The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order
by Francis Fukuyama
Free Press. 368 pp. $26.00
Francis Fukuyama likes to paint on a big canvas. He came to international attention in 1989 with an article in the National Interest, “The End of History?,” controversially proposing that liberal democracy might constitute the end point of our political evolution. This was followed by two books, The End of History and the Last Man (1992) and Trust (1995), in each of which, calling upon all the social and behavioral sciences, he grappled with the meaning of life in a world grown (hypothetically) rich and peaceful.
He has not scaled back. In his new book, The Great Disruption, Fukuyama takes it upon himself to explain the sudden downward slide on a wide variety of social indicators that began in the mid-1960’s and in some ways is still with us: what happened, why it happened, and whether we might hope for a Great Reconstruction to follow the Great Disruption. Fukuyama has considerably broadened the many previous treatments of this topic by bringing to bear an international perspective and, still more ambitiously, by grappling with what he sees as the underlying aspects of human nature that govern large historical swings.
Fukuyama groups the social problems that characterized the Great Disruption under the headings of crime, family, and trust. The indicators for crime and family are by now familiar: steep rises in violent and property crime, a soaring divorce rate, illegitimacy ratios that went from a few percent of live births at the end of the 1950’s to a third or more in the 1990’s. What may be less familiar to readers is the extent to which these same problems have plagued not just America but Western Europe.
For more than a decade now, peaceful, civil England has had a property-crime rate higher than the crime-ridden U.S. In Sweden, the Left’s one-time model, the rate of violent crime is now as high as in the United States—far fewer murders, to be sure, but just as many assaults, robberies, and sex crimes. The breakdown of the family is also far advanced in most of Western Europe. England has leapfrogged America’s illegitimacy ratio, going from one much lower than ours in the 1970’s to one considerably higher in the 1990’s. In Sweden, marriage appears to be a dying institution. Added to these indicators is a plunge in fertility, with many European countries now far below the replacement rate.
Fukuyama’s treatment of the theme of trust draws on his 1995 book of the same name and is intimately linked with a central construct of The Great Disruption, social capital. Social capital is the “set of informal values or norms shared among members of a group that permits cooperation among them.” These shared norms facilitate one’s trust that another person will act reliably and honestly, while trust itself acts “like a lubricant that makes the running of any group or organization more efficient.”
Social capital, lubricated by trust, is what has let the Japanese sustain their extraordinarily low crime rate without a lot of prisons; the lack of social capital is what has saddled southern Italian villages with amoral familism (in Edward Banfield’s term). Social capital makes the free market work in the United States; the lack of social capital makes a free market impossible, so far, in the former Soviet Union. During the period of the Great Disruption, Fukuyama tries to demonstrate, trust deteriorated, including trust in one’s fellow citizens and trust in government; and so, inevitably, did social capital.
Turning to causes, Fukuyama lists four alternative explanations of the Great Disruption, each identified with a particular point of view. The contemporary Left has blamed rising crime figures and the breakdown of families on the persistence of economic and social inequality, while a smaller group of theorists, straddling the political divide, has found the culprit to be greater wealth and security. Then there are libertarians like me who concentrate on mistaken government policies. Finally, social conservatives point a finger at cultural values.
Fukuyama finds something unsatisfactory in each of these explanations, preferring instead to focus on the way many factors work in tandem to produce certain effects. For example, family breakdown has clearly had an adverse impact on the socialization of children, and that in turn has had much to do with rising crime, which in turn has fostered distrust, of neighbors in particular and of the world in general. Family breakdown similarly promotes what Fukuyama calls the “miniaturization of community,” the displacement of affiliation with large institutions (a labor federation, for example) by smaller, more local institutions (aerobics groups, Internet chat rooms) sporting a smaller “radius of trust.” As for the causes of family disorder itself, they too are multiple and variegated—but the special role of the feminist revolution has been crucial, and Fukuyama devotes one long and important chapter to it.
In the end, however, what makes this book so valuable is neither Fukuyama’s description of the Great Disruption nor his analysis of its proximate causes. Rather, it is his prolonged meditation on what comes next.
Where do norms come from? How do cooperation and trust emerge from them? How, once disrupted, can they be expected to reemerge? Such questions, framed in other vocabulary, were the stuff of social analysis from the Greeks to the 19th century. Is man, by nature, fitted for society? But then, for most of this century, the question virtually disappeared. The renewed interest in it is one of the happier trends in today’s social science, and Fukuyama does a masterly job of surveying and synthesizing what has been learned.
He begins by laying out a useful conceptual framework. Briefly, it consists of a horizontal axis anchored on one side by pure hierarchically-generated norms (the Qu’ran’s proscription of alcohol, California’s proscription of smoking in restaurants) and on the other by pure spontaneously-generated norms (the incest taboo, the price of a commodity). Along the vertical axis is a continuum ranging from “rational” on the top (“rational” merely in the sense of deliberately chosen) and “arational” (meaning socially inherited) on the bottom. The four quadrants in this scheme (hierarchical/rational, spontaneous/arational, etc.) represent four basic types of norms, and Fukuyama sets out to explain how each comes about.
Here, he draws on a wide and vivid set of examples from the sociobiological and anthropological record to demonstrate a few basic points. Most basically of all, human beings are naturally gregarious. They do not behave as the ruthlessly profit-maximizing model of Homo economicus would have us believe. Reciprocity, generosity, and loyalty are integral parts of human nature. Humans are not entirely trustworthy—not angels, Fukuyama repeatedly reminds us—but everything we have learned from modern behavioral and biological science gives us sound reason to think that they are indeed fitted for society.
To be sure, most of these new “findings” about human nature have also been stated in other terms, by thinkers from Aristotle to Adam Smith. But it is important at the end of our century to have the imprimatur of science on them, and I suppose we can also be said to have learned a few new things along the way, or at least to have stated old truths with greater precision. Certainly we have acquired a better understanding of the biochemical origins of behavior, and that understanding may be expected to increase. In any case, these chapters of The Great Disruption are uniformly fascinating.
Shifting gears abruptly, the book takes us into the world of organizational theory, which, as Fukuyama sees it, is increasingly in sync with the sources of human cooperation. The 20th century began with Max Weber telling us that the essence of modernity was bureaucracy. It ends with bureaucracies everywhere in decline, replaced by spontaneous, self-organized markets and networks.
These two things are not identical, Fukuyama explains. In a market, agreements and cooperation require only a minimal set of shared values. That minimal set includes some exceedingly important items, especially a common agreement to engage in voluntary, good-faith transactions. But in every other aspect of their lives, the members of a market can be highly individualistic. They do not even need to like each other.
By contrast, a network is defined by larger shared values. The members of the Sierra Club are part of a network, and so are members of a kinship group or a religion. For that matter, organizations that are putatively market-driven routinely take on some of the characteristics of a network, as in the development of corporate cultures that shape behavior far beyond the narrow terms of a job description.
Fukuyama, putting distance between himself and libertarians, is careful to note the limits of markets and networks alike. Although their spontaneity and flexibility give them great range and vitality, some degree of hierarchy, he believes, is necessary, especially in large social units. Gossip, for example, can be a wonderful mechanism of control in a community of 50 to 100 people; in an anonymous urban neighborhood, it needs to be replaced by more formal systems. And besides, Fukuyama notes, people like to organize themselves hierarchically. What they dislike, he observes trenchantly, “is not hierarchy in principle, but hierarchies in which they end up on the bottom.” Hierarchies, including powerful government hierarchies, we will always have with us.
Where, then, are we left? Fukuyama urges us, as a first step, to reject the notion that the engine of our destruction is, as some on both Left and Right would have it, capitalism itself, relentlessly eating away at our social capital. Quite the contrary. Although he seldom says anything unequivocally, on this point Fukuyama is unequivocal:
Montesquieu and Adam Smith were right in arguing that commerce tended to improve morals; [Edmund] Burke, Daniel Bell [in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism], and [the British social critic] John Gray are wrong to assert that capitalism necessarily undercuts its own moral basis or more broadly that the Enlightenment is self-undermining.
It is not capitalism that worries Fukuyama but the state. Governments, he believes, can help generate social capital—the American public educational system in the first half of this century is his example—but they can also destroy it. Are modern liberal states ineluctably drawn to promote individualism at the expense of social capital? Not necessarily, Fukuyama tells us, but he does not sound wholly confident. For government, the trick is not to contrive artificial ways of restoring social capital but to provide an environment in which the natural human tendencies to create norms and values can reassert themselves.
About the likelihood of this happening, Fukuyama is refreshingly sanguine. In the 1820’s, he reminds us, the United States was mired in a slough of alcoholism and crime; a few years later, it had been turned around by the Second Great Awakening. Similarly, 19th-century England was caught in the grip of the most wrenching national economic transformation in history: within a matter of decades, it shifted from a country of agrarian hamlets to an urbanized industrial power suffering from all the severe social ills that Charles Dickens would make notorious. But by the second half of the century, even as the economic transformation continued at full force, Victorian middle-class values had been propagated so relentlessly that crime dropped to the very low levels that would remain characteristic of English society all the way through the first two-thirds of the 20th century.
We have seen the pendulum swing many times before: from license to prudery, from profligacy to thrift, from social chaos to social order. Social capital will be regenerated in the natural course of things: that is the central theme through which Fukuyama draws together the many strands of his argument. Maybe all we need to do is wait.
Fukuyama’s historical reconstruction is persuasive, and his understanding of human nature is one with which I emphatically agree. My reservations lie primarily in his tendency to use society as a whole as his unit of analysis. Where he tends to aggregate, I would often prefer to disaggregate.
Doing so tempers his picture in interesting ways. A strong case can be made, for example, that even as trust of fellow citizens was deteriorating appallingly in some parts of America—like inner cities—in others, both trust and civil institutions were continuing to function largely unchanged. Similarly, the loss of trust itself needs to be disaggregated. When it comes to government, a loss of trust in the courts is palpably bad because the rule of law is at stake, but what about a loss of trust in the efficacy of government programs? To me the latter sounds like part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Disaggregation is especially important in thinking about the future, where Fukuyama’s wide-angled focus may yield too bright a picture. As it happens, I see harbingers of a Great Reconstruction everywhere—for the middle class on up. We may even be entering a golden age, recovering from the destructive intellectual fads of the recent past and rediscovering our attraction to the beautiful and the true, with technology providing wonderful new possibilities—for the middle class on up. But meanwhile there is the other part of American society—the part often called the underclass—that was the source of many of the statistical trends that define the Great Disruption.
America, after the Great Disruption, is split in a way that it was not split prior to 1965. The underclass is not just a traditional lower class, eager to climb the ladder to middle-class respectability, but a segment of society that is acquiring a code, structure, and culture of its own. It has the ability, through its own underground economy and through the assistance extended to it by government policy, to exist independently of the rest of society. It is increasingly white, and it is increasingly making inroads into the working class.
Added to this is one of the most potent variables that will shape social structure in the 21st century: intelligence. Any attempt to think through the question of where technology and the information economy are taking us must come to grips with the radically different ways this process will play out depending on an individual’s IQ. The smart are going to do extremely well. The average will do all right. Those of low intelligence are going to be excluded from many more social goods than we can now imagine. They are in danger of becoming economically and, worse, socially superfluous. Combine this with the presence of a sizable underclass, and even in the face of a regeneration of social capital of the kind Fukuyama foresees, America is likely to be a markedly different place from the country we knew prior to 1965.
These, at least, are the strictures of one who has been working some of the same territory as Fukuyama. But put them aside. The Great Disruption takes on questions that go to the heart of social policy writ large. It is written with never-failing lucidity, brings together vast and disparate literatures, and makes one think in new ways about the prospects of post-industrial society. That is quite enough for one book.