The Origins of Political Order

by Francis Fukuyama

This book is about the process by which governments established political order. The author starts off with China, because China was the first full-fledged state. Mr. Fukuyama believes that the Chinese government arose because of the chaos and destruction of the Warring States period, when it seemed that everybody was against everybody else, and war very nearly devoured Chinese civilization. That experience, apparently, scared the Chinese enough that when a leader finally united all the minor kingdoms, everybody was all too eager to acknowledge him as emperor. While this success did not guarantee complete peace, it ushered in such a pacific period that Chinese civilization took a mighty leap.

But there were flaws in the Chinese system. Although the Chinese had successfully establish the world’s first true state, with the governmental machinery necessary to function effectively, they suffered from a phenomenon that Mr. Fukuyama dubs “repatrimonialization”. To understand this key point, we must harken back to one of Mr. Fukuyama’s fundamental assertions: that human beings always strive to better not just themselves, but their kinfolk. When somebody takes over as king, they install their kin in all the ministerial positions. This process takes place at all levels of government: from lowly bureaucrats to high ministers, they all do favors for their kin. This in turn rots the system, sucking its energy away. Mr. Fukuyama spends chapters explaining how various states attempted to deal with the problem. China came up with a good solution in its meritocratic system, in which a candidate had to pass a tough test on the Chinese classics in order to get a job as an entry-level bureaucrat. While this didn’t guarantee that the new employees would have the skills they needed, it insured that they were at least literate, and (more important), it pulled the rug out from under repatrimonialism.

The Mamluk state in Egypt and the Ottoman state both hit upon a rather odd solution: they kidnapped children from neighboring countries and raised them as elite soldiers. These soldiers, having no family connections whatever, directed their loyalty exclusively to their comrades and their ruler. The system worked well for several centuries, but in both cases, as the soldiers became more central to the state’s power, they demanded better treatment. First they demanded the right to have families of their own, and, a few generations later, began the stealthy process of repatrimonialization, which in turn started the rot that eventually led to the downfall of their respective states.

The Catholic Church came up with a better idea: keep the priesthood celibate – at least nominally. Since priests, bishops, and cardinals couldn’t have legitimate children, they had no basis for attempting repatrimonialization. In practice, the Church was actually rather easygoing about the celibacy thing – so long as priests denied their illegitimate children their patrimony, it wasn’t necessary to be hard-nosed about the policy. This allowed the Church to become something of a European “super state”. The critical moment, Mr. Fukuyama claims, is the investiture controversy in which Pope Gregory threatened the Holy Roman Emperor Henry with excommunication. It was a complex political battle, but in the end, Gregory won, establishing the clear principle that only the Church, not the secular sovereigns, could appoint bishops and other high Church officials. This insured that the Church would not succumb to repatrimonialization and launched the dominance of the Church in European matters.

Europe had no real states until the 17th century; before then, nations like France, Germany, England, and Spain were actually feudal conglomerations of warlords, operating under a nominal king. The king could call on them to provide military support against a foreign invader, but the king’s actual power sprung from his own land holdings, which in some cases were smaller than those of his subordinates. A prince or duke would owe fealty to his lord, and would suffer social opprobrium if he violated that fealty, but that didn’t prevent him from doing pretty much whatever he damn well pleased. In fact, the nobility often ganged up on the king and forced him to surrender power to them. When they did it in England, the result was the Magna Carta, often hailed as a milestone in English liberty, but while it did constrain the king, it also freed the nobility to do whatever they pleased with their underlings. For the underlings, the Magna Carta meant greater oppression, not greater liberty.

All over Europe, kings sided with commoners against the nobility. In most of Western Europe, trade was crucial to the economy, and trade takes place in towns. The kings granted independent status to the towns, which robbed the nobility of some of their power. In Eastern Europe, however, trade was not so well-developed, so there were few towns, and kings had few natural allies against the nobility. The result is striking: in Western Europe, kings slowly increased their powers at the expense of the nobility and eventually were able to exert sovereignty over their entire nations. But this didn’t really get nailed down until the seventeenth century. In Eastern Europe, however, the nobility kept the kings impotent, and the result was that true states never really coalesced. Poland and Hungary both succumbed to external invasion because the kings were too weak to organize proper defenses against invasion.

Russia took a completely different route. The Tsars recruited the nobility as generals in the Russian Army, granted them lots of status, but made them subordinate to his power. Thus, Russia managed to form a state by the eighteenth century, despite being socially and economically backward.

The Rule of Law and Accountability

Mr. Fukuyama identifies two other factors that are crucial to a successful polity: the rule of law and accountability on the part of the government. The Chinese government never had either of these, and this failing crippled the development of Chinese civilization. The Emperor could do anything he wanted, and he was accountable to nobody. When China was blessed with a good emperor, his beneficent power helped enormously, but if the Emperor was incompetent or just plain bad, things fell apart.

It was in these two areas that the western European states held a big advantage. They all inherited some portion of the Roman legal system; they didn’t necessarily adhere to that system, but everybody acknowledged that law was a good thing. The rule of law had good PR in western Europe, and over the centuries laws slowly nibbled away at arbitrary power, constraining kings and nobility alike from going too far.

Accountability was another important component of the western European mix. Spain, France, and England all had systems under which the king had to obtain the consent of the nobility in order to raise taxes. “No taxation without representation” was built into western European political thinking from early times. Control of the purse gave these representative bodies increasing power. The French state couldn’t keep up with the pace of change, and suffered a nasty revolution. England was way ahead of the other states; during the 17th and 18th centuries, the English monarchy was able to tap a larger portion of the English GDP than his French counterpart could; even though England was economically weaker, its government could almost match French spending.

Mr. Fukuyama is quite certain that the English were way ahead of everybody else; he points to the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution as examples of English political progress. This, in turn, gave English society a leg up on everybody else. It is tempting to conjecture that this was a key factor in the genesis of the Industrial Revolution. It certainly makes a lot more sense to me than Gregory Clark’s claims regarding genetic change in the English population.