The purpose of this book is to fill in some of the gaps of this historical amnesia, by giving an account of where basic political institutions came from in societies that now take them for granted. The three categories of institutions in question are the ones just described: 1. the state 2. the rule of law 3. accountable government. A successful modern liberal democracy combines all three sets of institutions in a stable balance.
Enamoured with the importance of the ideas explored in The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution by Francis Fukuyama, for our contemporary democracies, I read it twice. Actually, I listened to a superbly narrated Audible version, by the almost peerless Jonathan Davis, before reading it on my iPad and enthusiatically tweeting quotes.
Fukuyama is most famous for his essay (and subsequent book), ‘The End of History‘ but I suspect that this current tome is much more intellectually important and will stand the test of time. There is much available online re: Fukuyama’s very public rejection of neo-conservatism, for those unfamiliar with his work and influence, that makes for interesting reading, including this article he wrote in 2006.
In a period where Western liberal democracies are having difficulty maintaining credibility with voters, Fukuyama offers clarity. Citizens perceive that powerful vested interests blatantly manipulate, supposedly data-driven decision-making, at the highest levels, in ways that are fundamentally undemocratic. This perception grew to be irrefutable after the GFC as the wealthiest, often most responsible for the crisis, suffered little while even more children (an estimated and staggering 21% of America’s youngest) fell into poverty.
This current book lucidly explains the challenges that our democracy has in maintaining rule of law for all, especially when the most powerful do not have society’s best interests at the heart of their philosophy (of course, this has always historically been the case). Fukuyama shows us, with concise and successful comparative history, how previous generations managed to establish what we now ‘take for granted’ in our democracies. In the process he illuminates Now.
Particularly interesting is Fukuyama’s descriptions of ‘patrimonialism’:
Moreover, the natural human propensity to favor family and friends—something I refer to as patrimonialism—constantly reasserts itself in the absence of strong countervailing incentives. Organized groups—most often the rich and powerful—entrench themselves over time and begin demanding privileges from the state. Particularly when a prolonged period of peace and stability gives way to financial and/or military crisis, these entrenched patrimonial groups extend their sway, or else prevent the state from responding adequately.
This OECD (2011) data and analysis confirms what many see clearly in the Australian educational landscape, rising inequality and entrenched interests overcoming the greater good. The Gonski review may have recommended $5 billion worth of ‘catch-up’ for education, most of it to the underfunded public sector, but many believe the chances of the money being invested prior to the next federal election to be highly unlikely.
Patrimonialism in Australian society is rarely discussed. Occasionally one reads about the perceptions that an emerging ‘political class’ have their own insular and vested interests to protect. I think most of us would say the ‘a fair go’ ethos of the country is best supported with properly funding education and preventing schools from being buffeted unfairly by market-based philosophies. The next 18 months will show which way the wind blows.
The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution should be a primer for all politicians and those charged with civil responsibilities.
Hold on, that’s all of us.