A few days after September 11, 2001, people started making fun of Francis Fukuyama. They claimed his book — The End of History and the Last Man — was wrong. The book’s thesis had been toppled with the towers, they said. But have recent events in Egypt, Tunisia and Iran partially vindicated Fukuyama?
Prior to 9/11, one would have thought that Fukuyama was some kind of oracle. His book had predicted “the end of history.” Crudely summarized, the idea went something like this:
1.) People have a deep urge for some sort of dignity and recognition (the “thymic urge”).
2.) Post-Cold War liberal democracies do the best job of giving people the dignity and recognition they seek, because these forms tend to offer pluralism, freedom and self-determination.
3.) Popular uprisings will continue to move in the direction of liberal democracy in a kind of historical inevitability.
One can see why Fukuyama was tempted by this bold thesis. He had just witnessed the cascade of collapses in the Soviet Union and Balkan states. The empirical evidence was difficult to deny and it pointed to an undeniable trend. That is, until the Black Swan events of that clear September day.
Islamic terrorism seemed to prove Fukuyama wrong — at least points 2 and 3. Indeed, it was not altogether clear that popular Islamic-world sentiment was against the acts: Liberal democracies were decadent; America was too powerful; We hate being considered barbarians were the popular memes in the Muslim world. Suddenly “the clash of civilizations” was the lens through which many saw the world. Samuel Huntington’s star was suddenly burning bright.
The War on Terror seemed to exacerbate things for a time as Muslim populations came to feel more threatened and marginalized by global U.S. anti-terror adventures. Ironically, this made Fukuyama correct on point 1 — i.e. that people want dignity and recognition — but it seemed, in the Middle East, that they were turning away from liberal democracy in order to indulge the thymic urge. Islamic terrorism was a counterexample to the end of history. In many ways, it still is. But what about Tunisia? Egypt? And now Iran?
Democracy and Dominoes
It’s too early to tell whether the domino effect of Tunisia, Egypt and Iran will continue — and will result in anything close to liberal institutions. But there are some positive signs. If even two out of these three states develop into anything close to democracies within the next decade, people will have to admit that Fukuyama was at least partially right. Then again, these countries may fall to Islamism, even though that doesn’t seem to be the zeitgeist in these demonstrations.
Still, people are right to be suspicious of any sort of historical determinism. The world is a complicated place filled with complicated cultures filled with complicated people filled with complicated genes. Any attempt to limn some sort of overarching narrative of the future is probably unwise. Things develop in fits and starts. Progress is wacky. There are pendulum swings, outliers and patchwork states which make geopolitical prediction about as reliable as macroeconomic prediction.
Consider that the wealthiest, most powerful nation on earth is rolling back its liberal institutions in a way that also seems inevitable. The second-most powerful and wealthy nation, China, has moved from communism to a bizarre, more entrenched form of state capitalism. China’s democracy-free system is a curious hybrid of economic fascism and free markets — all of which seems to still be feeding a lingering collectivist national identity. In Africa, states like Rwanda are getting freer. States like Togo and Zimbabwe are not. Africa, on a whole, seems to be perpetually mired in third-world status, despite some marginal gains in prosperity and living standards. Is there anything predictable in all of this?
To ascribe historical inevitability to any one form of government is not realistic. The truth is we simply don’t know what will happen. There are clear patterns we can point to — even as these patterns work at odds with each other.
Consider that, while a people’s desires for dignity and recognition are largely satisfied when states become liberal democracies, the problems predicted by public choice economics also run deep. That’s because the venal urge can be just as strong as the thymic urge — and both forces are at work. Corruption and predatory statism are the rule in the world; not the exception.
That probably all sounds a little wonky, if not a little sad. But here’s another crude three-point thesis to think about, one which explains how corruption starts in liberal democracies:
1.) Special interests are powerful groups that are able to distort laws to steer transfers of wealth into their coffers. This happens through regulation, subsidies and other favors.
2.) People have little information or incentive to stop these laws, because it is more difficult for whole populations to organize around obscure, individual bills or laws.
3.) These obscure individual laws add up. Special interests become more and more powerful — bidding to direct the politicians for this or that favor until government power and corporate power becomes blurred. The rule of law is lost.
Welcome to 21st-century America. This process, which Jonathan Rauch calls demosclerosis, is inevitable if the rule of law and constitutional constraints on government power are not strictly observed.
So even as oppressed people move towards freedom, free people are being moved — unwittingly — towards oppression by the corporatist state. The only way to stop this process is to limit government. And on this, I think Francis Fukuyama would agree.
Max Borders is a writer living in Austin. He blogs at Ideas Matter.