In his new book, The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama traces the development of early states and the historical antecedents to today’s political order. Fukuyama, a senior fellow at Stanford University and a non-resident senior associate at Carnegie, met with a group of development practitioners to discuss his work and its implications for development policy. Carnegie’s Thomas Carothers moderated.

Three Elements of Political Development

Although political development is affected by economic development, the two should be understood as separate arenas, Fukuyama argued. Political development consists of three institutional domains, which do not necessarily evolve in parallel with one another. 
  • The State: State building is characterized by the struggle of politics to rise beyond family ties and create a neutral system, explained Fukuyama. A modern state concentrates and deploys power to enforce rules on an impersonal basis. China was the first society to create a rational meritocratic bureaucracy by implementing civil service examinations and appointing outside governors without local tribal ties. This led to a strong and cohesive state. Yet even in China, kinship-based power relations tended to reassert themselves in periods of political decay, added Fukuyama, because humans have a natural instinct to favor relatives. 

  • The Rule of Law: The rule of law limits the power of government by establishing accepted rules of justice, which are higher than any individual who currently holds political power. The rule of law has its origins in organized religion, Fukuyama added, which created a set of rules with a legitimacy independent from that of the state. The rule of law developed before a modern state in those parts of the world dominated by Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism, he noted, but it did not develop at all in China due to its lack of independent religious institutions.

  • Accountability: An accountable government is responsible to the people it governs. Formal accountability made an important advance in seventeenth-century England when the parliament forced the king to respond to its demands, and this eventually formed the basis for democracy. Yet democracy was in some ways a historical accident, said Fukuyama, because during the same period other European societies, such as France or Spain, were unable to impose similar accountability upon their monarchs and lived under absolute rule.

Linking the Economic, Social, and Political

Economic growth, social mobilization, and the three elements of political development—the state, rule of law, and accountability—are all independent aspects of national development, but work together in important ways, said Fukuyama. 
  • Sequencing Development: Since simultaneous economic, social, and political development is difficult, many theorists advocate focusing on one element of development first in order to build the necessary conditions for the others. Some correlations do exist between different aspects of development. Rule of law and state building have been positively linked to economic growth, while social mobilization can lead to greater public accountability. Yet these connections are not automatic and the most fundamental aspects of development can also be the hardest to create. For instance, it is much easier to hold elections than to build a functioning judiciary, noted Fukuyama.

  • Accountability Failures: The widespread assumption that more accountability will lead to better governance and rule of law is questionable, said Fukuyama. In theory voters will demand an end to government corruption, but in practice information deficits and collective action failures can allow well-organized elites to capture state resources. Moreover, there can be a fundamental tension between the need for an elite bureaucracy to provide good governance and populist pressures from below, he added. 

  • Political Decay: The different aspects of development do not always work together smoothly. As Samuel Huntington argued in his classic work Political Order in Changing Societies, economic growth and social mobilization without political development can be destabilizing. This is what happened in Egypt and Tunisia, Fukuyama argued, where educated middle classes didn’t see a place for themselves in the current system. 

Two Political Models

Not all countries are moving steadily toward liberal democracy, argued Fukuyama. Instead, China and the United States represent two alternative and potentially attractive models of political organization. 
  • Effective Authoritarianism: China has an efficient and institutionalized authoritarian government with term limits and upward accountability. This permits rapid decision making and effective crisis response. Yet China is still vulnerable to the bad emperor problem: a poor leader can do much more damage in an authoritarian than a democratic system.

  • Checks and Balances: In the United States, the system is currently paralyzed by political polarization and unable to deal with long-term fiscal problems because of the influence of interest groups, Fukuyama said. Yet in the long term, this model is still more sustainable than the Chinese system, he argued, because it does not suffer from the bad emperor problem.

Individual Agency and the Role of Ideas

History has a significant influence on how political institutions evolve, but countries are not trapped by their pasts, said Fukuyama. Ideas and individual actors have played a role in every aspect of development.  
  • Leadership: One of the main differences between institutional and biological evolution, said Fukuyama, is that institutions can be shaped by human agency and learning. Leaders influence development at every level. As one of the participants noted, Deng Xiaoping decided to organize the Chinese state very differently from Mao Zedong, a move that had far-ranging consequences for the country. 

  • Ideas: Ideas and theories can play an independent role in development processes. They are not merely a reflection of economic or social processes, Fukuyama argued. For instance, theories on the universal rights of man were fundamental to the development of democracy. In Denmark, the Lutheran emphasis on literacy led to the social mobilization of the peasantry, which contributed to the country’s eventual democracy, he added. 

  • International Influence: One major difference between early political development and modern institution building is the role of globalization, said Fukuyama. Economic growth and social mobilization can now take place much more rapidly, and the spread of ideas has dramatically increased. Countries are learning from foreign models. Yet international actors should not be too optimistic that they can simply transplant their political institutions into developing countries, warned Fukuyama. It is crucial to understand each state’s particular historical context and institutional origins before attempting to transform them, he concluded.