My Highlights from “The Origins of Political Order” by Fukuyama

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I recently finished reading “The Origins of Political Order” by Francis Fukuyama. While reading, I was highlighting some interesting sentences and ideas. Their topics vary a lot, from state building, free markets, the role of religion, tribal societies and curious historical anecdotes.

I decided to group them roughly by topic and publish them. Obviously, reading the whole book is recommended (as well as the 2nd volume about political decay), but the quotes below capture some of the core ideas of the book.

The core idea, to me, is that political order arises by historical chance, but depends on multiple factors, including geography, neighboring states, the rise of certain ideas and religions.

The categories below are not strict, and some quotes can fall into multiple categories. I hope that this overview is useful, both as a way to share ideas and as a way to recommend the book itself.

Due to the large volume of citations, here’s a table of contents:

Historical complexity

Understanding the complex historical circumstances under which institutions were originally created can help us see why their transfer and imitation are difficult even under modern circumstances.

We have seen how institutions were the products of contingent historical circumstances and accidents that are unlikely to be duplicated by other differently situated societies.

Understanding the emergence of accountable government requires, then, understanding the particular political forces that existed in the different parts of Europe and why some constellations of power promoted accountability while others proved no bar to the growth of absolutism.

This literature falls short of being a real theory of political development, however, and it is not clear whether it will ever be possible to generate such a theory. [..] The problem, to put it in social science terms, is that there are too many variables and not enough cases. [..] The prospects of producing a predictive general theory out of this soup of causal factors and outcomes seem to be very slim indeed.

Certain historical events are catalyzed by individuals and cannot be explained without reference to their particular moral qualities.

The good things of modernity did not necessarily go together. Democracy, in particular, was not always conducive to political stability.

Human societies are so diverse that it is very difficult to make truly universal generalizations from the comparative study of cultures.

A number of other European states, including the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden, also succeeded in putting together the state, rule of law, and accountability in a single package by the nineteenth century. The specific routes by which they got to this outcome differed substantially from that of Britain, but it is sufficient to recognize that once this package had been put together the first time, it produced a state so powerful, legitimate, and friendly to economic growth that it became a model to be applied throughout the world.

The story of the rise of Danish democracy is full of historical accidents and contingent circumstances that cannot be duplicated elsewhere. The Danes took a much different route to get to modern liberal democracy than the English, but in the end they arrived at a very similar place. Both countries developed a strong state, rule of law, and accountable government. It would appear, then, that there are a number of different routes for “getting to Denmark.

Free markets, capital and regulations

Free markets are necessary to promote long-term growth, but they are not self-regulating, particularly when it comes to banks and other large financial institutions.

It is clear that the political job of finding the right regulatory mechanisms to tame capitalism’s volatility have not yet been found.

The fantasy of statelessness most prevalent on the Right is that the market economy will somehow make government unnecessary and irrelevant.

In the former USSR, the 4 percent of land that remained privately owned accounted for almost one-quarter of total agricultural output. In China, once collective farms were disbanded in 1978 under the leadership of the reformer Deng Xiaoping, agricultural output doubled in the space of just four years.

There is in fact a curious blindness to the importance of political institutions that has affected many people over the years, people who dream about a world in which we will somehow transcend politics.

There is something like an iron law of latifundia in agrarian societies that says that the rich will grow richer until they are stopped — either by the state, by peasant rebellions, or by states acting out of fear of peasant rebellions.

The economist Simon Johnson suggested that the power of the financial oligarchy in the United States was not too different from what exists in emerging market countries like Russia or Indonesia.

Contrary to Marx, capitalism was the consequence rather than the cause of a change in social relationships and custom.

[In Western Europe] there was a political precondition for the rise of a capitalist class in the first place — the mutual hatred of the townsmen and the king for the great lords. Where this condition did not prevail, as in many parts of Eastern Europe, no such class emerged.

Having a state is a basic precondition for intensive economic growth.

While the correlation between a strong, coherent state and economic growth is well established, the direction of causality is not always clear. [..] There are a number of cases where economic growth did not produce better governance, but where, to the contrary, it was good governance that was responsible for growth. Consider South Korea and Nigeria

There is also a large literature linking good governance to economic growth, though the definition of “good governance” is not well established and, depending on the author, sometimes includes all three components of political development.

Societies like contemporary China with “good enough” property rights that yet lack traditional rule of law can nonetheless achieve very high levels of growth.

Transitions into democracy from autocracy can occur at any level of development but are much less likely to be reversed at higher levels of per capita GDP.

Economic growth can also create legitimacy for the governments that succeed in fostering it. Many fast-developing countries in East Asia, such as Singapore and Malaysia, have maintained popular support despite their lack of liberal democracy for this reason. [..] Legitimacy also rests on the distribution of the benefits of growth.

Rule of law

This distinction between law and legislation is critical to understanding the meaning of the rule of law itself.

The rule of law is constantly threatened by the need to generate political power

In contemporary developing countries, one of the greatest political deficits lies in the relative weakness of the rule of law.

Of all the components of contemporary states, effective legal institutions are perhaps the most difficult to construct.

The emergence of the modern world, including the emergence of a capitalist economy, was broadly dependent on the prior existence of a rule of law.

People lucky enough to live in countries with a strong rule of law usually don’t understand how it arose in the first place, and they mistake the outward forms of the rule of law for its substance

But most important, legal institutions need to be seen as legitimate and authoritative, not just by ordinary people but also by powerful elites in the society.

The vast majority of people in any peaceful society obey the law not so much because they are making a rational calculation about costs and benefits, and fear punishment. They obey because they believe that the law is fundamentally fair, and they are morally habituated to follow it. They are much less inclined to obey the law if they believe that it is unjust.

If the judges and prosecutors and police can be bought off or intimidated, as happens in many countries where rule of law is weak, what difference does the existence of the formal institution make?

The ruler is not sovereign; the law is sovereign, and the ruler gains legitimacy only insofar as he derives his just powers from the law.

In the West, in India, and in the Muslim world, there was a body of preexisting law, sanctified by religion and safeguarded by a hierarchy of priests and clerics, that was prior to and independent of the state. This law was seen as being older, higher, and more legitimate than the current ruler and therefore binding on him. That is the meaning of the rule of law: even the king or emperor is bound by law and not free simply to do as he pleases.

China was the first world civilization to create a modern state. But it created a modern state that was not restrained by a rule of law or by institutions of accountability to limit the power of the sovereign. The only accountability in the Chinese system was moral. A strong state without rule of law or accountability amounts to dictatorship, and the more modern and institutionalized that state is, the more effective its dictatorship will be.

Neither rule of law nor political accountability exists in contemporary China any more than they did in dynastic China.

The rule of law and political accountability are desirable in their own right. Sometimes, they can get in the way of good, effective government, as when an Indian state is unable to make a decision on a major infrastructure project due to litigation and public protests, or when the U.S. Congress cannot bring itself to deal with pressing problems like entitlements due to the influence of lobbyists and interest groups. But at other times rule of law and accountability are necessary to preserve good government. Under the right conditions, a strong authoritarian system can produce extremely effective government. Political systems need to be able to endure changing external conditions and changing leaders. The checks on state authority provided by rule of law and accountability serve to reduce the variance in governmental performance: they constrain the best governments, but they also prevent bad ones from spiraling out of control. The Chinese, by contrast, were never able to solve the problem of the bad emperor.

The story of the rule of law in later years begins to merge with the story of the rise of accountable government, since the proponents of accountable government initially demanded not democratic elections but an executive that would abide by the law.

In Europe, the rule of law survived, even as the basis of its legitimacy changed during the transition to modernity.

In many respects, the situation of the French monarchy was very similar to that of certain contemporary developing countries insofar as it regarded the rule of law as an inconvenient obstacle to its purposes

The Russian state was stronger than its French or Spanish counterparts in several respects. The latter felt bound by respect for a rule of law, at least with regard to elites, which simply didn’t exist in Russia

Political order, state building, society, democracy and state powers

This underlines one of the central themes of this book, namely, that the different components of modernization were not all part of a single package that somehow arrived with the Reformation, Enlightenment, and Industrial Revolution.

There should be no general presumption that political order, once it emerges, will be self-sustaining.

Samuel Huntington’s definition of institutions as “stable, valued, recurring patterns of behavior.” [..] The more adaptable, complex, autonomous, and coherent an institution is, the more developed it will be. [..] Institutions are rules or repeated patterns of behavior that survive the particular individuals who operate them at any one time. [..] While individual leaders can shape institutions, more highly developed institutions not only survive poor individual leaders but also have a system for training and recruiting new and better ones.

State building concentrates political power, while rule of law limits it.

It is important to have a strong central state as well as constraints on that state if liberty is to flourish.

Even if not every state deserves to be called predatory, all states are tempted to become predatory when circumstances demand it.

Constitutional limits on a central government’s power do not by themselves necessarily produce political accountability.

It is the responsibility of the central government to enforce its own laws against the oligarchy; freedom is lost not when the state is too strong but when it is too weak. In the United States, the ending of Jim Crow laws and racial segregation in the two decades following World War II was brought about only when the federal government used its power to enforce the Constitution against the states in the South.

A powerful central government is neither intrinsically good nor bad; its ultimate effect on freedom depends on the complex interplay between it and the subordinate political authorities.

Ideas by themselves are not sufficient to bring about stable liberal democracy in the absence of an underlying balance of political forces and interests that make it the least bad alternative for all of the actors.

This is a point that Hayek and his libertarian followers fail to see: the Common Law may be the work of dispersed judges, but it would not have come into being in the first place, or been enforced, without a strong centralized state.

Political institutions are needed precisely because of the narrowness of collective action typical of kin-based societies.

The very lateness of the European state-building project was the source of the political liberty that Europeans would later enjoy

Europe was exceptional also in that state formation was based less on the capacity of early state builders to deploy military power than on their ability to dispense justice.

Like the American Declaration of Independence, however, the Glorious Revolution did establish the principle of popular consent, leaving it up to succeeding generations to widen the circle of those considered the “people” in a political sense.

The process of Chinese state formation is particularly interesting in a comparative perspective, since it sets precedents in many ways for the process Europe went through nearly one thousand years later.

In France, the capture of the state by rentiers and venal officeholders undermined the state’s power and eventually produced the social explosion that was the French Revolution.

At the same time, the society from which the government sought to extract funds was unable to impose upon it a basic principle of accountability. The reason for this was a lack of social solidarity or social capital among the different economic classes.

Liberty was interpreted as privilege, and the result was a society in which, according to Tocqueville, “there were not ten men willing to work together for a common cause” on the eve of the revolution.

The separation of powers between an executive and a judiciary is only metaphorical. The executive has real coercive powers and can call up armies and police to enforce his (or her) will. The power of a judicial branch, or of religious authorities who are the custodians of the law, lies only in the legitimacy that they can confer on rulers and in the popular support they receive as protectors of a broad social consensus.

While different dialects continue today to be spoken all over China, unification of the written language had incalculable consequences for Chinese identity. Not only was there a unified language of administration, but the same corpus of cultural classics could be shared

When a strong state sides with a strong oligarchy, freedom faces a particularly severe threat.

Formal democracy and constitutionalism was not based on confrontation and negotiated consensus between social classes, but was granted from above by elites who could take it back when it no longer suited their interests. This led to the emergence of highly unequal and polarized societies in the twentieth century, a situation that generated truly revolutionary social forces — in the form of Mexican and Cuban revolutions.

These examples suggest that the Russian tradition is not one of unremitting tyranny but one in which free alternatives have sprouted and periodically prospered. It is the promise of a freer society that reappeared after the fall of communism and may yet be realized in the future

One of the Glorious Revolution’s main accomplishments was to make taxation legitimate because it was henceforth clearly based on consent.

The ability of societies to innovate institutionally thus depends on whether they can neutralize existing political stakeholders holding vetoes over reform.

Building an institution is not like building a hydroelectric dam or a road network. It requires a great deal of hard work to persuade people that institutional change is needed in the first place, build a coalition in favor of change that can overcome the resistance of existing stakeholders in the old system, and then condition people to accept the new set of behaviors as routine and expected.

The self-organizing character of Indian society was noted by many nineteenth-century Western observers, including Karl Marx and Henry Maine. Marx asserted that the king owned all land but then noted that villages in India tended to be economically autarchic and based on a primitive form of communism (a rather self-contradictory interpretation). Maine referred to the unchanging, self-regulating Indian village community, a notion that became widespread in Britain in Victorian times. British administrators in the early nineteenth century described the Indian village as a “little republic” that could survive the ruin of empires.

Thus, even prior to the Norman Conquest, the whole of English society had been organized down to a village level into highly participatory political units. This was not a grassroots phenomenon of local social organization taking on a political role; rather, it was national government inviting local participation in a way that structured local life and became deeply rooted as a source of community.

English kings were willing to support the property rights of nonelites against those of the nobility, something that depended in turn on the existence of a powerful centralized state.

The central insight of Samuel Huntington’s 1968 book Political Order in Changing Societies was that political development had its own logic, which was related to but different from the logic of the economic and social dimensions of development. [..] Political decay, he argued, occurred when economic and social modernization outran political development.

The conservatism of societies with regard to rules is then a source of political decay.

A highly developed civil society can also pose dangers for democracy and can even lead to political decay. Groups based on ethnic or racial chauvinism spread intolerance; interest groups can invest effort in zero-sum rent seeking; excessive politicization of economic and social conflicts can paralyze societies and undermine the legitimacy of democratic institutions

Political liberty — that is, the ability of societies to rule themselves — does not depend only on the degree to which a society can mobilize opposition to centralized power and impose constitutional constraints on the state. It must also have a state that is strong enough to act when action is required. Accountability does not run in just one direction, from the state to the society. If the government cannot act cohesively, if there is no broader sense of public purpose, then one will not have laid the basis for true political liberty.

This is, in effect, the essence of politics: the ability of leaders to get their way through a combination of authority, legitimacy, intimidation, negotiation, charisma, ideas, and organization

Parliamentary government emerged when there was a relative balance of power between a cohesive state and an equally well-organized society that could defend its interests.

All of the elements that came together to produce the late Stuart reforms are still critical: an external environment that puts fiscal pressure on the government to improve its performance; a chief executive who, if not personally leading the reform effort, is at least not blocking it; reform champions within the government who have sufficient political support to carry out their program; and finally, strong political pressure from below on the part of those who are paying taxes to the government and don’t want to see their money wasted.

Fortunately, the world described here, in which the basic political institutions of the state, rule of law, and accountability were forged, is quite different from the contemporary world.

The greater integration of societies around the world has increased the level of competition among them, and ipso facto produced both a higher rate of political change and convergence of political forms

The big question in China’s future is whether the huge social mobilization engendered by rapid development will one day lead to irresistible demands for greater political participation.

Ultimately, societies are not trapped by their historical pasts. Economic growth, the mobilization of new social actors, integration of societies across borders, and the prevalence of competition and foreign models all provide entry points for political change that either did not exist, or existed in a much attenuated form, before the Industrial Revolution. And yet societies are not simply free to remake themselves in any given generation. It is easy to overstate the degree to which globalization has truly integrated societies around the world. While levels of social interchange and learning are far higher than they were three hundred years ago, most people continue to live in a horizon shaped largely by their own traditional culture and habits

The second question concerns the future of liberal democracies. A society that is successful at one historical moment will not necessarily always remain successful, given the phenomenon of political decay. While liberal democracy may be regarded today as the most legitimate form of government, its legitimacy is conditioned on performance. That performance depends in turn on its being able to maintain an adequate balance between strong state action when necessary and the kinds of individual freedoms that are the basis of its democratic legitimacy and that foster private-sector growth.

The United States seems increasingly caught in a dysfunctional political equilibrium, wherein everyone agrees on the necessity of addressing long-term fiscal issues, but powerful interest groups can block the spending cuts or tax increases necessary to close the gap.

A rational-choice model of collective action, in which individuals calculate that they will be better off by cooperating with one another, vastly understates the degree of social cooperation that exists in human societies and misunderstands the motives that underlie it

Collective action based merely on rational self-interest is wholly inadequate in explaining the degree of social cooperation and altruism that actually exists in the world.

Religion and ideas

Religion is also key to the origins of the rule of law

Some people today argue that religion is primarily a source of violence, conflict, and social discord. Historically, however, religion has played the opposite role: it is a source of social cohesion that permits human beings to cooperate far more widely and securely than they would if they were the simple rational and self-interested agents posited by the economists.

Religion and politics must therefore be seen as drivers of behavior and change in their own right, not as by-products of grand economic forces.

It was not Christianity per se, but the specific institutional form that Western Christianity took, that determined its impact on later political development.

The only part of the world where tribalism was fully superseded by more voluntary and individualistic forms of social relationship was Europe, where Christianity played a decisive role in undermining kinship as a basis for social cohesion.

While modern commercial law codes were driven by the requirements of independent cities and burgeoning trade, the rule of law in the first instance was the product not of economic forces but of religious ones. Thus two of the basic institutions that became crucial to economic modernization — individual freedom of choice with regard to social and property relationships, and political rule limited by transparent and predictable law — were created by a premodern institution, the medieval church. Only later would these institutions prove useful in the economic sphere.

There is no clearer illustration of the importance of ideas to politics than the emergence of an Arab state under the Prophet Muhammad.

One of the oldest controversies among social theorists concerns the relative priority of economic interests versus ideas as sources of social change.

In the West, by contrast, kinship was undermined by Christianity, both on a doctrinal level and through the power that the church commanded over family matters and inheritance. The roots of Western social modernization were thus laid several centuries before the rise either of the modern state or the capitalist market economy.

Christian heroes were peaceful saints and martyrs, not warriors or vengeful conquerors, and the religion preached a doctrine of universal equality that ran counter to the hierarchy of an honor-based tribal society.

The notion that all human beings are equal in dignity or worth despite their evident natural and social differences is a Christian one, but it was not regarded by the medieval church as something to be implemented in the here and now.

The church’s move toward institutional independence stimulated the corporate organization of the other sectors of feudal society as well.

There was no separation between the religious and secular realms, and therefore no way to articulate social consensus other than in religious terms.

The Chinese elite, like elites in every known human society, also made use of legitimating rituals to enhance their power. But the Chinese never thought up a metaphysical system of the depth and complexity of the one that emerged in India. Indeed, they were able to seize and hold power quite effectively without the use of any transcendental religion whatsoever.

The [Indian] subcontinent acquired a common culture under a set of religious beliefs and social practices that marked it as a distinctive civilization long before anyone ever tried to unify it politically. And when that unification was attempted, the strength of the society was such that it was able to resist political authority and prevent the latter from reshaping society.

In making the transition from a tribal to a state-level society, then, the early Arab rulers had several things going for them. They had a model of absolute monarchy and centralized bureaucratic administration as the norm for the state-level societies that surrounded them. More important, they had a religious ideology that emphasized universal human equality under God.

But while the Abbasid empire did not survive, the institution of military slavery did, and in fact became crucial to the survival of Islam itself in subsequent centuries.

But when did the European exit from kinship occur, and what, if not politics, was the driving force behind this change? The answers are that the exit occurred very shortly after the Germanic tribes that overran the Roman Empire were first converted to Christianity, and the agent was the Catholic church. […] The German, Norse, Magyar, and Slavic tribes saw their kinship structures dissolve within two or three generations of their conversion to Christianity.

The church systematically cut off all available avenues that families had for passing down property to descendants. At the same time, it strongly promoted voluntary donations of land and property to itself. The church thus stood to benefit materially from an increasing pool of property-owning Christians who died without heirs.

The legal scholar Noah Feldman argues that the rise of Islamism in the early twenty-first century and the widespread demand for a return to the sharia throughout the Arab world reflect a grave dissatisfaction with the lawless authoritarianism of contemporary regimes in the region and a nostalgia for a time when executive power was limited by a genuine respect for law. He maintains that the demand for sharia should be seen not simply as a reactionary turning back of the clock to medieval Islam, but rather as a desire for a more balanced regime in which political power would be willing to live within predictable rules.

Unlike the situation in Western Europe, where the Catholic church could play one ruler off against another in a fragmented political landscape, the Russian church had nowhere else to go but to Moscow and often ended up as a pliant supporter of the state.

If there is a single event that sent Denmark and other parts of Scandinavia off on a distinct development path, it was the Protestant Reformation.

Ideas were critical to the Danish story, not just in terms of Lutheran and Grundtvigian ideology but also in the way that Enlightenment views about rights and constitutionalism were accepted by a series of Danish monarchs in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Many people, observing religious conflict in the contemporary world, have become hostile to religion as such and regard it as a source of violence and intolerance.5 In a world of overlapping and plural religious environments, this can clearly be the case. But they fail to put religion in its broader historical context, where it was a critical factor in permitting broad social cooperation that transcended kin and friends as a source of social relationships. Moreover, secular ideologies like Marxism-Leninism or nationalism that have displaced religious beliefs in many contemporary societies can be and have been no less destructive due to the passionate beliefs that they engender.

Like language and rule following, the content of religious belief is conventional and varies from society to society, but the faculty for creating religious doctrines is innate.

The modern legal order had its roots in the fight waged by the Catholic church against the emperor in the late eleventh century, and the first European bureaucratic organizations were created by the church to manage its own internal affairs.


Not only has totalitarianism virtually disappeared from the world; authoritarians pay a compliment to democracy by pretending to be democrats.

By contrast, Legalism may be characterized as naked absolutism which denied the relevancy of morality to human government.

The founder of the first unified Chinese state, Ying Zheng (also known by his posthumous temple name Qin Shi Huangdi, 259–210 B.C.), was an energetic megalomaniac who used political power to reshape Chinese society.

The empress acted quickly to suppress the uprising and then unleashed a reign of terror against the entire noble class by setting up a network of spies and informants who were lavishly rewarded for denouncing conspiracies. [..] Her secret police engaged in what would now be called widespread “extrajudicial killings,” and when the terror had run its course, she turned on her police officials and had them executed as well.

But the experience of the Ming Dynasty, as well as other periods of Chinese history, raises troubling questions about the durability of good governance under conditions where there is no rule of law or accountability. Under the leadership of a strong and capable emperor, the system could be incredibly efficient and decisive. But under capricious or incompetent sovereigns, the enormous powers granted them often undermined the effectiveness of the administrative system.

Like many dictatorships in more recent times, the French monarchy found it could not create investor confidence or repeal basic laws of economics by political fiat.

The twentieth century has taught us to think about tyranny as something perpetrated by powerful centralized states, but it can also be the work of local oligarchs

Russian absolutism was founded on the alliance that emerged between the monarch and both the upper and lower nobility, all of whom committed themselves to binding rules at the expense of the peasantry

War and violence

“War made the state, and the state made war.”

One of the most important competitive pressures leading to institutional innovation has been violence and wars

In a field army at war, meritocracy is not a cultural norm but a condition for survival, and it is very likely that the principle of merit-based promotion began in military hierarchies before it was introduced into the civilian bureaucracy.

One very important factor is the presence of a large island, Britain, offshore, which acted for much of European history as a deliberate balancer that tried to break up hegemonic coalitions.

No Chinese political entity during the Warring States period could afford not to copy its neighbors in developing modern state-level institutions; Indian political entities obviously did not feel anything like this pressure

Serious deterioration of the Mamluk institution was evident by the middle of the fourteenth century. The background condition was actually the peace and prosperity of the time, which had a disastrous effect on Mamluk discipline.

The two world wars performed a similar service for the democratic Germany that emerged after 1945 by eliminating the aristocratic Junker class, which could no longer block institutional change.

When reformist ministers like Maupeou and Turgot sought to change the system by abolishing venal office altogether, the existing stakeholders were strong enough to block any action. The problem of venal officeholding was solved only through violence in the course of the revolution.

Women’s rights

The relatively high status of women in Western Europe was an accidental by-product of the church’s self-interest.

As in other agnatic societies, succession and inheritance pass only through males. A woman is not considered a permanent part of her own lineage but is rather a resource to be used by the family in arranging alliances with other important families.

We should not underestimate the importance of sex and access to women as a driver of political organization.

One important measure of the decay of complex kinship structures is the legal right of women to hold and dispose of property.

In agnatic societies, women achieve legal personhood only by virtue of their marriage to and mothering of a male in the lineage.

A woman’s right to own property and dispose of it as she wished stood to benefit the church, since it provided a large source of donations from childless widows and spinsters.

Values were certainly important; the Christian doctrine of the universal equality of all human beings under God made it much easier to justify equality of rights for women as property owners.

The empress Wu’s rise also constituted a setback for the empowerment of Chinese women, since later writers took her to be an example of the bad things that happen when women get involved in politics.

Public administration and bureaucracy

Rational bureaucracy does not necessarily have to serve rational purposes.

It is safe to say that the Chinese invented modern bureaucracy, that is, a permanent administrative cadre selected on the basis of ability rather than kinship or patrimonial connection. Bureaucracy emerged unplanned from the chaos of Zhou China, in response to the urgent necessity of extracting taxes to pay for war.

The Chinese bureaucracy established a model that would eventually be replicated by virtually all modern bureaucracies. There was a centralized system of appointment and promotion, based on ranks from 1 at the top to 9 at the bottom

In 124, pupils nominated from the provinces were sent to the Imperial Academy in the capital of Chang’an for testing. The best ones went on for another year’s training with academicians and scholars based on the approved Confucian texts, and then were tested again for entry into high government service.

The best students were recommended by their teachers to go on to the national universities in Beijing and Nanjing, where they would prepare to take the civil service exams.

Only the Ottomans saw clearly the need to banish patrimonialism from their state machinery, which they did for nearly three centuries. They also kept the military under firm civilian control. But they too began to decline when patrimonialism and the hereditary principle reasserted themselves from the late seventeenth century onward.

The typical solution that Chinese rulers devised to get around the problem of unresponsive administrative hierarchies was to superimpose on them a parallel network of spies and informants who were completely outside the formal governmental system.


Somehow, in the crucible of the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, the idea arose that true political authority lies in education and literacy rather than in military prowess.

A third mechanism by which the Brahmanic social system limited political power was by controlling literacy, a legacy that extends up to the present moment and consigns huge numbers of Indians to poverty and lack of opportunity.

Nothing like this existed in India. Rulers were themselves illiterate and relied for administration on a similarly uneducated cadre of patrimonial officials. Literacy was a privilege of the Brahmin class, which had a strong self-interest in maintaining their monopoly over access to learning and ritual.

The truly lasting political impact of the Reformation in Denmark came, however, through its encouragement of peasant literacy

Historical anecdotes

Meanwhile, the grand councilor Li Si conspired with a court eunuch to put Qin Shi Huangdi’s second son on the throne, only to be killed by the eunuch, who was in turn murdered by the third son, whom he had tried to install as emperor.

He [Genghis Khan] succeeded quite well at satisfying the last of these aspirations. Through DNA testing, it is estimated that 8 percent of the present-day male population of a very large region of Asia are descendants of him or his lineage.

The great split between Sunnis and Shiites, which in the twenty-first century still leads to car bombings and terrorist attacks on mosques, originated as an Arab tribal rivalry.

Mehmed III (1595–1603) had his nineteen brothers executed in the palace when he seized power.

Cross-cousin marriage ensured that property would remain in the hands of close family members.

Pope Gregory’s goal was to end corruption and rent seeking within the church by attacking the very source of patrimonialism, the ability of bishops and priests to have children

[In the Chinese state of Qin] Land, retainers, women slaves, and clothing were all to be allocated by the state on the basis of performance.

A number of political scientists have compared the early modern European state to organized crime.

Next to emerge were the Rurzhen (ancestors of the Manchus), a tribal people coming out of Manchuria who destroyed the Liao Empire and pushed the Khitan back into Central Asia. (They were pushed so far west that they eventually bumped into the Russians, who thereafter referred to all Chinese as “Kitaiskiy.”)

Wu was the only woman to rule China in her own name and to establish her own dynasty. Her rise and fall is a chronicle of intrigue, brutality, terror, sex, mysticism, and female empowerment.

The Chinese, like other peoples, were extremely good at hiding assets from the tax collector and engaging in schemes to in effect launder income.

Chinese emperors experienced this problem much as modern presidents and prime ministers do, in the form of unresponsive and sometimes outright rebellious bureaucracy. Ministers objected to policies proposed by their boss, or quietly failed to implement them. Of course, Chinese rulers had certain tools that modern executives don’t: they could administer vicious floggings on the bare buttocks of even their most senior ministers, or casually imprison or execute them.

[In France] government offices, from military commands to positions in the finance ministry to tax collection, were sold to the highest bidder by a state that was constantly short of cash and desperate for revenue. Government, in other words, was privatized down to its core functions, and public offices turned into heritable private property

[In France] The finance minister presided over a regular burning of money orders and other financial records in order to prevent later scrutiny of his accounts.

The death of Louis XIV in 1715 left the monarchy with crushing debts. In order to reduce this burden, the state resorted to what amounted to a protection racket. It summoned special courts it controlled called the chambres de justice and then threatened creditors with investigations into their personal finances. Since virtually all of the creditors were corrupt in one way or another, they agreed to reduce the amount owed the government in return for calling off the investigation. [..] The tactic of the selective use of anticorruption investigations to raise revenues and intimidate political opponents is still very much in use today.

Tax exemption was the most hated of all privileges. [..] In England, it was the poor who enjoyed tax privileges; in France, it was the wealthy.

The failure to find adequate funds to finance deficits caused the Spanish Crown to declare bankruptcy in 1557, 1560, 1575, 1596, 1607, 1627, 1647, 1652, 1660, and 1662.14 These bankruptcies were not full debt repudiations, but more like what today would be called debt reschedulings or workouts

But in the seventeenth century, the raising of armies and navies was increasingly outsourced to private individuals who recruited troops using their own resources, or to coastal towns that outfitted their own galleys or ships. [..] The logistical infrastructure that provisioned these forces came under the control of Genoese financiers and meant that by the mid-1600s the Spanish monarchy had little control over its own armed forces.

The government back in Madrid was committed to protecting the rights of the indigenous owners, but was far away and unable to control things on the ground.

On the eve of the French Revolution, peasants owned 50 percent of the land in France, more than twice as much as the nobles

The Russian ruling class began to measure its status by the numbers of serfs an individual owned.

The Danish monarch saw peasant freedom as an opportunity to undermine the power of the noble landowners, who fiercely resisted his reforms.

Tribal and kinship societies

Exogamy also plays a role in mitigating conflict: disputes over resources or territory between groups can be smoothed over through the exchange of women

“Me against my brother, me and my brother against my cousin, me and my cousin against the stranger.”

Traditional African leaders in tribal societies found their authority severely constrained by the checks and balances imposed by complex kinship systems.

Surviving groups of hunter-gatherers, like the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert or the Copper Eskimos in Canada, had rates of homicide four times that of the United States when left to their own devices.

The same is true of patronage politics in American cities, where political machines are built up on the basis of who scratches whose back and not some “modern” motivation like ideology or public policy. So the struggle to replace “tribal” politics with a more impersonal form of political relationships continues in the twenty-first century.

The transition from tribe to state involves huge losses in freedom and equality.

Early tribal societies start off relatively egalitarian, with various leveling mechanisms to prevent the emergence of sharp status differences. Then certain individuals begin to distinguish themselves in the hunt.

Because each varna and jati is itself differentiated into an elaborate system of status ranks, there are sharp restrictions on whom one can marry even within their confines. For example, Brahmins are divided between those who do not have to officiate at domestic rituals and those who do; those who officiate at funerals and those who do not. A Brahmin man of the first class would never marry a daughter of a Brahmin of the lowest class (that is, those officiating at funerals)

As men lost their primeval glory distinctions of class (varna) arose, and they entered into agreements one with another, accepting the institutions of private property and the family. With this theft, murder, adultery, and other crime began, and so the people met together and decided to appoint one man among them to maintain order in return for a share of the produce of their fields and herds. He was called “the Great Chosen One” (Mahasammata), and he received the title of raja because he pleased the people

But in some sense, it was the tyranny of cousins that allowed Indians to resist the tyranny of tyrants.

But, as we have seen, the tribal level of organization was displaced by state-level organization in China, India, and Europe because it could not achieve sustained collective action.

The implication is that any successful order needs to suppress the power of kinship through some mechanism that makes the guardians value their ties to the state over their love for their families.

European society was, in other words, individualistic at a very early point, in the sense that individuals and not their families or kin groups could make important decisions about marriage, property, and other personal issues. Individualism in the family is the foundation of all other individualisms.

Feudalism arose as an alternative to kinship.

Biology and society

The great anthropologist Franz Boas argued that human behavior was not rooted in biology but was socially constructed to the core.

Human beings agree to give up their natural liberty to do as they please in return for other people respecting their right to life.

Human beings are social by nature and do not have to make a self-interested decision to organize themselves into groups.

Human beings are not completely free to socially construct their own behavior. They have a shared biological nature. That nature is remarkably uniform throughout the world.

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.

The human instinct to follow rules is often based in the emotions rather than in reason.

It is important to resist the temptation to reduce human motivation to an economic desire for resources. Violence in human history has often been perpetrated

In the south also a son must marry outside the father’s lineage; however, he is not simply permitted but positively encouraged to marry his father’s sister’s daughter. (This practice is called cross-cousin marriage; parallel cousin marriages, or marrying one’s father’s brother’s daughter, are not permitted, since this violates the rule of clan exogamy. Men are also permitted to marry their eldest sister’s daughter, or their maternal uncle’s daughter.) In other words, southern Indian tribes, like many Arab ones, tend to keep marriages (and hence inheritances) within a very narrow circle of kin.

As a military fraternity with restricted access to women, homosexual advances by older Mamluks were a constant problem against which the eunuchs could act as a barrier.

The new tribes were not necessarily kinship based, but they reflected a deep-seated human urge to promote and protect the interests of descendants, friends, and clients against the requirements of an impersonal social system.

If given the choice between loyalty to the state and to one’s family, most people are driven biologically to the latter. The most direct way to reduce corruption was therefore to forbid officials to have families in the first place.

Populations can also respond to the declining availability of food not by dying off but by individuals becoming smaller in stature and therefore requiring fewer calories.13 Something like this appears to have happened in North Korea over the past generation in response to widespread famine.

The Ottoman empire

It suggests that Turkish rulers did not see their objectives as the narrow maximization of economic rents, but rather the maximization of overall power through a balance of power, resources, and legitimacy.

The Ottoman state thus created a one-generation aristocracy, preventing the emergence of a powerful landed aristocracy with its own resource base and inherited privileges.

The lack of a blood nobility allowed the sultan to pick his slaves and advance them according to their abilities.

The Ottomans improved on the Mamluk system by maintaining a strict distinction between the people recruited into the ruling institution as non-Muslim slaves — the askeri — and the rest of the empire’s Muslim and non-Muslim citizens, the reaya.

There is evidence to suggest that the Ottomans in their prime did not seek to extract taxes at the maximum rate but rather saw their role as preserving a certain basic level of taxation, while protecting the peasantry from exactions by other elites who were more likely to behave like organized criminals.

No one outside the Muslim world ever thought that it was legitimate to enslave and then elevate foreigners to high positions in government. The problem wasn’t slavery per se; this institution was considered legitimate in the West, as everyone knows, until well into the nineteenth century. What never occurred to any European or American was to turn their slaves into high government officials.

Machiavelli captures the essence of the Ottoman state: it was far more centralized and impersonally managed than France in the early sixteenth century, and in that way more modern.

And without autonomy, it was hard for the religious-legal establishment to act as a powerful check on the state. Since the religious establishment remained interpenetrated with the state, the state itself could not evolve as a separate secular institution.

The Ottoman constitution of 1877 reduced the sharia to one form of law among several, depriving it of its former role as the legitimating framework for political rule as a whole.

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