I finished the Origins of Political Order (2011) yesterday. It is a great read. The obvious criticisms that can be mobilized against it – that Fukuyama generalizes from secondary sources, tries for big narratives, is too enamored with Weberian big theory (he calls it hyper theory), is a biological fundamentalist et cetera – do not become me in the least. I find it liberating to read a book that honestly tries for big theory, for encompassing narrative. I guess that is a sign that I am horribly conservative after all.
There is much in the book for the politically interested, but I was surprised by how much is relevant for those interested in legal philosophy as well. Fukuyama spends a generous amount of time on the concept of rule of law, and makes some interesting observations about that. He notes that humans are hard-wired for norms and that the way norms develop is tremendously important for how societies develop, and then goes on to trace the rule of law back in different human societies. In an interesting section he argues that there is a very simple way to understand why Russia has weak rule of law, but Germany strong rule of law (and also why Russia crashed into absolutism in many different formats over time).
His story is this: in Western Europe we had a battle of investiture where the church and worldly powers fought over who could appoint clergy, and this has characterized our thinking about law ever since: law is divided into realms, laws that the sovereign may change and those that he may not. This then quickly turned into legislation under law, the notion that the executive power only exercises power under the laws, and cannot hap-hazardly change them — the seeds of modern rule of law. In the Orthodox church no such battle of investiture ever happened, and the Eastern church was much more submissive to the sovereign, and the notion of rule of law never could find a foothold in, for example, Russia.
This exemplifies the beauty and problem of Fukuyama’s style. Grandiose explanations of complex processes and deep concepts are wonderful to read, but how do you control for accuracy? How do you figure out if this is in fact an important element in why Russia has a weaker rule of law than Denmark? Is this really legitimate science? Where is the data that supports this, with controls and checks?
We don’t have that, of course. But it is a mistake to ask for it. The idea that there is only one kind of science, one kind of knowledge creation and discovery, is terribly narrow-minded. The ability that Fukuyama has to create big models for global change with strong and persuasive arguments is as valuable as, if not more valuable than, the ability to try to find a mathematical model for the decline of trade unions in economic downturns. The addition of strong, novel narratives expand our understanding, even if they do not provide final explanation of a phenomenon. Indeed, we may ask what category of phenomena indeed lend themselves to explanation at all in the more physics-oriented way that that word sometimes takes on.
So, read Fukuyama, and add to your set of narratives some novel, strong and interesting narratives about the law, legitimacy and political order that can help inform your broader understanding of deep concepts that matter to all people. You will enjoy it. In the words of one reviewer:
It is a bold book, probably too bold for the specialists who take refuge in tiny topics and fear big ideas.