World-renowned political theorist Francis Fukuyama spanned the centuries in a speech to Trinity students Wednesday, linking the establishment of early civilizations and democracies to this country’s battle over the budget, the debt ceiling and Obamacare, which have partially shut down the federal government and threatened the stability of the global economy.
Fukuyama, the Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, used his recent book, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, as the basis for his remarks. The first of two planned volumes, The Origins of Political Order is largely devoted to telling the story of how the state, the rule of law and accountability evolved independently in different societies.
According to a review in Publishers Weekly, Fukuyama “advances two themes: the effort to create an impersonal state free from family and tribal allegiances, and the struggle – often violent – against wealthy elites who capture the state and block critical reforms.” In his book, Fukuyama primarily focuses on China, India and the Islamic countries.
Addressing the notions of state, rule of law and accountability, Fukuyama said nations can have one or more of those elements, and in different combinations. But “a modern liberal democracy combines all three institutions in a single package.”
In terms of the first element, Fukuyama said China was the first civilization to develop a state, which occurred in the 3rd century BC. “National security imperatives are one of the biggest drivers of state building,” he said, adding that China went through a period of 500 years of tribal warfare before it became a unified dynasty. Today, China has a centralized bureaucratic government, which Fukuyama cited as one of the best in the world. However, it does not operate under the rule of law.
Fukuyama asserted that the rule of law, which he defined as legal restraints on the most powerful individuals, evolved from organized religion. Fukuyama spoke about the principles first written about by English political philosopher John Locke and how, during the Glorious Revolution in England, two concepts emerged: no taxation without representation and the consent of the governed. Those same principles can be found in the U.S. constitutional system and became “the rallying cry for American democracy.”
From there, Fukuyama segued into the current gridlock in Washington D.C., noting that every “developed democracy” except one has a state-sponsored health care system. “The United States is the only rich country that doesn’t have one,” he said. He attributed it partly to a “deep abiding distrust of the state” and the American system of checks and balances that “takes the rights of the minority more seriously than the will of the majority.”
Fukuyama described the nation’s health care system as “unsustainable,” pointing out that Americans spend twice as much on health care as people in industrialized countries, yet it has been shown that they end up with worse outcomes. He decried the country’s inability to seriously talk about “cost containment issues” such as curtailing end-of-life care, which is extraordinarily expensive.
Fukuyama noted that the political paralysis that has gripped Washington is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the 50s and 60s, both major parties had overlapping ideologies and found ways to compromise for the good of the country. However, over the past three decades “gridlock has become institutionalized” and it’s getting worse, he said.
He doesn’t see much cause for optimism. “There is growing inequality, the loss of jobs, an entitlement crisis, and a political system based on the rule of veto,” Fukuyama said. “It’s easier to stop things than to make decisions.”
Meanwhile, as the political parties have become increasingly polarized, the vast majority of citizens are in the political center. Both Democrats and Republicans have done a poor job of representing mainstream America, he said.
Fukuyama noted that the political crisis that has engulfed the nation’s capital could not have occurred in countries such as England or Australia, where the parliamentary form of government results in the top leader coming from the majority party in the legislative body. Thus, the two tend to work collaboratively.
In the United States, however, there is divided rule, with one chamber of Congress controlled by Republicans and the other chamber controlled by Democrats, each with the power to create stalemate and a president powerless to do much to break it.
He concluded with this thought: “In the United States right now we have an extremely adversarial political culture. The bitterness and partisanship is very destructive. It wouldn’t have happened 30 years ago.”
Fukuyama has held numerous academic and policymaking positions at Johns Hopkins University, George Mason University, and the RAND Corporation. He was deputy director for European political-military affairs in the State Department, and a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics from 2001 to 2004.
He is author of The End of History and the Last Man, as well as a numerous other books on topics ranging from the normative underpinnings of social and economic prosperity to America’s attempts to build stable states through foreign intervention and occupation.