I’ve written about Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man before, but to be explicit about it, I accept the general strain of political philosophy which says that people seek universal individual recognition and dignity and prefer to have that recognition and dignity conferred by a mutual voluntary social contract between fellow citizens, secured by a government with robust but clearly circumscribed powers of enforcement according to the rule of law. And not only do people prefer this socio-political arrangement—liberal democracy undergirded by economic rationalism—but it is in fact the only arrangement that satisfies the dual human demands for individual recognition and material well-being. Further, there is a soft historical teleology at work in which the world’s nation-states are homogenizing around these ideas and their concomitant political and economic institutions. Alternative systems and ideologies throughout history purporting to be competitors of the liberal democratic model have proven undurable, unstable, inefficient, and in general fundamentally flawed in some fatal way, even as they were able to endure for a very long time, and indeed still do endure. Despite the apparent resilience of alternative systems, capitalistic liberal democracy remains the strongest, most appealing, and most complete form of social organization and represents the historical culmination of the process of human political evolution: the "end of history."
This is Fukumaya’s basic thesis. It is quite a claim, I know. The ideas of course did not originate with him, but he’s probably their most cogent and well-known modern explicator. Versions of these ideas about recognition and dignity and political and economic liberty are ubiquitous in our national civic discourse. They animated the U.S. civil rights movement, were suffused into fifty years of Cold War rhetoric, were the impulse behind George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda, the philosophical foundation of liberal interventionist arguments about Iraq or Bosnia, and the reason for the ascendancy and legitimacy of the global human rights movement.
The near-evangelical zeal with which advocates have imbibed this premise is explained in part by this chart from Freedom House, showing country rankings of freedom over time. (The most recent Freedom House "Map of Freedom" is here.)
If you imagine the chart starting in 1800 the trend is even more dramatic. (And some of the countries listed here as "Partly Free" may still qualify as liberal-democratic-capitalist if defined generally enough.)
Perhaps none of this is very controversial so far. The controversial part comes when advocates and governments assert that since these values have universal appeal, they will necessarily flourish anywhere in the world if we only remove what seems to be the one or two main impediments.
In the journal The National Interest—interestingly enough where Fukuyama’s original essay that inspired his book appeared in 1989—there is a good essay-review by John Gray that attempts to undermine the entire historical and philosophical foundation of the universality of human rights, and the belief in the inevitability of their worldwide appeal and eventual triumph.
Gray spends much time arguing that the conception of universal human rights is a thoroughly modern invention. "The belief that rights are fundamental in political ethics is a late twentieth-century fancy," and largely emanate from Harvard philospher John Rawls and his 1971 book A Theory of Justice. This sounds fishy to me. Surely the modern iteration of the global human rights movement is, well, modern; but the very idea that rights are fundamental in political ethics? Gray dismisses John Locke by arguing that Locke derived his conception of rights from natural law, and (so his argument goes) since natural law is mandated from God, the rights so derived are less legitimate. This is a weak distinction, especially in light of Locke’s influence on Paine, Madison, and Jefferson, none of whom Gray even mentions, and all of whom made vast contributions to the "centrality of rights in political ethics," and all of whom had conceptions of natural rights apart from inerrant divine mandate (yes, even though some gave rhetorical deistic nods to the "creator.")
Gray also argues that proponents of universal rights make the mistake of neglecting the essential role of the state in guaranteeing such rights, and so tend to ignore or discount the importance of strong state institutions in securing an environment in which rights can flourish. Gray doesn’t go so far as to say that rights don’t exist unless there is a state to recognize and enforce them. But he says, "without the state they [count] for nothing."
I’m not sure what sort of metaphysical claim Gray is making here. If he concedes that rights "might in some sense exist prior to the state" then how could they count for nothing? Surely Gray agrees that rights being respected is better than rights being denied. So I say that working to legitimize and codify the respecting of rights is noble and essential work. A polity that believes in the a priori legitimacy of their rights-claims, and the inherent injustice of their denial, may just want to work toward a social contract which builds more effective state institutions and better enshrines their claims in the rule of law. Why is that dangerously utopian? And why ought we not support it? Look at Freedom House’s map again.
But to be fair Gray’s problem isn’t with those who want to strengthen democratic institutions, it’s with those who think removal of tyrants is a synonym for freedom:
If rights are what humans possess in the absence of a repressive regime, all that needs to be done to secure human rights is to remove the despot in question. But if rights are empty without the state to protect them, then the nature of the government that can be reasonably expected to emerge when tyranny has been overthrown becomes of crucial importance.
I don’t know who disagrees with the idea that rights can only be secured by an effective state. Societies organized by sub-rational associations of tribe or sect or religion, and animated by ethnic chauvinism or nepotism or aristocracy or the subjugation of women or minorities, are indeed not fruitful environments for human flourishing. Fukuyama argues that there is a historical mechanism at work in which that simple idea is gaining increasing legitimacy, and being enacted in practice, the world over.
At length Gray discusses Iraq and Afghanistan as places not prone to transformation into rights-respecting societies. If his argument is that the United States has a deeply circumscribed ability to spread human rights by military force, then sure, I agree. But he also villifies the notion that we should be vigorously engaged in legitimizing the repecting of individual rights claims, and delegitimizing the systematic denial of such rights. This I see as the real value in the human rights "movement," yet it’s what Gray believes is dangerously utopian:
A project is utopian when it can be known in advance that its central objectives cannot be realized. This may be because these aims are impossible in any human society, or because they cannot be achieved in particular communities in any future that can reasonably be anticipated. […]
If securing rights presupposes an effective state, as early modern thinkers acknowledged and contemporary liberals have forgotten, the human-rights agenda is plainly utopian in much of the world. Many of the nearly two hundred actually existing sovereign states are collapsed, corroded, criminalized or weak. Incapable of maintaining a rudimentary peace, the task of sustaining a government, let alone rights, is beyond their competence.
True, liberal democracy in Somalia cannot be reasonably anticipated any time soon, or in the next lifetime or two or three. But there is an essentialism in Gray’s outlook that is troubling. The same arguments about "particular communities" were variously trotted out to warn against the possibility of democratic transformation in East Asia, in Africa, in Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East. Yet none of these regions or peoples have been untouched by the appeal of the liberal democratic model and the basic freedoms it enshrines.
As I said at the start, no one argues that alternative systems cannot and do not endure, or that failed or "corroded" states exist and will remain immune to democratic institution-building for a long time. But why do we, along with the vast majority of mankind, regard such alternative systems as axiomatically inferior? First, because obviously results matter, and the discrepancy in results is profound. But it’s also due to the mysterious process by which certain societal norms are legitimized and delegitimized over time. The ideal of universal natural rights is in part responsible for the evanescence of a world in which young ambitious nobles were expected to add to their holdings through conquest, or could claim power by the divine right of kings. Such norms are delegitimized through an inscrutable and gradual process of advocacy and rationalization. (Bad norms can be inculcated in the same way of course.)
As I’ve written before, a clue to the universal appeal of liberal democratic principles is the extent to which even the world’s most decrepit tyrannies adopt the rhetoric and institutional forms and practices of liberal democracy:
Everyone has a parliament and an austere parliamentary building, hollow though it may be behind the facade. Everyone allows its citizens to queue up from time to time and put ballots into ballot boxes, even if election outcomes are never in doubt. Everyone has a nominally independent judiciary, even if in practice it is a mere puppet of the executive. Everyone has language that inhibits the behavior of police and security forces, though in practice capricious law prevails.
Even North Korea has a constitution that appears to guarantee all sorts of rights of free speech and assembly and media. What I mean is that, with very few (but very notable) exceptions, all nominally alternative systems feel the need to legitimize their power through the language and form of liberal democracy, and they recognize the primacy of civic rights as something they ought to be for, have to be for, even if in practice they continue to deny them.
I don’t want to seem overly optimistic about the pace of liberal democratic transformation or its amenability in the remaining hard places of the world. Authoritarians everywhere are very adept at perpetuating their power by wielding a brutal internal security apparatus and by co-opting the opposition. They also systematize and institutionalize their rule in ingenious ways.
Take Egypt. There is a piece in Slate on how the Mubarak regime, in the midst of an ongoing succession crisis, has tried to ensure the continuing support of the country’s powerful military by giving it a massive economic stake in the status quo. It’s estimated that the defense ministry controls 33 percent to 45 percent of the domestic Egyptian economy:
It employs 40,000 civilians, who assemble water-treatment stations for the Ministry of Housing, cables for the Ministry of Electricity, laptops for the Ministry of Education, and armaments for the Ministry of Interior’s vehicles. Meanwhile, other ministry employees produce washing machines, refrigerators, televisions, and metal sheeting for construction projects.
They have monopoly power over these industries, and this means a hefty profit for the Army, and a lavish financial incentive to give Mubarak a free hand in political matters as long as the current arrangement continues. Meanwhile a garrison state has been created, and the hope of disentangling this vast web of entrenched corruption, co-signed by the country’s most powerful entities, is basically impossible to imagine.
China also represents an ongoing test case for liberal democratic evangelists. Despite its thus far successful authoritarian growth model, there are incipient wellsprings of social and political unrest as not all strata of society have benefited equally from the economic boom. Young people whose parents gave up everything to send them to college find that the opportunities for upward mobility implicitly promised them by the regime are not available in practice. The urban economy simply does not produce enough good professional jobs for all of them, leaving them embittered with stifled ambition. It remains to be seen if the regime can balance its religion of stability with the demand for recognition of these new hoards of educated urban hopefuls.
These are fascinating and difficult cases of economic and political development. But the fact remains that by any metric, civilization on net has undergone an undeniable process of emancipation from ignorance and savagery and superstition and irrationality, and the steady codification of values and rights unrivalled in their promise for individual human dignity and material prosperity. To deny that there does seem to be an inexorability associated with this process is itself a willful delusion, and a dystopian one.