Biological Foundations of Politics

Fukuyama - Origins of Political Order / Political Order and Political Decay

“Political institutions develop, often slowly and painfully, over time, as human societies strive to organize themselves to master their environments.  But political decay occurs when political systems fail to adjust to changing circumstances.”
—Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order

In mankind’s mythical State of Nature, are humans solitary libertarian beings—the rugged individualist, who only comes to town when the social contract offers an advantage?  Or are we inherently social creatures, allowed to stray from the fold only when the greater good doesn’t need us?  And how do these contrasting theories help (or hinder) our understanding of how we govern ourselves?

Analyst Francis Fukuyama gained notoriety with his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man.  Of course “history” hasn’t ended, and the title certainly did gain him attention, but since then Fukuyama has thought a lot about how we got to these particular ends, and where we might be going in the the realm of political economy.  In 2011, he published a thick tome, The Origins of Political Order, and in 2014, a second volume, Political Order and Political Decay.  If Fukuyama considered the end times to begin, he goes back to the very beginning of human society and throws a lot of history at us along the way.

The philosophy is as thick as the texts are heavy.  The kind of writing that is very good at bringing on sleep quickly.  The kind of writing that demands attention, and invites re-reading.  This winter I’ve been re-visiting the 2011 installment, finding context for the 2016 political silly season.  In particular, I’ve been thinking over Fukuyama’s observations on biological foundations of politics.

  • Human beings never existed in a pre-social state.
  • Natural human sociability is built around two principles, kin selection and reciprocal altruism.
  • Human beings have an innate propensity for creating and following norms or rules.
  • Human beings (also) have a natural propensity for violence.
  • Human beings by nature desire not just material resources but also recognition.

None of these ideas are new, but Fukuyama weaves them into an argument for how our inherent biology has influenced political development around the world and across the ages.  Generalizing broadly, contra-Rousseau, the author supports the idea man is a social animal, supported (imprisoned) by family ties (kin groups).  It may take a village to raise a child, but it is also very difficult to escape the tyranny of cousins.  Reciprocal altruism—you rub my back, I’ll rub yours—is an amazingly simple relationship, yet also amazingly difficult to overcome in the name of transparency, accountability, good government and the rule of law.

Fukuyama talks a lot about the rule of law, especially in terms of property rights and contract enforcement, as a key foundation for political order, and how political order is a key foundation for long-term economic growth and development.  People across history seem to want to follow norms, which helps offset the equal urge to just fight it out, often as not over ideas as much as stuff.  As a thought for Presidents Day, that, folks, is politics.

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