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Francis Fukuyama Explains It All
Francis End of History Fukuyama has a big book coming out intended to compete with Guns, Germs, and Steel in the Big Picture history category. Nicholas Wade writes in the New York Times about Fukuyama's attempts to merge political science and sociobiology:
"We take institutions for granted but in fact have no idea where they come from," he writes. Institutions are the rules that coordinate social behavior. Just as tribes are based on the deep-seated human instinct of looking out for one's family and relatives, states depend on the human propensity to create and follow social rules.
Dr. Fukuyama emphasizes the role of China because it was the first state. The Qin dynasty, founded in 221 B.C., prevailed over tribalism, the default condition of large societies, by developing an official class loyal to the state rather than to family and kin.
What about Egypt 2500 years earlier?
Tribalism did not disappear in Europe until a thousand years later. It yielded first to feudalism, an institution in which peasants bound themselves to a lord's service in return for his protection. So when kings emerged, they seldom acquired absolute power, as did rulers in China, because they had to share power with feudal lords.
Another impediment to absolute rule in Europe, in Dr. Fukuyama's telling, was that the concept of the rule of law emerged very early, largely because of the church's development of canon law in the 11th century. So when strong rulers started to build states, they had to take account of the emerging codes of civil law.
Europeans then developed the unusual idea that it was the law that should be absolute, not the ruler. In pursuit of this principle, the English Parliament executed one king, Charles I, and deposed another, James II. This proved a durable solution to the problem of building a strong state, yet one in which the ruler was held accountable.
That seems a little backwards. My impression is that the notion of the rule of law grew out of the northern European emphasis that bargains should be upheld on both sides. Medieval Europe was a chaos of overlapping bargains going back to time immemorial. Absolutism in Baroque Europe was largely an attempt to modernize, to rationalize the clutter of legalistic medieval institutions.
Other European countries developed institutions similar to those in England but failed to achieve a sustainable balance of power between the ruler and the elites. In France, the nobility rebuffed the state's efforts to tax them, so the burden fell increasingly on the peasantry until it became intolerable, leading to the French Revolution. In Hungary, the elites were so powerful that they denied the king the authority to devise an adequate defense. The Hungarian Army was annihilated by the Mongols at the battle of Mohi in 1241 and again by the Ottoman Turks at the battle of Mohacs in 1526.
Of the European powers, only England and Denmark, in Dr. Fukuyama's view, developed the three essential institutions of a strong state, the rule of law, and mechanisms to hold the ruler accountable. This successful formula then became adopted by other European states, through a kind of natural selection that favored the most successful variation.
I'd probably lean toward Shakespeare's "sceptred isle" theory that "island privilege" gave the English a margin for error and for, well, niceness:
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war
Paul Johnson argued in The Off-Shore Islanders:
Isolation ... is the most consistent single thread running through the tapestry of English history. ... It does not preclude contacts, exchanges, cooperation: but it inhibits the systematic involvement with the land-mass which diminishes, and in the end destroys, the island privilege.
Though institutions are the basis of the modern state, the instinct to favor family never disappears and will reassert itself whenever possible. To create a loyal administrative class, Dr. Fukuyama said, some states took the extreme measure of destroying the family, in a variety of original ways.
The Chinese emperors instituted a special cadre of eunuchs who had no family but the state, and came to be trusted more than the regular administrators. Pope Gregory VII in the 11th century imposed celibacy on Catholic priests, forcing them to choose between the church and the family.
Islamic rulers created a class free of family ties with the remarkable institution of slave soldiers. Young boys would be taken from mostly Christian families, often in the Balkans, raised as Muslims and as slaves, and trained as soldiers. The system, despite its oddity, was highly effective. The Mamluks, one of several versions of these military slaves, defeated the Mongols and ousted the Crusaders. The institution decayed from the very danger it was designed to prevent: weak sultans allowed the soldiers' sons to succeed their fathers in office, whereupon the soldiers' loyalty reverted to their families instead of the state.
I don't think this kind of cultural and/or evolution is quite done with. The Obama Administration, for example, seems rather worried that the U.S. military has become increasingly run by a semi-hereditary caste of officers' families.