Francis Fukuyama picked an auspicious publication date for his latest book, "Political Order and Political Decay." The news is full of stories of political decay: the Centers for Disease Control and Ebola; the Department of Veterans Affairs' health service; the Internal Revenue Service political targeting.
Europe gives us the dysfunctional euro and no-growth welfare states. Not to mention failed states in the Middle East and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Critics have lambasted Fukuyama for proclaiming, in the title of his 1992 book, "The End of History." That's not entirely fair. His argument there was that the battle of ideas was over since no one had advanced convincingly a superior alternative to capitalism and democracy. Challengers have emerged in recent years — Islamist terrorists, Russia's Vladimir Putin, China's capitalist Communists. But their regimes lack broad appeal beyond the reach of their arms. Most of the world is still bent on "getting to Denmark" — Fukuyama's shorthand phrase for an effective, accountable, tolerant and law-bound society.
Getting even close to Denmark took a long time. In his 2011 book "The Origins of Political Order," Fukuyama surveyed the development from prehistoric times to the year 1800 of the three institutions he argues are indispensable for a decent polity: an effective state, the rule of law and democratic accountability.
The Chinese developed a competent bureaucracy around 200 Before the Common Era, but have still not yet embraced the rule of law and have only disorderly accountability (see Hong Kong). In Western Europe, the Catholic Church emerged as a rival to weak states and imposed the rule of law upon them. Democratic accountability grew from England's Magna Carta in 1215 but had made only limited progress in Europe by "Origins'"1800 cutoff date.
The going has remained hard because, in Fukuyama's words, "All good things do not necessarily go together." His three goals are often in tension with one another.
Good things produce bad things; bad things produce good things. China produced an effective state bureaucracy 2,200 years ago and Prussia in the 18th century because they faced aggressive neighbors and needed to fund a competent military. That gave them rule by law, but not a rule of law capable of binding emperor or Kaiser or Fuhrer.
Democratic accountability grew in Britain's distant North American colonies and flowered in a republic, with a Constitution and courts imposing the rule of law and legislatures establishing democratic accountability through universal (white) manhood suffrage. But the young republic's political patronage system meant that America lacked an effective state bureaucracy until the Progressive reforms of the early 20th century.
Moreover, there is the possibility — probability, likelihood, certainty — of decay. Fukuyama is disappointed that the U.S. Forest Service, his paragon of (large-P) Progressive bureaucracy, has decayed because of contradictory congressional commands and court mandates. Too much democracy and rule of law make for an ineffective state.
But there's a bigger problem here. Fukuyama compares Progressive bureaucracy with Taylorite management of assembly lines. Neither factory workers nor bureaucrats are automata. They work better when they have discretion.
Markets discipline manufacturers, but bureaucracies, as Fukuyama notes, decay through intellectual rigidity and regulatory capture. The interests they supposedly regulate use the instruments of democratic accountability and rule of law to get their way over the years.
Despite his broad historical sweep, Fukuyama's diagnosis of decay seems over-focused on the minutiae of current American political battles. Much recent gridlock comes from President Obama's disinclination or inability to negotiate. His two predecessors did better.
Nor, as he acknowledges, do parliamentary systems operate much differently these days. Some governments have managed to scale back unsustainable welfare state commitments. Others, like ours, haven't.
The bottom line is that good things (stable government, lack of defeat in war or major economic collapse) tend to produce bad things (decay of bureaucratic institutions, capture of regulators by the regulated, protracted litigation over needed projects and changes). And conservatives' lament that a government that tries to do too many things ends up doing none of them well rings true.
The lesson I take from "Political Order and Political Decay" is that getting to Denmark is Sisyphus' work. You can get that stone uphill, with great effort, but there's always a tendency for it to slide down again — and for those who started off at the bottom to pass you later on their way up.