[Crossposted from New Books in History] When I was an undergraduate, I fell in love with Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws. In the book Montesquieu reduces a set of disparate, seemingly unconnected facts arrayed over centuries and continents into a single, coherent theory of remarkable explanitory power. Alas, grand theoretical books like Spirit of the Laws are out of fashion today, not only because the human sciences are gripped by particularism (“more and more about less and less), but also because we don’t train students to think like Montesqueiu any more.
In his excellent The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), Francis Fukuyama bucks the trend. Of course, he’s done it before with elegant and persuasive books about the fall of communism, state-building, trust, and biotechnology among other big topics. Here he takes on the emergence of modern political institutions, or rather three modern political institutions: the state, the rule of law, and accountable government. He begins with human nature, takes us through a massive comparison of the political trajectories of world-historical civilizations (Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern, European), and, in so doing, tells us why the world political order looks the way it does today. His answers are surprising, and not directly in line with what might be called the “conventional thinking” about these things.