I finally read two books that were on my agenda for a long time: Francis Fukuyama’s 2010 history book The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution and Jimmy Carter’s personal memoir Faith: A Journey for All. Reading these books took way longer than it should have, due to a research deadline. Fortunately, that’s in the past and I have pleasantly gotten back to reading too many books and spending too much time blogging.
Before proceeding, here’s a little background on Francis Fukuyama. It is actually tricky to succinctly describe his career. I view him a political scientist and author, but he has additionally been a professor, a senior fellow, a council member, and probably ten other things, at a variety of universities and think tanks related to the development of democracies. His most well-known work is the 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, where he argues that liberal democracy represents the final, evolved form of government.1 Some events since the 1992 book — off the top of my head, 9/11, Radical Islam and ISIS, political populism, the rise of unaccountable and authoritarian governments in Russia and China — have made Fukuyama a frequent punching bag by various commentators. For one perspective, check out this recent New Yorker article for some background (and unsurprisingly, criticism) on Fukuyama, though that piece is mostly about Fukuyama’s 2018 book on identity politics and doesn’t make much reference to the book I will soon discuss on political development.
Fukuyama is also associated with the rise of neoconservatism, to which he distanced himself from due to the Iraq war. How do we know? He literally says so in a Quora answer.2 Ah, the wonders of the modern world and those “verified accounts” we see on Quora, Twitter, and other social media outlets!
Meanwhile, the second author whose book I will soon discuss, Jimmy Carter, needs no introduction. He served as the 39th President of the United States from 1977 to 1981.
You might be wondering why I am discussing their books in the same blog post. The books are different:
Fukuyama’s book is dense and scholarly, a 500-page historical account spanning from — as the subtitle makes clear — prehuman times to the French Revolution (1789-ish). The Origins of Political Order includes historical commentary on a variety of European countries, along with China, India, and the occasional detour into the Middle East, Latin America, and other areas. It frequently references other scholarly works that Fukuyama must have reviewed and digested in his long career.
Carter’s book, in contrast, is a brief personal memoir, and weighs in at around 160 pages. It describes his view of religion and how it has shaped his life, from his youth to his Navy service, to his time as president, and beyond.3
Yet, they have an interesting common theme.
First, consider The Origins of Political Order. It is a book describing how humans came to organize themselves politically, from forming small tribes and then later creating larger kingdoms and states. Fukuyama repeatedly refers to the following three political institutions:
- The State: government itself, which in particular, needs to consolidate and control power.
- Rule of Law: effective legal institutions that constrain what all people (most importantly, leaders!) can and cannot do.
- Accountable Government: having democratic elections to ensure leaders can be voted out of office.
He argues that successful, modern, liberal democracies (the kind of states I want to live in) combine these three institutions in an appropriate balance, which itself is an enormously challenging task. In particular, the pursuit of a strong state seems to be at odds with rulers and elected leaders being bound by a rule of law and accountable government.4
The Origins of Political Order attempts to outline the history, development, and evolution5 of these three institutions, focusing on factors that result in their formation (or decay). It does not attempt to describe a general “rule” or a set of instructions for the oft-used “Getting to Denmark” goal. Fukuyama believes that it is futile to develop clear theories or rules due to the multitude of factors involved.
If there is any “clear rule” that I learned from the book, it is that political decay, or the weakening of these institutions, is a constant threat to be addressed. Fukuyama invokes patrimonialism, the tendency for people to favor family and friends, as the prime factor causing political decay. He makes a strong case. Patrimonialism is natural, but doing so can lead to weaker governments as compared to those using more merit-based, impersonal systems to judge people. China, Fukuyama argues, was a pioneer in applying merit-based rules for civil service employees. Indeed, Fukuyama refers to China (and not Greece or Rome) as having built the first modern state.
The book was a deep dive into some long-term historical trends — the kind that I like to read, even if it was a struggle for me to weave together the facts. (I had to re-read many parts, and was constantly jotting down notes with my pencil in the book margins.) I was pleasantly reminded of Guns, Germs, and Steel along with The Ideas that Conquered the World, both of which I greatly enjoyed reading three years ago. I would later comment on them in a blog post.
I hope that Fukuyama’s insights can be used to create better governments throughout the world, and can additionally lead to the conclusion he sought when writing The End of History and the Last Man. Is Fukuyama right about liberal democracy being the final form of government? I will let the coming years answer that.
Do I hope Fukuyama turns out to be right all along, and vindicated by future scholars? Good heavens. By God, yes, I hope so.
Now let’s return to something I was not expecting in Fukuyama’s book: religion. (My diction in the prior paragraph was not a coincidence.) Fukuyama discusses how religion was essential for state formation by banding people together and facilitating “large-scale collective action”. To be clear, nothing in Fukuyama’s book is designed to counter the chief claims of the “new Atheist” authors he references; Fukuyama simply mentions that religion was historically a source of cohesion and unity.6
The discussion about religion brings us to Carter’s book.
In Faith, Carter explains that acquiring faith is rarely clear-cut. He does not attribute a singular event which caused him to be deeply faithful, as I have seen others do. Carter lists several deeply religious people who he had the privilege to meet, such as Bill Foege, Ugandan missionaries, and his brother. Much of Carter’s knowledge of Christianity derives from these and other religious figures, along with his preparation for when he teaches at Sunday School, which he still admirably continues to do so at 94.
Carter, additionally, explains how his faith has influenced his career as a politician and beyond. The main takeaways are that faith has: (1) provided stability to Carter’s life, and (2) driven him to change the world for the better.
Some questions that I had while reading were:
How do members of the same religion come to intensely disagree on certain political topics? Do disagreements arise from reading different Biblical sources or studying under different priests and pastors? Or are people simply misunderstanding the same text, just as students nowadays might misunderstand the same mathematics or science text?
Here are some examples. In Chapter 2, Carter mentions he was criticized by conservative Christians for appointing women and racial minorities to positions in government — where do such disagreements come from? Later, in Chapter 5, Carter rightfully admonishes male chauvinists who tout the Bible’s passage that says “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands, as you do to the Lord” because Carter claims that the Bible later says that both genders must commit to each other equally. But where do these male chauvinists come from? In Chapter 6, Carter mentions his opposition to the death penalty and opposition to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Again, why are these straightforward-to-describe issues so bitterly contested?
Or do differences in beliefs come outside of religion, such as from “Enlightenment thinking”?
What does Carter believe we should do in light of “religious fundamentalism”? As Carter says in Chapter 2, this is when certain deeply religious people believe they are superior to others, particularly those outside the faith or viewed as insufficiently faithful. Moreover, what are the appropriate responses for when these people have political power and invoke their religious beliefs when creating and/or applying controversial laws?
What about the ages-old question of science versus religion? In Chapter 5, Carter states that scientific discoveries about the universe do not contradict his belief in a higher being, and serve to “strengthen the reverence and awe generated by what has already become known and what remains unexplained.” But, does this mean we should attribute all events that we can’t explain with science by defaulting to God and intelligent design? In addition, this also raises the question as to whether God currently exists, or whether God simply created the universe by gestating the Big Bang but then took his (or her??) hands permanently off the controls to see — but not influence — what would happen. This matters in the context of politicians who justify God for their political decisions. See my previous point.
Despite my frequent questions, it was insightful to understand his perspective on religion. Admittedly, I don’t think it would be fair to expect firm answers to any of my questions.
I am a non-religious atheist,7 and in all likelihood that will last for the remainder of my life, unless (as I mentioned at the bottom of this earlier blog post), I observe evidence that a God currently exists. Until then, it will be hard for me to spend my limited time reading the Bible or engaging in other religious activities when I have so many competing attentions — first among them, developing a general-purpose robot.
I will continue reading more books like Carter’s Faith (and Fukuyama’s book for that matter) because I believe it’s important to understand a variety of perspectives, and reading books lets me scratch the surface of deep subjects. This is the most time-efficient way for me to obtain a nontrivial understanding of a vast number of subjects.
On a final note, it was a pleasant surprise when Carter reveals in his book that people of a variety of different faiths, including potentially atheists, have attended his Sunday School classes. If the opportunity arises, I probably would, if only to get the chance to meet him. Or perhaps I could meet Carter if I get on a commercial airplane that he’s flying on. I would like to meet people like him, and to imagine myself changing the world as much as he has.
Since I currently have no political power, my ability to create a positive impact on the world is probably predicated in my technical knowledge. Quixotic though it may sound, I hope to use computer science and robotics to change the world for the better. If you have thoughts on how to do this, feel free to contact me.
I have not read The End of History and the Last Man. Needless to say, that book is high on my reading agenda. Incidentally, it seems that a number of people knowledgeable about history and foreign affairs are aware of the book, but have not actually read it. I am doing my best to leave this group. ↩
Let’s be honest: leaving the neoconservatism movement due to the Iraq war was the right decision. ↩
Carter has the longest post-presidency lifespan of any US president in history. ↩
There are obvious parallels in the “balance” of political institutions sought out by Fukuyama, and the “checks and balances” designed by the framers of the American Constitution. ↩
My word choice of “evolution” here is deliberate. Fukuyama occasionally makes references to Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution, and its parallels in the development of political institutions. ↩
I do not think it is fair to criticize the New Atheist claim that “religion is a source of violence”. I would be shocked if Dawkins, Harris, and similar people, believe that religion had no benefits early on during state formation. It is more during the present day when we already have well-formed states that such atheists point out the divisiveness that religion creates. ↩
In addition, I am also an ardent defender of free religion. ↩