Americans take government for granted
Francis Fukuyama.
August 19th, 2011
04:57 PM ET

Americans take government for granted

Francis Fukuyama is a political scientist at Stanford University's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. He wrote the seminal essay The End of History and the Last Man and most recently published The Origins of Political Order.

Amar C. Bakshi: The Origins of Political Order is a magisterial book. What’s the main takeaway for Americans?

Francis Fukuyama: We who live in developed modern countries take government for granted. In fact, we as Americans, given our anti-statist political culture, think that the problem is always too much government.

We don’t appreciate the importance of having a functioning government and how difficult it was historically to create a society in which government existed.

By government I mean specifically three things: One is the state itself - that is to say an organization that can enforce laws throughout the land. The second component is rule of law that restricts that ability and makes sure that the state exercises its authority only according to mutually agreed upon rules. And the third is accountability, which we understand today as democracy - that the government ought to respond to the will of the people.

It’s a miracle that in the modern world you can have these very powerful states that have nuclear weapons and can launch wars and put people in jail and yet they’re constrained by these other institutions to act only in certain legitimate channels.

To get to that point is something that the vast majority of developing nations have not succeeded in doing.

Look at Mexico. Today, it is in many ways a successful country economically but they cannot enforce the law against drug cartels in modern cities like Monterrey.

So how do you get to that point?

That’s really the point of the book. The book actually begins with human beings’ primate ancestors. I think that really a lot of what we are as political creatures is actually determined by our biology. So that is really the foundation of any understanding of how we progress through tribal societies and that’s where the first states came from.

I was particularly interested not to make this a classic rise-of-the-West story because in my view the first world civilization that created a modern state – not a state, but a modern state – was actually China. It did this in the third century BC, 1800 years before it appeared in Europe. I think that’s also important in understanding present day China,India and so forth.

From your sweeping examination of state formation, do you draw lessons applicable to the current situation in Mexico? If you were to advise the President of Mexico, what would you say?

One of the things your realize when you look at these historical examples is the tragedy of human history. A lot of times you only create modern institutions under very dire incentives. One of the biggest is war.

The original Chinese state was created during a 500-year period of constant war between smaller Chinese entities that finally unified into a single Chinese Empire. But even in the history of the U.S., if you look at the growth of the centralized government in Washington, DC, it probably had less than 50,000 inhabitants before the Civil War. After the Civil war it had a couple hundred-thousand.
The two world wars in the 20th Century were important in developing a competent centralized state in the U.S.

So I’m not sure this leads to advice, because you do not want to tell a leader in a developing country that has got a weak state, “Well, just fight it out for the next 500 years like the Europeans and the Chinese….”

In the present day, money, resources and people move across international boundaries much more readily. So societies do have the prior experience of other people to look at.

When the Japanese modernized in the late nineteenth century, they actually first tried to copy the English and then the German constitutions and that was a key part of their own strategy for developing. I think that that ability to look at other models to try and pick and choose carefully those that fit your circumstances is about the best you can do.

What do you make of the European Union?

In my view, Europe is a very noble experiment but it has certain key design flaws. The one that has become evident with Greece and the other so-called PIGS –Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain– is that there was no mechanism for disciplining countries that got into the European Union.

There are plenty of criteria for how you get in, but if you get in and then you backslide - or if you get in as Greece did under false pretenses and basically lied about your national statistics - there is nothing that the rest of the EU could do other than bail you out once you got into trouble as all these other countries have now done.

I think the truth about political communities is that there has to be a strong sense of social solidarity underlying that political unit. That’s why nation states are patriotic and nationalistic and it makes people all pull on the same side.

Europe just does not have that emotional content. So when a German sees a Greek who is evading taxes, his or her first reaction is not “These are fellow Europeans and we’re all part of the same family and we’ve got to help them.” Their first reaction is “These shiftless Greeks aren’t enough like the Germans and why should we pay our valuable tax money to help them?”

That’s really the fundamental issue going on and that’s the reason why the Europeans keep delaying any kind of decisive action on their currency.

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Topics: Development • Ideas • United States

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soundoff (50 Responses)
  1. Onesmallvoice

    We would once again have good government only if we rid it of all these right-wing fanatics who are only too adamant on keeping us in all these worthless wars plus planning even news ones in the future. Not only that, they keep on increasing the unnessary military spending year after year while giving undeserved tax breaks to the already wealthy. Enough is enough!!!

    August 19, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Onesmallvoice, Obama's concept of a good government fits into the three criteria stated by Francis Fukuyama. Despite controversies in different policies he's not a right-wing thug. Fukuyama's right that wars very often help create new nations. The Westphalia Peace Treaty in 1648 after the Thirty Years War saw the evolution of the European states system, the one we have today. Now the Arab Spring puts many countries in the Middle East into test, whether Fukuyama's political order would be applicable or not.

      August 19, 2011 at 6:57 pm | Reply
      • Onesmallvoice

        Don't forget j. von hettlingen, that the 1648 Peace Treaty at Westphalia also helped to hinder the unification of Germany for over 100 years. In fact, today if Germany had the right leadership, it could do a great deal of good in this world. Sadly enough, that is not the case!!!

        August 19, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
    • Uderstanding the Problem

      You're saying that our current problems are due to right-wing. But, we heard that to prevent unemployment from exceeding 8% Obama needed us to give him $830 billion to invest in our country. Now it's "whoops, we underextimated..." We've heard "I have a plan..." [once someone else hands it to me]. And instead of a timely compromise, we've heard "Don't call my bluff, I'll take this to the American people."

      I'm not seeing any accountability here. I'm seeing attempts at leveraging mob rule.

      August 20, 2011 at 7:22 am | Reply
      • Mel

        This is one of the problems. Everyone wants to defend their own point of view and refuses to see the larger picture. Then they use extreme accusations like "fail in all three areas" when it is far from true. You would think we are Somalia or some place like that. Read more widely and stop believing talk radio.

        August 20, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • paul

      I'm not sure it would fix it, but it would go a long way. The thing is that there are some that profit by such behavior and are into control of others. Republicans, democrats and even teabaggers are just tools to these guys. American conservatism is just as bad as communism and capitalism because it embodies an extreme that excludes others. Radicalization of such movements is really bad for the whole. Evidence the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and the teabaggers. These people are so hell bent on their way to the exclusion of all that they are violent in nature. Government should be inclusive and non-religious. A fact that is lost to the GOP.

      August 20, 2011 at 8:22 am | Reply
      • Jim

        Please remind me when the tea-party did something violent? maybe I missed that on the news?

        August 20, 2011 at 9:11 am |
    • me

      Yes. If it was only the democrats running this country it wold be a utopia. Except for the fact that it wouldn't because then who would you blame everything on?

      August 20, 2011 at 9:11 am | Reply
    • realist88

      America wouldn't be what it is today without the Federalists and Anti-federalists who hated each other as much or more than Democrats and Republicans do today. Whether you like Republicans or not, they help create a balance in the government that wouldn't and couldn't exist without them. If Democrats were in complete control (or Republicans) we'd be in much BIGGER trouble than we are now.

      August 20, 2011 at 9:11 am | Reply
    • Dick Dover

      I thought Obooba was going to stop the wars, close GITMO, not politics as usual. Change we can believe in......on and on.......

      August 20, 2011 at 10:10 am | Reply
  2. p hendricks

    Accountability to the people is actually the weakest link of the 3 aspects mentioned, as today largely politicians are professional politicians instead of citizens performing a duty. Term limits may not be the magic bullet but may could help.

    August 19, 2011 at 5:21 pm | Reply
    • Pete

      We need to de-emphasize the importance of campaign fundraising and lobbyists – I think the only clear way to do that is to socialize the federal elections process – get your signatures, here's your website, FCC prescribed airtime, bus tour schedule, end of story. anything besides that is illegal. Only way I can think of to get the money out of the equation and make us less beholden to the fat cats, corporations and special interests.

      August 20, 2011 at 3:39 am | Reply
      • Uderstanding the Problem

        The McCain-Feingold act tried to do that. And in 2008 there were two candidates who both promised to just use public funding: McCain and Obama. However, Obama just said that until he defeated Hillary Clinton in the primaries. He then backout out of that promise when he saw that he could make more fundraising money than McCain.

        McCain was then hampered by the Election commission shortage of appointees (held up by Democratic Senators) to handle his requests for funding decisions.

        Who do you trust when promises and good intentions are so easily trampled by the money?

        August 20, 2011 at 7:30 am |
      • Mel

        Except that the Supreme Court just gave us the exact opposite when it comes to financing politics.

        August 20, 2011 at 9:48 am |
  3. Bob W in DC & Mexico

    Appears to be a balanced and right-minded author and a like presentation in his book. My kindle awaits the book.

    August 19, 2011 at 11:48 pm | Reply
  4. a slozomby

    "We don’t appreciate the importance of having a functioning government" we dont have a functioning government. we have a couple of 4 year olds fighting over a sandbox.

    August 20, 2011 at 4:26 am | Reply
    • Laney

      George Carlin comes to mind...

      August 20, 2011 at 8:02 am | Reply
  5. Jon

    The government does whatever it wants, even against the majority of the people that put them in office, pay their salary and try, try to believe what they tell us. We take them for granted? Other way around, you got too much college and not enough common sense. "Don't tell me it's raining when you're pizzing down my back".

    August 20, 2011 at 5:31 am | Reply
    • Mensaboy

      Right on target!

      August 20, 2011 at 9:10 am | Reply
    • Leslie20

      One of the biggest reasons that we have politicians like the ones you describe (playing the system), is that people came to take (relatively) functioning government for granted.

      September 3, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Reply
  6. Will 18E

    We take govt. for granted because they build nukes, instill fear for domestic party political gain power and control, and then do not launch them: 911? I truly understand his premiss but his example is bad. Yes Govt. thank you for not launching the nukes we did not ask you to build, whereby Govt. created a fiction, post WWII why we needed them. That resulted with hundreds of warheads pointed at us as a result, and trilions of dollors spent on them sicne 1948. Thank you.

    August 20, 2011 at 5:47 am | Reply
  7. j. von hettlingen

    @onesmallvoice, get your facts right! The German Nation of the Holy Roman Empire was made up of principalites of different sizes. This was regarded as the first German empire and lasted till the diissolution of the Empire in 1806. The unification of all these sovreignties was endorsed under the aegis of Otto von Bismarck and it led to the birth of the "Deutsches Reich" in 1871 with Kaiser Wilhelm I as the German emperor. This secon empire collapsed after World War I and the Germans saw decades of economic grievances and political instability until Hitler's coup d'etat, who was the founder of the "Third Reich". The rest is history.

    August 20, 2011 at 6:13 am | Reply
  8. Lola

    In other words, those who whine about government are too stupid to realize that the government keeps society stable. This especially applies to you, Jon @ 5:31 a.m. Americans are also too fat. Illiteracy and obesity: the real hallmarks of American capitalism. No wonder the rest of the world is privately wondering how it will carve up the US once it tumbles for good. You're all fools.

    August 20, 2011 at 6:22 am | Reply
    • TV

      Lola, think again... the rest of the world is getting fat and stupid too as they get "richer".

      August 20, 2011 at 8:00 am | Reply
  9. regertz

    Our problem is revenue. The poor and middle class can't pay more. The wealthy have been getting enormous breaks and shift of income their way and this is not healthy for the economy. The Bush tax cuts have to go and a new stimulus is needed. Rates on the top 10% need to go up, including on me.

    August 20, 2011 at 8:05 am | Reply
    • truthfulster

      I agree with your statement about increasing taxes on anyone EARNING more then 1 million a year. Anything below that is cutting off your nose to spite your face. Government CAN'T CREATE ENOUGH JOBS TO SATISFY THE NEED IN THIS COUNTRY. GM is back in the hole and Chrysler isn't doing much better, all the companies that received bailouts have their hands out again like a child looking for a quarter. Even the company that obuma had emphasized how well run and how it was the best running business is going belly up. This is what happens when government has NO IDEA of what it's doing.

      August 20, 2011 at 8:30 am | Reply
  10. truthfulster

    I think this professor is off base. I always took the talk and writing about the size of government not about it's physical size, number of buildings and people but by the influence it wields and tries to wield. By the number of new rules laws and regulations, more of those to me mean bigger government. Right now I am not oppressed but obama's health bill will be the beginning, never in the history of the United States have the people been forced (receiving fines or being accused of breaking the law) into buying anything that you didn't want or new you would use in the first place. This could lead to politicians from many states using this regulation in forcing the people into buying items or philosophies that they're totally against using. Then what, what happens when you feel oppressed and your forced into doing something you don't want to do (even a child does) YOU REBEL. So please don't try to play your brain games on me I know whats going on here and the end won't be pretty.

    August 20, 2011 at 8:07 am | Reply
    • skog

      I too am against the govt. forcing individuals to purchase items they do not want. However I am also against taxpayers having to fund those individuals health care. So no one has to purchase health care and if someone does not then if they are sick or injured they are responsible for thier own medical bills.

      August 20, 2011 at 8:20 am | Reply
    • KatR

      Right now I am not oppressed but obama's health bill will be the beginning, never in the history of the United States have the people been forced (receiving fines or being accused of breaking the law) into buying anything that you didn't want or new you would use in the first place.

      If you think you will never need medical care during the course of your life you are living in a dream world. It's people like you who raise health care costs for all of us. Who pays the bills when a drunk driver crashes into your car? If you have no insurance the answer to that question is the taxpayers. Under the new legislation the insurance company in the private sector picks up the tab. And there are no fines or accusations of breaking the law if you choose not to purchase insurance under this new legislation. But you will have to pay a little extra in taxes to cover the health care you need when that drunk driver careens into you.

      August 20, 2011 at 8:26 am | Reply
  11. Larry

    The author's three principles certainly define good government. The increasing furor in the USA is the government's increasing inability to perform and conduct itself according to any of the three. Each year, more and more people's direct experience with government, especially the Federal government, is frustrating, confrontational and oppressive. Accountability is virtually dead. Ask anyone interacting with Federal agencies. As far as number two, the state exercising power only to the extent of agreed upon rules, there is a huge problem. The people are not part of the rule making process due to the lack of any accountability. Rules are imposed arbitrarily often contrary to the law. The government is always right and ul;timately the only recourse is suing the government in order to exercise one's rights. Welcome to the overburdened and uneven judicial system and the burden of carrying an unresolved issue in your life for many years. Government is incapable of performing the most mundane ordinary tasks competently. Greater numbers find themselves serving the government and government imposing its will without accountability or recourse. That is the source of unrest.

    August 20, 2011 at 8:16 am | Reply
  12. common sense

    Revenue isn't the problem. It's the spending. It's decades and decades of bad decisions. And while term limits may not be the only part of an answer, they sure would help. Why else is the President's terms limited?

    August 20, 2011 at 8:27 am | Reply
    • Larry

      Term limits are always worth consideration but unlikely to make any difference whatsoever. The underlying bureaucrats survive elected representative turnover. Term limits may actually worsen the situation. The unelected actors hold nearly unlimited power. The appointed department heads are essentially temps. Unless bad actors and incompent performers can be disciplined, improvement is impossible. This permanent operating body controls day to day government function and scoff at efforts by elected representatives to hold them accountable. Citizens seeking assistance from representatives, assuming they get a response, usually encounter retribution acts by bureaucrats as a result.

      August 20, 2011 at 9:15 am | Reply
  13. Rin Tin Tin

    Please pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. When government is taken for granted you get places like Bell California where government's prime role was to enrich the government only. You get mandated health care that most do not want. In other words you get corruption. When people start to question the governments role they get branded as rebels just as Washington, Jefferson and our fore fathers did. Lets face it when government employee's average salaries are far more than the public average, well we got a problem as to who they are serving. Unfortunately as we see today in America they are mostly serving themselves.

    August 20, 2011 at 9:10 am | Reply
  14. jerrycc

    The reason I hate paying the govt 70000 a yr. is because most of it goes to people who have never paid a dime of income tax or worked a day in their lives. I deal with these people everyday. I can't believe we pay them to breed. If I became disabled which I am compared to 90% of the people who actually get disability, the govt wouldn't give me anything.

    August 20, 2011 at 9:11 am | Reply
    • ardale

      In a healthcare related business, Jerrycc?

      August 20, 2011 at 9:37 am | Reply
      • jerrycc

        Unfortunately veterinary medicine where the average practice owner doen't make a dime til Oct or Nov. due to all the taxes ,fees, regulations, and the tremendous cost of drugs and suppies.

        August 20, 2011 at 9:56 am |
  15. ardale

    Most statesmen and true patriots of the WWII generation recognized the need for a strong federal government. Consistent with that the anti-federal, arch conservative John Birch society used to be vilified in America. They were considered the right wing equivalent of the communist party. Even the republicans rejected them as dangerous ideologues that undermined a true and stable USA.. Now, the John Birch Society has been repackaged as the tea party. Its beliefs are still just as dangerous to a strong USA.

    August 20, 2011 at 9:23 am | Reply
  16. Diogenes3p0

    Enforce laws throughout the land? Hmm 17 million illegals, rampant Wall Street fraud and the bill on the taxpayers – FAIL. Enforce rules of law? Hmn see above – FAIL. Will of the PEOPLE? Hmm Obamacare, Bailouts, stagflation- FAIL. So the government is currently failing on all three

    August 20, 2011 at 9:33 am | Reply
  17. William

    I do not know how anyone can say what America wants. There are apparently clearly two Americas. One where the people expect to live off others and one where the people want to reach as far as they can to succeed. Obama plays class war fare with them to keep them hating each other. However what more and more Americans are seeing clearly is they want Obama out of office. Finally something most people agree on.

    August 20, 2011 at 10:05 am | Reply
    • Leslie20

      There may be said to be two classes of people in the world: those who constantly divide the people of the world into two classes, and those who do not.
      ─ Robert Benchley

      September 3, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Reply
  18. Tom

    We don't take them for granted, we take them for granite (between the ears, anyway).

    August 20, 2011 at 10:10 am | Reply
  19. Jimmy

    Just be glad you don't get all the Government you pay for – Will Rogers

    August 20, 2011 at 10:15 am | Reply
  20. Danny

    I disagree there is no mechanism for disciplining countries that get into the European Union. The riots in Greece seem to me the result of the discipline that the European Union is forcing on Greece.

    August 20, 2011 at 11:50 am | Reply
  21. a stupid congressman


    Congressional Reform Act of 2011

    1. No Tenure / No Pension.
    A Congressman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they are out of office.

    2. Congress (past, present & future) participates in Social Security.
    All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social Security system immediately. All future funds flow into the Social Security system, and Congress participates with the American people. It may not be used for any other purpose.

    3. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do.

    4. Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise. Congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3%.

    5. Congress loses their current health care system and participates in the same health care system as the American people.

    6. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people.

    7. All contracts with past and present Congressmen are void effective 1/1/12.
    The American people did not make this contract with Congressmen. Congressmen made all these contracts for themselves. Serving in Congress is an honor, not a career. The Founding Fathers envisioned citizen legislators, so ours should serve their term(s), then go home and back to work.

    If each person contacts a minimum of twenty people then it will only take three days for most people (in the U.S. ) to receive the message. Maybe it is time.

    August 20, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Reply
  22. slickteig

    We are indeed lucky to live in America with our government we take for granted and constantly criticize. I'd like the critics to live in other countries for a year and maybe they'd see how good they have it living in America, yes , even with all it's faults. We forget how we could not even breathe a whisper of criticism against many governments in a great part of the world for fear of jail or death. We Americans take much for granted and we're so spoiled that when things don't go our way, we blame 1 man , the President at any given time for everything. It's so much more complicated than one person having all that power, if he did have that much power we'd live under a dictator. America is like a family, we can hate it, find fault, but it is ours, so let's quit being so divided and work for all the common good of famliy and try to save our beautiful country. Where did the unification and patriotism go that we all felt after 9-11? We're back to self interests, whining, fighting and division among the family ( Congress, Rep vs Dems). With many at the top eschelon trying to regain the outrageously lucrative, hedonistic society we were intoxicated with in the late 1980s to 2008. How bout we come together and do better not just for the top,wealthy,powerful group but to help everyone? That would make a good America even better again. We are lucky but need to get on the right track soon....or our luck may run out. So glad to be free to say these things, we are indeed fortunate so far.

    August 22, 2011 at 12:26 am | Reply
  23. Paul

    Visit my blog for the analysis of Fukuyama's The end of History

    January 3, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Reply
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  25. maspedia

    great articel

    April 29, 2019 at 1:30 pm | Reply

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