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I Hate to Ruin Your Dialectic, But

March 10, 2011

Nicholas Wade previews Francis Fukuyama’s new magnum opus on the evolution of governance:

“My argument is that the rule of law comes out of organized religion, and that democracy is a weird accident of history,” he said. “Parliaments in Europe had legal rights, and it was a complete historical accident that the English Parliament could fight a civil war and produce a constitutional settlement that became the basis of modern democracy.”

In a parallel universe with no feudalism, European rulers might have been absolute, just like those of China. But through the accident of democracy, England and then the United States created a powerful system that many others wish to emulate. The question for China, in Dr. Fukuyama’s view, is whether a modern society can continue to be run through a top-down bureaucratic system with no solution to the bad emperor problem. “If I had to bet on these two systems, I’d bet on ours,” he said.

This account of democracy’s development makes it sound like a lucky, freak mutation that led to world domination. This could be true. It’s certainly interesting. The more you see our current political configurations as accidents of history, the more likely you’ll see a greater opportunity to create new forms. One thing Fukuyama excels at is in explaining the path dependencies in the history of political thought and in detailing the limits human nature might impose on the design space.

But by contrasting China with the U.S., Fukuyama forces a binary assumption about the possibility space of all forms of good government. Sure, the bad emperor problem is real. But so is legal democratic plunder. There is monotheism (one emperor), there is polytheism (everyman an emperor), but need I remind this neo-hegelian that there’s also atheism (no man an emperor)? Fukuyama seems to have left behind the inevitability thesis of his earlier work, The End of History and the Last Man. But he still appears to argue that democracy as a whole represents the ne plus ultra of political theory. Surely there must be other freak mutations that might lead to even more successful forms of governance?

I suppose it all depends on how you define democracy. In that space alone, there are a myriad of possible forms.

Anyhow, in his study on the concept of the Great Chain of Being throughout history, Arthur Lovejoy noticed a bias in every age to assume that it had reached the maximum level of diversity.  Though I have not read his book–(and I am excited to)–I’m inclined to think Fukuyama makes the same mistake.

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One Comment
  1. MattJ permalink
    April 3, 2011 1:11 pm

    “Though I have not read his book…” Why are you publishing your comments on a book you have not read? That is silly. If you do this sort of ridiculous thing again please post that notice at the top of the post so I can stop reading right away.

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