In his new book The Origins of Political Order,Francis Fukuyama tackles the history of the idea and its reality “from prehuman times to the French Revolution.” Fukuyama works under the contemporary name of political science, but he is really one of the few people we have today intellectually able to go beyond the narrow confines of academic specialization and to give us the sort of philosophically-informed and empirically-informed broad vision comparable to that of the classical modern political philosophers, e.g., the grand ambitions we find in Adam Smith‘s Wealth of Nations, David Hume‘s 6-volume History of England (“From the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in 1688”), and Hegel’s History of Philosophy.
In PEL Episode 40 on Plato’s Republic, the guys discussed Plato’s questions “what is justice?” and “what is the ideal type of government?” as explored in that book. At 334b in the text, Polemarchus continues to insist against Socrates: “But I still say justice is helping friends and harming enemies.” This presses the question whether justice is only ‘subjective’, since from an individual point of view, as Polemarchus expresses it, it always seems just to help my friends (and expect that they will help me in return). This of course leads directly to the sort of skepticism we find common all around us today at the question of whether you can trust a politician to do the right thing after we vote him into the government.
Fukuyama sees this as the pivotal, recurring conflict that has been faced in the history of struggle toward establishing an impersonal rule of law: individual men always seem inclined to favor friends and family. And yet, somehow, there has been some success in the world at establishing the ideal, if not its perfect implementation. The ideal of the rule of law could be called an expression of objective reason on the best system for all beyond myself, not just for ‘me’ and my own individual desires at this temporal moment. But Fukuyama’s book is not based on a purely philosophical investigation, he appeals to recent empirical findings in the life sciences on genetics.
The empirically informed foundational principals of Fukuyama’s study are (1) humans are by nature biologically social creatures before we become capable of modern individuality and (2) our shared biological nature includes a genetic basis for generating and following rules. Thus, the modern liberal democratic values that characterize us in the West were not a predetermined outcome of nature, but do have a genetic basis in a shared capacity for rule-genesis.
A notable point Fukuyama makes refers to a recent hot topic on the new atheism. Fukuyama holds, against the new atheists, that the historical development of “transcendental” religion in the West was crucial to strengthening the concept of a rule of law held to be above manipulation for individual ends. This is not to say that other cultures or civilizations, without transcendental religions, did not contribute to the idea of a rule of law. Fukuyama spends a lot of ink on early China, crediting them for inventing the first civil service exam designed to weed out those unsuited or unable to carry out a duty to public over private interests.
– Tom McDonald