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Getting to Brussels

John Fonte

Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy, by Francis Fukuyama (Farrar, Straus, 672 pp., $35)

Since the emergence 25 years ago of his groundbreaking essay “The End of History,” Francis Fukuyama has become one of America’s foremost public intellectuals. Political Order and Political Decay is the second volume of his prodigious analysis of the development of political institutions across the globe from prehistory to the present. It will quickly become a classic of political science.

Fukuyama argues that modern democratic government requires a balance of three main characteristics: a strong administrative state, the rule of law, and democratic accountability. Covering the period from the American, French, and Industrial revolutions to the present, Fukuyama uses this triad of state–law–accountability to examine how well different countries have achieved effective modern democratic governance, or, in the author’s phrase, their success in “getting to Denmark.”

Whether one agrees with Fukuyama’s core concepts or not, this is an impressive piece of work. It should be taken seriously by anyone interested in world politics. Continent by continent, in developing and developed nations, Fukuyama analyzes wide-ranging issues such as social mobility, the pros and cons of bureaucratic autonomy, and the possible ideological paths that middle classes might take in reforming political institutions.

Fukuyama skillfully examines the successful building of national identity in Indonesia and Tanzania, contrasted with the failure to do this in Kenya and Nigeria, where ethnic-group identity trumped nationhood. He compares the colonial policies of the British in Africa (unsuccessful, failed to build institutions) and in India (effective, built civil service), of the Japanese in Taiwan (effective, because administrators were autonomous) and of the Americans in the Philippines (ineffective, because of too much interference from Congress). Positive political leadership meant that Costa Rica did not follow the destructive military-dictatorship pattern of El Salvador and Nicaragua, while Argentina, because of poor political leadership, despite its material wealth, did not emulate the success of Australia and Canada.

Fukuyama analyzes how the rule-based bureaucracies of China, Prussia-Germany, and Japan created high-capacity government before there was any form of democratic accountability. He distinguishes between the “rule by law” (in which administrative states determine the laws), as in the Prussian-German Rechtsstaat and ancient (and contemporary) China, and the “rule of law” (in which laws are determined by popular consent).

More problematic for this reviewer is Fukuyama’s analysis of the American regime and the European Union. Fukuyama believes in American exceptionalism, not normatively, but empirically, as a negative “outlier” compared with other advanced democracies. For example, he complains that while “American conservatives denounced” Obamacare as “socialism,” America “was alone among rich democratic countries in the world” in not having universal health insurance.

Fukuyama tells us that the “Madisonian system” of “checks and balances” designed “by the Founders to constrain the power of the state” has “decayed” into a “vetocracy”: With the overweening power of unrepresentative interest groups — manifested in “adversarial legalism,” polarization, and chronic institutional gridlock — the “Madisonian system” has too many “veto points” that result in dysfunction. This prevents the emergence of needed reforms and “high quality” governance. Other advanced democracies have fewer “veto points,” more autonomous administrative bureaucracies, and parliamentary (thus, more centralized) decision-making, enabling them to achieve “higher capacity” government than the United States, stuck in its Madisonian framework.

Fukuyama argues that building the modern American administrative state was a “slow and laborious process” because “American political culture . . . from the start has been highly resistant to government authority.” Fukuyama almost always places the term “big government” in ironic quotes, suggesting that an inordinate fear of governmental authority is unwarranted. He says that “conservatives often fail to note that it is the very distrust of government that leads the American system into a far less efficient court-based approach to regulation than that of democracies with stronger executive branches.”

The American people themselves share part of the blame for the persistence of Madisonianism. While Fukuyama (like Woodrow Wilson) would prefer a more “efficient” parliamentary system, he realizes that it is “inconceivable” in America because “Americans regard their Constitution as a quasi-religious document, so getting them to rethink its most basic tenets would be an uphill struggle.”

Fukuyama describes the American regime from the founding period to the 1880s as the “United States of Clientelism.” He defines this era as one in which politics was dominated by patronage, before the development of the modern administrative state. Fukuyama draws an analogy between the early American republic and today’s developing nations, noting that the United States was late to modernity and that the American system before the Progressive era therefore had “many similarities to contemporary developing countries.”

This theory that pre-Progressive America is analogous to today’s developing countries has been gaining traction. Besides being given wide credence in the academy, it was even advanced by the George W. Bush administration (specifically, by Condoleezza Rice) when it was promoting “democracy building” in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But in revisiting the old republic, we remember statesmen and thinkers of the caliber of Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, the Adamses, Webster, Clay, Calhoun, and Lincoln; jurists such as Marshall and Story; writers including Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson, Dickinson, Alcott, and Whitman; and such entrepreneurs and inventors as Vanderbilt, Astor, Morse, and Bell. It was also a period of vibrant civil society, as described by Tocqueville, who celebrated the robust democratic citizenship and active Christianity of ordinary Americans (specifically highlighting the importance of American women), while not neglecting to examine slavery and the mistreatment of American Indians. Pace Fukuyama, America from 1776 to 1880 had little, if any, “similarities with contemporary developing countries.”

Fukuyama declares that 19th-century America was a state of “courts and parties” in which “government functions that in Europe were performed by an executive-branch bureaucracy were performed in the United States by judges and elected representatives.” (He fails to address the significant role of civil society during this period.) Echoing the Progressives of the day, Fukuyama insists that America “needed a European-style state.” This process of “state-building” began as Progressives, inspired by German administrative theory and practice, worked to create an impartial civil service and new federal regulatory agencies.

The “most famous advocate of European-style bureaucracy” was “future president Woodrow Wilson.” Fukuyama states that Wilson, in a famous 1887 essay, “perfectly summarize[d] the dilemma” of the American system: Americans, wrote Wilson, put more emphasis on “curbing executive power” than on “energizing government.”

Although Fukuyama’s narrative is enshrouded in descriptive social-science language, and his key points are always carefully qualified, his prescriptive positions are clear. He states that it is “remarkable” that “it took more than 40 years” for the United States “to put in place a modern regulator (the Interstate Commerce Commission) on a par” with what European states had accomplished a half century earlier. He recommends that independent regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency be given the kind of enforcement power that European bureaucracies enjoy. He says that the American state has been “repatrimonialized,” i.e., new forms of interest-group power have caused the “decay” of American political institutions.

Fukuyama argues that administrative agencies foster “modern” government. But Columbia law professor Philip Hamburger, in a Hillsdale College lecture, has described the rule-making of administrative agencies as the “reemergence” of premodern “absolutism”: In early English constitutional history, the executive (monarch) sometimes exercised “prerogative” power above the legislature, the courts, and the law itself. For Hamburger, “administrative power revives” old-style absolutism and is therefore premodern rather than modern.

Fukuyama has long seen the European Union as the exemplar of the “end of history.” In 2007, he favorably contrasted the EU’s “attempt to transcend sovereignty” and “establish a transnational rule of law” with “the Americans’ continuing belief in God, national sovereignty, and their military.” Today, he worries that the “growth of the EU” has “Americanized Europe” in the multiplication of “veto points,” interest groups, and courts that could impede more-efficient governance.

There is an inherent contradiction between Fukuyama’s attitude toward the EU (mostly favorable, sometimes critical) and the third pillar of his triad of modern government — democratic accountability. The EU, as its leaders have long recognized, has a “democracy deficit.” Whatever one thinks of Berlusconi, he was not “forced” from office by the “euro crisis” of 2009–11, as Fukuyama declares. Instead this democratically elected leader was forced out by the Germans and the French in the name of the EU and replaced by a non-elected bureaucrat, in what National Review’s Andrew Stuttaford correctly described as an anti-democratic coup.

EU officials admit that 60 to 80 percent of legislation in Europe originates in Brussels rather than in the democratically elected parliaments of the nation-states. “Getting to Denmark” (an EU member), whether metaphorically or concretely, means “getting to Brussels,” not to decisions made by the democratic parliament in Copenhagen. The EU ultimately weakens democratic accountability.

Francis Fukuyama’s writing has gone through four stages. The original 1989 “End of History” essay was composed “in the realm of ideology and consciousness” — that is to say, Hegelian idealism. In the book of the same title, three years later, Fukuyama incorporated materialist social-science theories of modernity into his work. The third stage represented a repudiation of his neoconservative past. In the fourth and current stage, Fukuyama has become a major intellectual interpreter of the World Spirit for the mainstream academic/media axis. As complex, erudite, and nuanced as his writing is, Fukuyama never ventures too far from the worldview of the New York Times (e.g., he takes a benign view of Islamist politics and casts a jaundiced eye at working-class voters who “ignored” their allegedly real “interests” by supporting Reaganomics). When Fareed Zakaria, Tom Friedman, and Charlie Rose need a global thinker to explain planetary trends within a liberal mindset, they know whom to call.

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