An Evolutionary Theory of Political Development

The overall framework for understanding political development presented here bears many resemblances to biological evolution. Darwinian evolution is built around the two principles of variance and selection: organisms experience random genetic mutations, and those best adapted to their environments survive and multiply. So too in political development: there is variation in political institutions, and those best suited to the physical and social environment survive and proliferate. But there are also many important differences between biological and political evolution: human institutions are subject to deliberate design and choice, unlike genes; they are transmitted across time culturally rather than genetically; and they are invested with intrinsic value through a variety of psychological and social mechanisms, which makes them hard to change. The inherent conservatism of human institutions then explains why political development is frequently reversed by political decay, since there is often a substantial lag between changes in the external environment that should trigger institutional change, and the actual willingness of societies to make those changes.

In the end, however, this general framework amounts to something less than a predictive theory of political development. A parsimonious theory of political change, comparable to the theories of economic growth posited by economists, is in my view simply not possible. The factors driving the development of any given political institution are multiple, complex, and often dependent on accidental or contingent events. Any causal factors one adduces for a given development are themselves caused by prior conditions that extend backward in time in an endless regression.

That’s Francis Fukuyama on pages 22-23 in Part I of his magnum opus in progress, The Origins of Political Order. As a framework for thinking about the process of political development over the long haul, I think this passage gets a lot of things right. It contrasts sharply with teleological approaches, including modernization theory and Marxism, which assume political development has a specific destination. Modernization theory in particular seems to help explain a broad trend toward representative government over the past half-century, but it does a poor job of explaining divergences or digressions from that trend, and it tells us nothing about previous and future epochs in political development. Fukuyama’s framework also contrasts with simple functionalist theories, which imply that institutions are tidy solutions to specific political or economic problems. As Fukuyama notes (p. 9), “There is no automatic mechanism by which political systems adjust themselves to changing circumstances.”

Last but not least, I think Fukuyama is on to something fundamental when he talks about the ways that specific aspects of human nature and culture combine with accidents of history to produce distinct trajectories in the process of institutional change. As he says in the book’s Preface (p. x),

Countries are not trapped by their pasts. But in many cases, things that happened hundreds or even thousands of years ago continue to exert a major influence on the nature of politics. If we are seeking to understand the functioning of contemporary institutions, it is necessary to look at their origins and the often accidental and contingent factors that brought them into being.

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  1. In his second book, “Lila,” author Robert Pirsig (better known for his now classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”) offers his own discussion of evolution based on the interplay of “Static” and “Dynamic” “Quality”. He explains a process of “latching” where there is an underlying structure, or expression of “static quality” upon which there is a play of “Dynamic Quality”, or variations. These variations may reach a new, “higher” state, but they, may just as easily collapse back down to the most recent “static” level. In order for a “higher” or more advanced state to be maintained, there has to be a new “latch” onto some other “static structure”.

    In my last paper for college, for my last class, An Introduction to Constitutional Law, I proposed that rather than the Constitution being an underlying “static structure” in our society, it is actually more the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights is what supports the free and dynamic activity of human beings in this society, and it is that opportunity for Dynamic Activity that has (at least in part, but also given all of the natural resources we had a to exploit) allowed for us to be as innovative as we have been. The Constitution, on the other hand, works more like a static “cap” in (supposedly) placing limits on government, but also limits in general on how power is used in the society.

    Unfortunately, if Basic Human Rights are undermined, if that “static underlying structure” is undermined, then the social order could collapse back to its most previous “static structure” which was based on authoritarian rule or tyranny.

    Therefore, the key to maintaining the social progress we have made is to make sure basic human rights are not violated. It may be that the Constitution has lost its effectiveness to control the use or accumulation of power in this country, and that human rights have been violated in spite of its attempts to protect them. But since it really isn’t the “static structure” UNDERLYING our current culture, instead it is the agreement that human rights are real, and “inalienable”, that underlies our culture, we can always, dynamically, come up with new ways of better protecting those rights, i.e. a new or different Constitution, or completely different approaches to social organization.

    As long as we all recognize the social/ “structural agreement” regarding Basic Human Rights, and even work to reinforce that even more, then we will be okay. However, should that crumble, I fear, we will be back to the Dark Ages! : (

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  1. Complexity Politics: Some Preliminary Ideas « Dart-Throwing Chimp

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