Fukuyama begins with human nature. All human beings know some kind of social and political order because cooperation is essential to human nature. The most powerful impulse to cooperation is based on kinship, which dominated both band-level and tribal societies. Cooperation also results from “reciprocal altruism,” or people giving held to others in the expectation of receiving help. In discussing the bases of human cooperation, Fukuyama draws on extensive anthropological reading. War was the primary cause of the rise of early states, although geography played a part in the ability of those states to extend their control.
The state was a form of political order that existed apart from and to some extent in logical opposition to kinship loyalty, which Fukuyama terms “patrimonialism.” The earliest and in many ways most highly organized state arose in China. The strong state in China managed to break down family and reciprocal ties to a greater extent than other locations. This meant that China developed a strong state, characterized by powerful centralized government and an impersonal bureaucracy, and had a relatively weak society. China also, according to Fukuyama, never developed a guiding rule of law, or a set of abstract principles to which everyone, including the emperor, would be subject. Thus, China became a society with a strong state with weak counterbalancing social institutions and little rule of law to limit the actions of the state in matters such as personal freedoms or property rights, an essential component of a market economy. Even if one questions Fukuyama’s interpretation of Chinese history, he does manage to provide an very clear and intelligible summary of Chinese history.
Fukuyama examines the interconnections of state, social institutions, and law in other societies, notably South Asia and the Ottoman Empire. His most intriguing claims, though, concern why Europe became the place where democracy and the market economy arose. In Fukuyama’s view, the Church was crucial to the emergence of the state and to the balancing of state power by the rule of law in Christendom. The Church initially weakened the dominance of kinship ties by introducing a universalizing system of belief. Then, especially after the Gregorian Reforms of the late eleventh century, the Church became a state-like institution that maintained a system of abstract law over and above secular states and gave secular states legitimacy based in rule of law. Thus, according to Fukuyama, the idea that all leaders are answerable to a higher principle, including the principle of popular sovereignty, has its origins in the development of the Christian religion.
In the last part of the book, Fukuyama shifts to looking at how political development, understood as the interconnections of state building, rule of law, and popular accountability, related to economic growth and social mobilization within Europe. Ideas about legitimacy shaped all of these interconnections in the different countries. He gives France and Spain as examples of “weak absolutism,” or highly centralized states based on patrimonial connections with non-state social institutions. He suggests that the contemporary political problems of Latin America stem from the Spanish patrimonial heritage. The creation of successful democracy in parts of northern Europe, England, and the United States as the political legacy of England, came from circumstances that produced a strong state, strong counterbalancing social institutions, and strong rule of law. He maintains, in response to libertarians, that a strong state has been essential to the protection of rights fundamental to development, such as property rights, but that the state must operate under law and be accountable to citizens.
Before forming a definitive opinion about Fukuyama’s arguments, I think we will need to wait for the second and conclusive volume. This is an impressive synthesis of materials from world history and other disciplines. I found his claims about the role of religion as a force in society particularly appealing, although Fukuyama does tend to slip back and forth between talking about religion as an institution and religion as a system of ideas without always being clear about how these are connected. In talking about the state, he never really defines what he means by a “strong state.” In the case of China, a strong state is one that can do pretty much whatever its leaders want. But in the case of the west, identifying a strong state as one that can enforce property rights seems questionable: this seems to me exactly the kind of state that Robert Nozick identified as minimal. The implication that a strong state is a geographically extensive, powerfully centralized state also seems to raise questions, since it confuses the efficiency of a government, the degree of intrusiveness of government in individual and social concerns, and the expanse of territory owing allegiance to the state.