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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