Tonight I saw Francis Fukuyama lecture at Politics & Prose about his new book, THE ORIGINS OF POLITICAL ORDER. He gave an impressive performance, lecturing for an hour on how governments form, both for better and for worse.

A point that stuck with me was that governments have to overcome the natural human inclination to transfer power to immediate family and clan relations. It’s natural for kings to want to pass on the crown to children. But doing that greatly reduces the chance of competent governance; as he put it, if generals pass their power to their children, they’re not going to win wars. And from this perspective, clerical celibacy makes sense because it forces an end to nepotism and hereditary office. (First time I’ve ever seen any value in clerical celibacy.) So any successful government has to break a clan and kinship-defined polity.

His talk spanned many eras, from third-century China, which developed a merit-based civil service with entrance exams and performance critera, to the French Revolution (where his book leaves off; a planned second volume will bring things up to the current day.)

One thing that struck me is that Fukuyama sees history as being very contingent, with culture and historical happenstance accounting for many of the features of English parliamentary democracy and its American descendant. He saw English and American democracy as being by no means historically determined.

This emphasis on contingency apparently would put him at odds with Robert Wright, whose book NONZERO: THE LOGIC OF HUMAN DESTINY argues that development proceeds almost thermodynamically from lesser complexity to greater, from lesser freedom to more. I wanted to ask him if their two books are as much at odds as it would seem, or if they’re really working in different domains — but I didn’t get the chance.

C-SPAN was on hand to film the lecture, and it’ll be well worth watching.


  1. Interesting thought happenstance vs a more.. orderly process of growing complexity. Reminds me of my polisci undergrad days when I spent a lot of time pondering the influence of the individual vs systemic pressures that constrain individual actors. Im the end, I came to think that we _want_ to believe in the more orderly, logical explanations and analyses because it feels at least more predictable if not safer, but reality is likely more chaotic/chance/happenstance than we’d care to admit.

    I haven’t read either book yet but now you’ve made me want to read them both. Thanks! :)

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