The great political thinker's new book offers a brilliant analysis of problems. But it doesn't go far enough with solutions.
In Political Order and Political Decay, the second volume of his magnum opus on the underpinnings of liberal democracy, Francis Fukuyama makes the case that “just outcomes in the present are often the result of crimes committed in the past.” How, then, are we to act?
A decade ago, I enthusiastically accepted Frank’s offer to co-teach (and subsequently co-author) with him. As a practitioner and an unreconstructed political progressive, I was eager to understand how his neo-conservative past — which he had, by then, repudiated — had shaped his thinking. The breadth of Frank’s intellectual range, and his appetite for both synthesis and rich historical detail, are powerfully evident in his new book. But reading it has also helped me to see more clearly how our different political pasts color our ways of engaging with the present. In my view, Frank’s commitment to telling hard truths unflinchingly risks short-circuiting a search for ways forward that respond constructively to the challenges of our uncertain times.
Both Order and Decay and its widely acclaimed predecessor, The Origins of Political Order, explore the conditions that give rise to the rule of law, a capable state, and democratic accountability. The first volume ended with the French Revolution; the new one takes up the narrative starting in the early nineteenth century, focusing on situations where the interplay of these three factors ran into trouble — as it did at various moments in the United States.
Order and Decay’s point of departure is that a capable state is a necessary part of a high-performing country — an unexceptional truism from the perspective of mainstream economic thinking, though one that seems to have been forgotten among some segments of America’s political class. But what startles is Frank’s unrelenting determination to remind us of just where that capability came from.
The heart of his argument turns on the insight that state-building, the creation of tangible institutions, is not a bloodless, technocratic activity: “To be effective, [state-building] needs to be accompanied by a parallel process of nation building — the creation of a sense of identity which supersedes loyalty to tribes, villages, regions, or ethnic groups.” This process, he notes, is a task of blood and iron: “Successful democracies have benefited from historical nation-building projects that were achieved by violent and nondemocratic means.” By their very nature, he writes, these projects often involve “intolerance and aggression, and so often must be accomplished using authoritarian methods.”
All of this makes an uncomfortable fit with democratic accountability and the rule of law. Recalling the example of Indonesia’s first president, Frank observes that Sukarno was “not interested in Western liberalism, precisely because this doctrine did not provide a justification for a strong state that would play an integrative role in forging a national identity.” (The photo above shows Sukarno at an independence rally in 1940.)
These hard truths serve a powerful purpose, one that is explored in depth in the parts of the book devoted to the theme of decay. They remind Americans that our happy combination of the rule of law, democratic accountability, and a (once) capable public bureaucracy must not be taken for granted: the risks of action based on ideological over-reach are huge. This is a vital contribution.
But the book’s sobering messages are also addressed to those of us who wrestle with the twin challenges of strengthening institutions and reducing poverty in the over 60 countries that were part of the “third wave” of democratization in the 1980s and 1990s. Viewed from that perspective, Order and Decay’s arguments amount to an admission that liberal democracy’s triumph — the end of history — has, at the very least, been postponed. Indeed, taken to its logical limit, the analysis can be interpreted as suggesting that the way forward is to foster national chauvinism, and under certain circumstances perhaps even to “Give War a Chance?” (the title of one subsection of the book).
Frank knows, of course, that bleak dystopian visions are not ways forward — he’s neither a warmonger nor a national chauvinist. But Order and Decay does not go far enough in wrestling with what might be the practical alternatives to war and chauvinism. A central insight — one with which I concur — is that countries that democratize prior to building capable states will almost surely be organized along clientelist lines. Clientilism should be seen, the author notes, “as the natural outgrowth of political mobilization in early-stage democracies … with large numbers of voters mobilized [by] mass party organizations distributing widespread favors through complex hierarchical party machines.” Clientelistic structures emerge, he writes, “when democracy arrives before a modern state has had time to consolidate into an autonomous institution with its own supporting political coalition.”
The nineteenth-century United States offers a case in point. As the book shows, it took many decades for a meritocratic culture to take root in both federal and local governments. Inclusive economic growth played a huge role in driving reform: the rise of the middle classes and the emergence of social reformers from the professional, business, charitable, and political tiers of society during the Progressive era. Order and Decay also underscores the role that can be played by good leadership and the choices made by individuals. But at precisely the point in the analysis when another round of boldness is called for, Frank goes silent.
For those eager to criticize, finding things wrong with clientelistic government is like shooting fish in a barrel — clientelism is inconsistent with almost all of our beliefs about how “good governance” is supposed to work. Frank does not judge — but neither does he explore how active citizenship might take root in contemporary clientelist democracies.
Contrast this with the approach adopted by the great 20th-century development economist, Albert Hirschman. Hirschman distinguished between two types of social science. The first is dispassionate and strictly analytical, focused on tracing “regularities, stable relationships, and uniform sequences.” Order and Decay is a masterful example of this type of social science in action. But Hirschman also took care to seek out antidotes to fatalism, to figure out what he called “avenues of escape” from “exaggerated notions of absolute obstacles, imaginary dilemmas, and one-way sequences.” Hirschman coined the term “possibilism” to describe this latter tradition; it was how he viewed his own work.
Language matters enormously in the search for practicable solutions. Change will not come easily or quickly, and a rush to judgment is a prescription for disillusion, inaction, and despair. Even as we acknowledge complicated realities, we should be asking ourselves how we can nudge things along, incrementally and cumulatively, in a more hopeful direction. (I explore this question in depth in my recent book, Working with the Grain.)
Frank offers a detailed description of the remarkable efforts of the American reformer Gifford Pinchot, who succeeded in shifting control over forests from the Department of the Interior (which saw itself as serving the interests of private developers) to the nascent United States Forest Service, with its ethos of sustainable forest management. Pinchot’s success required both the creation of a high-performing, committed public agency and the forging of political alliances with media, scientific societies, and social reformers. Yet rather than taking inspiration from the experience, Order and Decay concludes the episode on a note of pessimism, observing that “leaders like Pinchot were driven by a kind of Protestant religiosity that has largely disappeared from contemporary American public life.”
The author is similarly circumspect when it comes to the present-day philosophy of community-driven development, an approach that has become a major part of contemporary development programs. CDD initiatives bypass standard bureaucratic procedures to provide resources directly to communities for investment in local infrastructure. Quite often, they’ve proven remarkably successful — like Indonesia’s Kecamatan Development Program, which has gone from modest beginnings in the 1990s to a cumulative budget of $2 billion today. Evaluations show very high rates of return, and suggest that this approach has done much to promote “democracy friendly” culture at local levels. Yet Order and Decay describes the total impact of such programs as “quite uncertain.”
In its unflinching exploration of how the platform for successful liberal democracies can be traced back to “the crimes committed in the past,” Order and Decay usefully demonstrates that the road to liberal democracy is long and difficult. But we need more. We need to complement hard truths with the spirit of Albert Hirschman, building on careful analysis in ways that point toward avenues of escape, that offer the prospect of gains, of grounds for hope — even (or especially) if the times seem dark.