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The emergence of political order: how can we foster it?

February 14, 2013

I recently read volume one of Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order (Profile Books, 2011) in which he explores how different models of governance have emerged and decayed “from prehuman history to the French Revolution”. Volume two is forthcoming, and will bring the story up to the present day. As someone who works in peacebuilding, which is largely about fostering good governance today, I have a keen interest in how different governance regimes have emerged and decayed in history, if they provide us with clues for the present. So does Fukuyama have lessons for us today? 

In line with much current thinking – for example from DFID and the OECD-DAC – about statebuilding, he identifies three key elements of well-governed societies. The first of these is that governments are held accountable by at least some of their citizens for providing good government. The second is the emergence of effective states – effective, that is, at promoting and protecting their own interests and providing services to their people – and autonomous institutions. Institutions are defined following Samuel Huntingdon as “stable, valued recurring patterns of behaviour”. The third is the rule of law, i.e. the existence of rules, ethics or norms which even the highest in the land – king, emperor, president, whatever – is required to follow.

Cause and effect

There are many routes through which countries at different times and places have arrived at different mixes and balances of these three factors, and insufficient space here to summarise the various historical pathways he describes. It is worth noting the role religion seems to have played in establishing rule of law: he explains how Hinduism in India, Christianity in Europe, and to some extent Islam in the Middle East, all helped establish rules to which even rulers were beholden. Whereas China, from ancient times to the present, never seems to have established them, meaning that emperors and modern leaders alike are in some respects above the law.

Fukuyama is clear that circumstances matter – so for example the English were well-positioned by circumstantial factors to enjoy the kinds of freedoms and liberal institutions which emerged. But he’s equally clear that societies can copy and have copied the good institutions which emerged elsewhere. He identifies critical hinge moments in history as turning points, such as the standoff between Pope and Holy Roman Emperor – the Investiture Controversy between Henry IV and Gregory VII in the 11th Century, when the Emperor backed down, and thus laid the seeds of an independent judiciary in Christendom. Another hinge moment was Japan’s adoption of “western” governance models in 1868.

The Investiture Controversy was just one of many events whose unintended consequences may have been critical for the emergence of better governance. E.g. the mediaeval Church in Europe pushed to allow the alienation of land, and the inheritance of land by women, because both suited its own financial and economic interests. But in so doing it helped strengthen the rule of law and – eventually – helped promote more equal treatment of women, neither of which it intended.

Changes that do occur are those in the interests of those in positions of power. The English magna carta met the common needs of all who signed it – rather than being forced on the reluctant king as history often portrays. 

Even if not a historical determinist, Fukuyama does caution that those who borrow ideas and institutions from elsewhere are perforce laying them on top of their own institutions and norms, and there is no such thing as a blank slate. So courts and parliaments grafted onto patrimonial societies may give the look of liberal institutions, but they will not automatically take root and undermine patrimonialism; in fact the reverse is just as likely. Peter the Great’s attempt to graft foreign political systems and culture onto Russian systems and culture was ultimately unsuccessful in overcoming the patrimonial political economy there.


The obstacles to emerging “order” and good governance are many, and in particular he singles out the normality of violence and patrimonialism (the natural result of kin selection and reciprocal altruism), and the innate conservatism of humans due to our propensity to create and follow norms. Not only do these factors block the emergence of good governance institutions. Crucially, they are also waiting in the wings to undermine progress when opportunity arises – especially when conditions change and institutions fail to evolve, often because of failures of collective action because out-of-date incentives prevent people from working together in their common interests. The Hungarian barons signed a similar agreement with their king, to what the English nobles signed with King John (both were called magna carta), and at around the same time, but a failure of collective action and a resurgence of patrimonialism meant they frittered away the rights they had thus gained, and Hungary failed to evolve and effective and accountable state as England did. 

So what are the lessons for today? What can we learn from Fukuyama to help know how to deal with the situation in Mali, for example, where a weak state is vulnerable to capture and where institutions may be in decay because no longer fit for purpose?

No prescriptions – emergence, not creation

Unfortunately, Fukuyama offers no prescriptions. Indeed, he goes as far as to say that since so many different factors have influenced political evolution, and since political evolution has happened differently everywhere, there is no way to isolate the most influential factors in order to know how to play history in the present, and liberalise the political order anywhere. There is no “way to go about it”. In fact the only thing he prescribes is a great deal of humility in anyone working on “institution building”. And he is very clear that many “rule of law projects” such as those promoted by donors and the UN around the world are wrongly-defined, since they often aim to create or transplant the institutions of law, rather than foster the conditions in which rule of law might emerge. Clearly he is sceptical of donors and UN officials whose mandates require them to seek statebuilding levers, and who thus see such levers where none exist. He draws analogies with Darwin’s theories, and I think he’d agree with my own argument that a liberal political order emerges and evolves, rather than being built or created.

But he does give clues. He’s clear that whiggish history and “modernisation” theory are both wrong, i.e. there is no inexorable certainty that economic growth, economic openness, effective states and liberalism always go together. China exhibited many aspects of a modern state over 2000 years ago, but still resists liberal democracy to this day. Rather, the different aspects of development need to be separated out. If I read him right, Fukuyama says the data from history show that effective states have tended to enable economic growth, but there’s less clarity about whether economic growth leads to effective states. Economic growth also seems a relatively good predictor of democratisation, but the reverse is less clear. Economic development seems to foster social development and a dynamic civil society; while an increasingly civil society appears to promote democratisation; which in turn helps to foster liberal rule of law in ever-widening circles. Further, as economic distribution widens, under democratic politics, it tends to legitimise democracy, thus creating a virtuous circle.  If I represent those views graphically:

Effective states → Economic development

Economic development → Democratisation

Economic development → Social development and civil society

Civil society → Democratisation

Democratisation → Liberal rule of law

Liberal rule of law → Democratisation

Economic distribution + Democracy → Democracy

While it is tempting to turn these into a single causal line or set of lines, but this would not be consistent with Fukayama’s own finding: he is clear that there is no single origin or theory of political development. These are but rough sketches of possible causality drawn as lessons from the past, not prescriptions for the future, and there is no obvious or common linear sequence which emerges. Fukayama’s is not a teleological view, in fact he even questions whether liberal democracy will survive the rigours and stresses of coming ages – ironic for a man who once wrote that in the end of the Cold War we witnessed “the end of history”. Indeed, Fukuyama seems to have evolved his thinking considerably since his Neoconservative days.

Lessons, then?

In the end, then, Fukuyama’s lessons seem to be simple ones:

  • Sustained good governance in the past depended on the emergence of accountable states and the rule of law
  • These depended on autonomous institutions; whether they emerged from within society or were borrowed from elsewhere, they have only worked as well as the conditions allowed, and they inevitably interacted with pre-existing institutions and norms, which often undermined them
  • Changes occur when they are in the perceived interests of those in positions of power
  • Better governance has to some extent been created by purposeful decisions or hinge events, even though it was very often an unintended consequence rather than planned as such
  • There are few levers; but dimly visible opportunities, and all is context specific
  • The risk of confusing goals (the rule of law, for example) with strategies for how to attain them
  • The need for humility in the face of the challenge of institution building, and especially by outsiders and those wanting quick results.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 6, 2016 7:59 am

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