Saturday, July 14, 2018

The End of the End of History?

In recent weeks, my thoughts have moved back and forth from the Declaration of Independence as the beginning of the end of history to Trump's right-wing nationalism as the end of the end of history.  (Is it significant that I am writing this on Bastille Day?)

Ever since it was published in 1989, Francis Fukuyama's article "The End of History?" has provoked a continuing debate over the question he posed in his title.  History as a continuing series of unpredictable events will never come to an end, Fukuyama conceded.  But history as the human search for the fully satisfying social order might have come to an end, he suggested, because with the defeat of fascism and Nazism in World War Two and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, liberal democracy remains with no serious challenger; and most of the people in the world today agree in principle that liberal democracy is the only fully satisfying social order.  In practice, of course, the ideals of liberal democracy--equal liberty for all--have not been completely attained.  Nevertheless, even if we disagree about how best to achieve these ideals, most of us agree on the ideals themselves.  Never before has this happened, because in all previous history there were fundamental disagreements about what the ideal society would be like.  To be sure, there seems to be some resistance to liberal ideals in certain parts of the world today--Islamic fundamentalism, for example.  But Fukuyama argued that although such resistance can create a lot of international conflict, this will only delay the inevitable victory of liberal democracy around the world.

According to Fukuyama, there are two reasons for the triumph of liberal ideals.  First, liberalism satisfies the human desire for material security and comfort through economic productivity, free markets, and the scientific conquest of nature.  Second, liberalism satisfies the human desire for recognition through an egalitarian cultural and political order in which all human beings are recognized as equal in their moral dignity.  Thus, the history of human striving for satisfaction comes to an end when human beings discover that liberal democracy is the only social order that satisfies their deepest longings--the longing for material prosperity and the longing for moral recognition.

One can argue that the move towards this end of history began with the Declaration of Independence, because the Declaration began the American founding of a set of ideas and institutions that would constitute the liberal democratic national-state in the modern world.  These ideas and institutions would include a large nation-sized republic based on the principle of popular consent, a free market economy, a secular state without any official religion, and the rule of law that treated all citizens as equal.  The fundamental principle was that all human beings are by nature self-governing individuals who can organize their political, economic, religious, and legal orders through voluntary association.

In recent years, however, the rise of populist right-wing nationalism around the world has provoked a lot of public commentary about the decline or death of liberal democracy and the trends toward demagogic authoritarianism and nationalism.  Trump's meeting with Putin in Finland might confirm this fear with the image of the two most powerful strongmen in the world working together to break up the international liberal order.

But if one pulls back from these recent events and looks at the larger context of history over the past 250 years, one can see that the human progressive movement towards the liberal open society initiated in the Eighteenth century Enlightenment continues.  For example, Marian Tupy at the "HumanProgress" website of the Cato Institute has written an article showing some of the evidence that the progress of democracy around the world remains strong today.  In 1800, there were almost no liberal democracies anywhere in the world.  By 2016, there were 121 democracies.  There have been periods of deviation from this trend.  The rise of fascism, Nazism, and communism between the two world wars was one.  In the early 1970s, there were more autocratic regimes than democratic regimes.  But from 1989, the trend has been steadily rising in the spread of democracies around the world.  Moreover, as Tupy notes, the combined scores for autocracies, as measured by the Center for Systemic Peace, has dropped dramatically since 1989, while the combined scores for democracies has risen dramatically.  The quality of democracy has never been higher in human history.

Of course, these trends towards liberal democratic progress are not absolutely inevitable.  There could always be some deviation towards illiberal regimes as occurred between the two world wars.  But still the empirical historical evidence for liberal progress over the past 250 years is stunning.  (I have written a series of posts on human progress in November-December of 2016 and January of this year.)

To suggest that Donald Trump is going to reverse all of this is a ridiculous exaggeration of the power of that "most stable genius."

If this is true, how do we explain it?  What is it about the principles of the Declaration of Independence--the principles of modern liberalism--that made them so powerful that they have swept across the world over the past two centuries?

One possible explanation is offered by Spinoza in The Theological-Political Treatise, perhaps the first full defense of modern liberal democracy.  He declared that the democratic state is "the most natural state," because it approaches most nearly the equal liberty of human beings in the state of nature.

Darwinian evolutionary anthropology might confirm this by showing that the social life of our hunting-gathering ancestors manifests the individual liberty and equality that liberal theorists have attributed to the state of nature.  And therefore the liberal conception of government as instituted among men to secure the individual rights that first arose in the state of nature might indeed be "the most natural state."

Foragers assert their individual autonomy and liberty in resisting the attempts of anyone to establish dominance over others.  So the liberal ideas of equal liberty and dignity for all individuals and resistance to the sort of dominance hierarchies established in agrarian states can be understood as appealing to the original liberalism of the state of nature.

This kind of Darwinian liberal thinking is suggested--even if not fully elaborated--in the writings of people like Alexandra Maryanski, Jonathan Turner, Paul Rubin, and Christopher Boehm.

Some elaboration of this theme can be found in an earlier post here.

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