Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order


Jason Collins


November 19, 2011

I have finally finished reading Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, several months after my initial comments.

Of the grand history books I have read this year (the others being Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules for Now and Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest), I found Fukuyama’s to be the most convincing. The focus on self-interest as a motivating factor of the individual actor, which is in turn underpinned by biological considerations, creates a more plausible story than one which talks of nations as actors. A nation acts subject to the motivations of its parts.

Many of Fukuyama’s explanations might be considered to be just-so stories, and they might be wrong, but they feel as though they have a plausible foundation. In describing historical events with an effective sample size of one, it is hard to do better.

In the closing chapters, Fukuyama states his four biological factors that underlie the origins of political order. These are:

I noted some of Fukuyama’s more interesting statements on the first two factors in a earlier post, but his observations on the last two are also interesting. On the third, Fukuyama states:

Rules can be rationally derived by individuals calculating how to maximize their own self-interest, which requires that they enter into social contracts with other individuals. Human beings are born with a suite of cognitive faculties that allow them to solve prisoner’s-dilemma-type problems of social cooperation. … The ability to make and obey rules is an economizing behavior in the sense that it greatly reduces the transaction costs of social interaction and permits effective collective action. …

The propensity of human beings to endow rules with intrinsic value helps to explain the enormous conservatism of societies. Rules may evolve as useful adaptations to a particular set of environmental conditions, but societies cling to them long after those conditions have changed and the rules have become irrelevant or even dysfunctional.

On the propensity for violence, he writes:

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 by people seeking not material wealth but recognition. Conflicts are carried on long beyond the point when they make economic sense.