The Big One

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Self-organization, as Fukuyama depicts it, is what individuals do without hierarchical direction: It includes the informal norms that prevail in small groups of the sort in which human beings, and their primate ancestors, lived throughout most of our existence. He opens the section with the story of commuters from the Washington suburbs who line up at a local restaurant every day to take rides with complete strangers. By picking up two or three of these "slugs," a driver can use the carpool lanes and considerably shorten the trip into D.C. Over the years, Fukuyama reports, rules have evolved: "Neither cars nor passengers may jump the line; passengers have the right to refuse to get into a particular car; smoking and the exchange of money are forbidden." The system works because people trust each other as fellow government workers and because people voluntarily obey sensible rules. It is a small-scale model of self-organization and evolving norms. It illustrates how human beings naturally create social order and thus suggests the process through which the Great Disruption might be repaired.

In Fukuyama's version, self-organization does not account for what economist and social theorist F.A. Hayek called "the extended order"--the impersonal relationships that allow culture and trade to flourish among strangers. (Fukuyama attributes the term to Hayek but defines it as "the sum total of all the rules, norms, values, and shared behaviors that allow individuals to work together in a capitalist society." He thereby misses Hayek's crucial distinction between the extended order and small-group norms, which can be quite hostile to outsiders.) For extended orders, Fukuyama maintains, you need hierarchy. The rules are not instinctive and have depended on the authoritative lawgivers of religion and politics: "Culture with a capital C . . . does not have spontaneous roots."

No matter. Today's problems, he argues, come not from the absence of formal authority, which we have in abundance but from a breakdown of quotidian morality: "The reconstitution of social order for the United States and other societies in a similar position, then, is not a matter of rebuilding of hierarchical authority. It is a matter of reestablishing habits of honesty, reciprocity, and an enlarged radius of trust under changed technological circumstances."

He's right about the current situation but wrong to oppose hierarchy (or Culture) to spontaneity. If "human beings by nature like to organize themselves hierarchically," as he argues, leadership itself must often emerge spontaneously. The issue is one of levels: A leader proposes a hierarchy (an organization, strategy, plan of action, etc.) that must win converts, just as any new "slug" rule must. The emergence of new hierarchies is itself part of the spontaneous process of self-organization. The important contrast is not hierarchy versus spontaneity but persuasion (including competition) versus imposition.

Fukuyama, for instance, calls organized religions (as opposed to traditional folk religions) hierarchical without considering their evolution or, for that matter, their variety. This omission hurts his ability to imagine the sources of new order. What accounts for the development, within recent history, of the Mormon church or Pentecostalism, one hierarchical in organization and the other radically decentralized? Both were in fact spontaneous orders, rallying followers who felt moved by their spiritual insights, communal values and modes of worship.

These two movements were arguably responses to the last "great disruption," the social and economic changes of the 19th century. In his final section, a scant two chapters exploring life "After the Great Disruption," Fukuyama sets great store by the Victorian era's ability to transform a society of crime, grime and extraordinarily heavy drinking into the quintessence of propriety. We did it before and, he believes, we will do it again: The divorce rate has peaked, as have out-of-wedlock births. Welfare rolls and crime rates are dropping. Laura Schlessinger's "often censorious tone" has replaced feel-good pop psychologizing. The Million Man March and Promise Keepers have affirmed men's familial responsibilities.

All true, and undoubtedly a bottom-up response to social excesses. But Fukuyama's contribution would have been greater if he had extended his imagination beyond the comfortable conservative litany. Youth culture is full of indications of a new moral consciousness. If you're looking for meditations on "honesty, reciprocity, and an enlarged radius of trust" (not to mention awesome responsibility and problematic parenting), you can learn at least as much from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" as from Dr. Laura.

Nor have traditionalist men been the only ones gathering on the Washington mall. By some counts, the 1993 gay rights march attracted as large a crowd as the ones inspired by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and the Promise Keepers, and it, too, had marriage as a central theme. The push for gay marriage--for the freedom to make commitments--marks a dramatic change not merely from the pre-Great Disruption days of the closet but from the aggressive libertinism of the 1970s. Whatever happens legally, a new order is already evolving in the lives of individuals, with the sanction of voluntary institutions, including many churches and employers.

Discovering such evolving orders requires a combination of journalism and cultural studies, not social science. That would not suit Fukuyama's preferred methodology and would take him into uncomfortable territory. And though such explorations would make the book more interesting and perhaps more convincing, they would not necessarily make it more influential.

"The Great Disruption" is an important and ambitious work. It promises to communicate unconventional ideas to political intellectuals bound by convention and thus to inject much needed vitality and realism into stale and stylized debates. In a nonthreatening and serious way, Fukuyama is making another bold, and I believe correct, claim: that the trial-and-error processes of a free society lead not to decay but to discovery, not to disorder but to new and ever-evolving forms of order.

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