that violence has been integral to the process of political development.” But one might well decide that the sum of human happiness is better served by a concert of weak democratic states than a rivalry of strong authoritarian ones. If getting to Denmark requires going through Germany, then we might well decide it’s better to stay at home.