Is American Government in Decay?Posted: July 16, 2015
Francis Fukuyama and other critics misinterpret democratic messiness as existential crisis.
Adam White writes: The ink was barely dry on the new Constitution, and Benjamin Franklin had just left his fellow Framers behind in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, when a woman accosted him on the street and asked, “What type of government have you delegates given us?”
“A republic, madam,” Franklin purportedly answered, “if you can keep it.”
This familiar tale makes a simple point: Franklin and his collaborators had succeeded in framing the new republic. To the extent that their creation might someday prove unsuccessful, it would be not their fault but rather the fault of the people. But does this story give Franklin and his fellow Framers too much
credit—and the people too little? Francis Fukuyama thinks so. That’s the ultimate warning of his recent book, Political Order and Political Decay, the second volume of his landmark two-part examination of political order.
The first part, The Origins of Political Order (2011), traced the history of political development from its pre-political origins in the state of nature—not Hobbes’s or Locke’s theoretical constructs but, quite literally, chimpanzees—to the late-eighteenth century’s American and French Revolutions. (See “The Dawn of Politics,” Spring 2011.) Looking not only to familiar Western sources of republican government but also to Chinese bureaucracy and Egypt’s Mamluk warrior class, among other Eastern contributions to modern state-building, Fukuyama examined three fundamental political institutions—the state, the rule of law, and notions of accountability—and how societies develop them over time.
But now, in Political Order and Political Decay, Fukuyama meditates on how things fall apart. Though “the American Revolution institutionalized democracy and the principle of democracy,” the American state two centuries later “is not working well, and its problems may be related to the fact that it is too institutionalized.” Decay’s closing chapters argue that the structure of American government, its checks and balances, has become a “vetocracy,” providing too many opportunities for special interests to prevent the government from enacting necessary and popular reforms.
“Institutions are created to meet certain needs of society, such as making war, dealing with economic conflicts, and regulating social behavior,” Fukuyama writes. “But as recurring patterns of behavior, they can also grow rigid and fail to adapt when the circumstances that brought them into being in the first place
themselves change.” Worse still, such rigidity can be exacerbated by the elite classes’ misappropriation of state power for their own primary benefit. Those two
dreaded forces—rigidity and elite self-dealing—are the sources of political “decay,” Fukuyama’s ultimate focus.
[Check out Francis Fukuyama‘s book “The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution” at Amazon.com]
His criticisms are harsh and substantive. Yet three significant problems underlie his analysis, weakening its force. While he calls for greater “autonomy” in federal agencies, his notions of “autonomy” and “expertise” seem flatly at odds with nearly a century’s worth of experience with the structure of federal agencies. More fundamentally, his narrow view of the Founding Fathers’ objectives prevents him from grappling seriously with the actual constitutional mechanisms that they created into law. And his disparagement of modern political stalemates manages to oversimplify, to the point of caricature, the policy debates that he cites as evidence of governmental decay.
Fukuyama’s project is itself an extension of the work of his mentor, the late Samuel Huntington. As Fukuyama notes in the two books and elsewhere, he was invited several years ago to write a new foreword for Huntington’s classic work on development, Political Order in Changing Societies (1968). That book took direct aim at “modernization theory,” the then-conventional wisdom among political scientists that economic modernization almost certainly leads to cultural and political modernization.
According to Fukuyama’s foreword, Huntington showed that “political decay was at least as likely as political development” and that “the good things of modernity often operated at cross-purposes.” Without political order, “neither economic nor social development could proceed successfully.” But as compelling as Huntington’s thesis had been, the passage of time revealed ways in which the argument could now be improved—“not so much amended as extended,” Fukuyama’s foreword suggested. The result, nearly a decade later, is Fukuyama’s magnum opus….(read more)
Adam White is counsel at Boyden Gray & Associates, an adjunct fellow of the Manhattan Institute, and a contributing editor of City Journal.
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