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Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy
Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy
by Francis Fukuyama
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $24.69
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5.0 out of 5 stars Good government means high quality administration, August 24, 2015
This is the second volume of Francis Fukuyama's treatise on the origin and development of political order, as well as how political institutions decay. Fukuyama asks what makes a political body desirable to those living in it? Taking Denmark as model of good government services, he asks the key question of both volumes: How do we get to the Denmark?

The first volume, The Origins of Political Order, defines an institution as a rule that persists over time and presents the three institutions central to political order: the state, rule of law, and accountability. It explains how states evolved in various regions of the world and the very different ways in which governments operate and how they are held accountable.

In the second volume, Political Order and Political Decay, Fukuyama explains what makes government good or bad, effective or ineffective, efficient or inefficient. He studies how good government (as opposed to simply "government") emerges, and how it can decay.

There are big surprises in this book. Fukuyama takes the United States and Germany as examples and makes a convincing case that adopting democracy early on can hinder the development of quality government administration.

The United States adopted democracy (with a franchise limited to property holders) in the late eighteenth century before it had any government departments to speak of.

There was nevertheless work that needed to be done by a government and therefore government agents had to be hired. Ideally, the work of government should be carried out by competent people, hired and promoted based on their ability to do the work. Instead, in many societies offices such as tax collecting were sold to nobles or bourgeois in return for a share of the takings or for simply an outright sum. France under the Bourbon kings is an example of this. Fukuyama call this form of government "patrimonial" and he calls the process of allocating government offices this way "patrimonialization".

The young United States did not sell offices outright but neither did it create a merit based civil service. Its solution was quite novel: government jobs were used as a reward for political support. Fukuyama calls this form of government "clientelism", after the ancient Roman instution of patron and client where clients supported their patron politically in exchange for judgements, jobs and other political favours.

(To a much, much lesser extent this is still the case today for top government jobs within the gift of the President. Top campaign staff expect to be rewarded with top government positions. This cannot be termed corruption since, in theory anyway, the civil service job seekers want to serve the public rather than fill their pockets. Further, they obviously share goals with their chosen candidate, which makes it plausible for the elected candidate in turn to trust them with top positions from which they all can work towards these shared goals.)

The US's move towards a merit based civil service began slowly in the wake of President Garfield's assassination; it was helped along by Woodrow Wilson; it finally arrived with Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. But hardly anyone would call the result "high quality government" : the beast is too big and its different parts too often work against one another.

The fact is that the checks and balances in the Constitution of the United States impeded the work of government by having to justify every action as coherent with existing laws while simultaneously being given contradictory directives by the same laws against which their actions are checked. This explains, according to Fukuyama, the gridlock we see today.

Now, contrast this with nineteenth century Germany unified under the Hohenzollern princes by the Prussian aristocrat Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck built an effective and efficient army that forced France and Austria to accept a Prussian led Germany while in parallel constructing civil service staffed with educated professionals. All this without a single election.

The absence of strong democratic institutions led to two world wars and a genocide but it also allowed the creation of a high quality government bureaucracy. And now that Germany is ruled through solid democratic institutions, its civil service is the envy of the world.

This is not to say that war and tyranny are necessary to get good government. Denmark is an example of this. It was built by an enlightened monarchy that bypassed the elitist aristocracy and went straight to the people, so that its merit based civil service evolved together with democracy.

As for decay, it is inevitable when situations change and institutions cannot respond. In the United States, the gridlock created by the (democratic!) checks and balances can lead to politicians interfering with government departments for short term interests eventually leading to a loss of autonomy within these departments, for instance over hiring and promoting capable and competent personnel.

China in contrast seemingly works very well these days without democratic checks and balances but historically we know that if power is held by an incompetent authority (a "bad emperor") there is no mechanism short of violent revolution to rectify the situation. It is the *lack* of democracy that leads to decay.

So how do we get to Denmark? Fukuyama cannot say and he admitted as much in the first volume. Political science does not have enough cases to examine and so it cannot produce a coherent and complete theory of state development. The numerous failures in Africa and in South America demonstrate how difficult the task is. But at least Fukuyama has clarified what conditions are needed.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World
Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World
by Amir Alexander
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.62
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4.0 out of 5 stars The birth of modern mathematics, August 14, 2015
Isaac Newton is reputed to have said that the reason he saw so far and so clearly was that he stood on the shoulders of giants. Newton was an unpleasant fellow, unsociable and jealous of his reputation, so we ought to pay attention when he acknowledges greatness in others.

It is to those other giants that Amir Alexander introduces us in Infinitesimal. It is a refreshing history of mathematics that deals with the century *before* Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, who may have independently developed differential and integral calculus, but who did not discover the underlying concept of infinitesimals.

An infinitesimal is a point with no length at all except that if you add up enough infinitesimals, you can get any length you want. If you think about it, this is nonsense, but if you think about it some more, you soon realize how useful the concept is. For one thing, it resolves the problem of understanding how Achilles catches up with the turtle. He should not be able to do this because he first has to cover half the distance between him and the turtle, then he must cover half of the remaining distance, then half of that remaining distance, and so on, and so on… In short he must cross an infinite number of distances in a finite amount of time. The Greeks gave up on the problem and studied triangles instead.

But Italians like Cavalieri and Galileo found a way to explain this. They first made use of infinitesimals to prove such difficult problems, and to give simple intuitive proofs to already solved problems. Italy might retained its place of pre-eminence in the field had it not been for a man named Clavius. A Jesuit who found a link between God and the perfect unchanging nature of mathematics, of Euclidean geometry to be precise. He championed the study of geometry as second only to theology in the Jesuit curriculum. Clavius was also the brains behind the Gregorian calendar reform of 1583 and this gave him the political clout he needed to give mathematics the importance it deserved in Jesuit schools.

The Jesuits thus became the Catholic arbitrators of what was scientifically correct. They simply could not accept the fuzzy ideas that came with infinitesimals for a simple reason: it flew in the face of the unchanging nature of geometry that underlied their view of God and the world.

In England, Francis Bacon invented what became the modern scientific method, the essence of which was to explore, discover, and analyze to guess at an explanation of some phenomena, check it, then accept or reject it. Above all to keep an open mind. What Catholics on the continent rejected, English protestants gobbled up. To be sure, there was opposition in England as well. Notably from Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan. Hobbes, although an atheist, appreciated mathematics for the same reason Clavius did: it represented eternal truth , and his Leviathan state rested on absolute truth. Without that, Leviathan would dissolve and anarchy triumph.

But England thrived in debate. Its politics always mixed talk with action. Above all, English society was practical. Infinitesimals were wishy-washy objects, but they worked. The Royal Society and an self-made mathematician named John Wallis championed infinitesimals, so Hobbes lost.

Still, strictly speaking, the Inquisition was right and there's a great irony in the story of the infinitesimal. Those mathematicians who embraced the idea of using the infinitely small were right to do so. Our modern world is built on engineering and science and none of that would be possible without differential calculus. Without the idea of the infinitesimal, we'd all still be living in the sixteenth century.

But the Jesuits who condemned the notion as heresy and forbade its teaching are actually correct. There is no such thing as an infinitely small object that nevertheless has a size. Early in the nineteenth century, Gauss and others began feeling dissatisfied with the concepts of infinity and infinitesimals. Those concepts lack the necessary rigour to completely and unequivocally force the truth of a proof upon the mind.

So they jettisoned those ideas, and took all the theorems of calculus and proved them without infinitesimals. They replaced infinity with the "absence of an upper bound", and they replaced infinitesimals with "any value strictly larger than zero" (a.k.a. epsilon/delta values).

Nevertheless, we cannot do without the concepts of infinity and infinitesimals in first year calculus. They allow students to accept without too much fuss theorems used in physics to calculate how fast things accelerate or the terminal velocity of a falling object hanging from a parachute. It's later in their college career, if at all, that students will study analysis and its epsilon/delta methods.

A college curriculum in math or quantitative sciences thus follows history: first you learn calculus because it works and never mind that you can't divide zero by zero or infinity by infinity. Then, when that begins to bother you, you do analysis and history repeats itself.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

The Grapes of Math: How Life Reflects Numbers and Numbers Reflect Life
The Grapes of Math: How Life Reflects Numbers and Numbers Reflect Life
by Alex Bellos
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.25
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A survey of interesting math topics, July 26, 2015
Ten chapters, ten essays, ten topics explored in appropriate depth for a non technical analysis. This is what The Grapes of Math has to offer.

The essays cover very different areas of mathematics: statistics, geometry, algebra, calculus, the square root of minus one, and self-referential logic. My favourite chapter explains why the digit "1" appears more often as the lead digit in statistical results. There's also a great chapter on John Conway's famous Game of Life, that explains how people came up with the really interesting patterns in that game.

But I must admit I feel ambivalent about the title. I suppose shameless puns are necessary when giving a title to a pop math book given that "pop" and "math" don't obviously go together.

Vincent Poirier, Montreal

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking
How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking
by Jordan Ellenberg
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.71
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars We do use algebra every day, believe or not, July 26, 2015
"When am I ever going to use this?"

Except for the very few who really love math, every students asks this. And teachers don't know but they have to give an answer so they come up with lines like "You need it if you want to become an engineer".

To which students reply "But I don't want to become an engineer! And even if I did, I'll have the answers I need from the computer!".

And the teacher finally snaps and gives the real answer: "You need it to get your diploma!"

The answer is real enough except that it is wrong and with "How Not To Be Wrong" Jordan Ellenberg gives us the correct answer: math is to thinking what training is to sports. It may be true that once you've graduated high school you'll never have to solve a quadratic equation, just as you'll never see a football player curl barbells in the middle of a game. But just as having curled barbells countless times in the gym will help football players throw further and tackle harder, having done the algebra will train your mind to concentrate and to think outside the box.

But this is not a book about doing algebra or calculus. This is a book the results that come from knowing algebra and calculus. The theme running through HN2BW is that lots of things are counterintuitive. Here are a few.

In World War II, the air force wanted to know where to put armor on planes. Armor is heavy and putting it everywhere would make the plane too heavy to fly. They looked at the damage on their planes and realized the area with the most bullet holes was the fuselage, while the area with the fewest bullet holes was the engine. The answer is obvious: put the armor on the fuselage rather. But the military men knew enough to ask professional mathematicians and they had a statistical analysis department.

"Where did you get the data from?" asked the statisticians.
"From our planes, after they came back from a mission."
Obviously not before, or there would have been no bullet holes at all.
"Very good, that is important data to have. But what about the holes in the planes that didn't come back?"

And that is the correct question to ask. It's reasonable to assume that bullets fall on the plane more or less evenly but if planes come back with bullet holes in the fuselage, it means that bullets don't damage the plane much when they hit the fuselage. If few planes come back with holes in the engine area, that means that a hit to the engine will down the plane, so that it where the armor should go.

Apart from such counterintuitive insights, Ellenberg also teaches us a few things we really ought to know. Every thinking person understands that correlation doesn't imply causation. And everybody knows that if two things are equal to a third then they are equal to each other (ie if Jack and Jill are as old as James, then Jack and Jill are the same age).

But that doesn't apply to correlations: a stock portfolio made up of automobile manufacturers and software developers will correlate with a portfolio made up exclusively of automobile manufacturers and with a portfolio made up of exclusively of software developers but fluctuations in the automobile portfolio won't have anything to do with fluctuations in the software portfolio. Equality is a transitive relation but correlation is not transitive.

This isn't a book about beautiful mathematical results: you won't find Euler's jaw dropping identity here. Ellenberg explains statistics, those lies even more damnable than just plain damn lies but he shows us how mathematical thinking helps us to better understand data.

Vincent Poirier, Montreal

Monkeys, Myths, and Molecules: Separating Fact from Fiction, and the Science of Everyday Life
Monkeys, Myths, and Molecules: Separating Fact from Fiction, and the Science of Everyday Life
by Dr. Joe Schwarcz
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.19
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A large disjointed collection of short essays, July 25, 2015
The best thing about McGill chemistry professor Joe Schwarcz's Monkeys, Myths, and Molecules is that the title uses the Oxford Comma. (Hear, hear!)

The second best thing about MMM is that while billing itself as a book about science in general, it covers lots of chemical topics, from how aspirin is composed to adding copper on a nail using the blue crystals found in chemistry sets from the 1960s. (Today's chemistry sets don't have chemicals. These aren't considered safe in this age of politically correct nannies.) Most science essays and clips we see in the media are about space, physics, computers, or biology. It`s really great to see chemistry in the forefront for once.

The third best thing in MMM is Schwarcz's incessant debunking of misconceptions and outright charlatanisms: lots of poisons are natural, just about everything that is beneficial in food is a chemical, and homeopathy is a sham.

But in the end, as a book, it's disappointing: it's a large disjointed collection of two or three page essays tenuously gathered under different topics. It's a good book to dip into from time to time, but it doesn't build up a theme, it doesn't present a big picture, and it doesn't exhaustively study a good topic.

Fun but not engrossing.

Vincent Poirier, Montreal

The Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower
by Bertrand Lemoine
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $30.78
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5.0 out of 5 stars A vertical bridge to nowhere, June 29, 2015
This review is from: The Eiffel Tower (Hardcover)
The Eiffel Tower is the most famous tourist attraction in the world; the most recognizable work of architecture of modern history if not of all time. Well, maybe the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids beat it. Maybe.

Given the countless cheap reproductions, the innumerable film cameos, and the near infinite number of selfies taken around it, we might be forgiven asking ourselves if a book about the Eiffel Tower is really necessary? Yes! Absolutely! It's easy to forget, or to never even think, that the Tower is first and foremost a work of high art.

Construction began in 1887 and finished less than 26 months later in 1889. French writers and artists, a snobbish lot, called it a monstrosity and tried to stop it from going up. When it went up, they tried to have it taken down after the world fair.

The lease expired in 1910 at which time the Tower would have to dismantled, but Eiffel hoped to renew the lease and that his Tower could stand permanently. He lobbied, he argued for its usefulness as a weather station, and in 1900 he published the major plans and drawings for the tower in two beautiful volumes.

This gorgeous oversized book is a faithful reproduction of these volumes. It's all there: the geological strata from the bedrock to the soil, and the banks of the Seine, the foundations and masonry on which the tower would rest, the girders and arches reaching upwards, the one meter wide staircases and the Otis elevators from America.

The Tower serves no real purpose except to prove that it could be built and that it could be built to last. The drawings and explanations show us that Gustave Eiffel's 300 meter tower is an engineering feat but the exquisite elegance of these plans should convince any reader that it is also a work of art. The Tower is more than a vertical bridge to nowhere; it's a bridge to the ideal and it embodies perfection.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History
For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History
by Sarah Rose
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.88
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tea and Empire, June 27, 2015
Imagine an alternative history where Columbia declares war on the US at the behest of Pablo Escobar, and where Columbia wins. Imagine how that would feel to an American and you'll get a spot on idea of how Chinese people felt about the British in the 19th century, and to a certain extent how they feel now.

The story begins and ends with tea. Light, easy to pack and to transport, popular with the public. Tea is a money maker.

A commodity in China for thousands of years, it came late to Europe but proved an instant hit in the UK and Russia. It was so popular in the UK that buying tea from China upset the balance of trade. The UK had to find something as light and popular to sell to China or the British would find themselves running out of money. So they sold opium to the Chinese.

When it comes to history, the Chinese are famously philosophical. Chinese people love history, especially their own, and their most important novel opens with the phrase "Empires wax and empires wane". They also understand that the most gripping chapters in history books describe the most unpleasant periods in which to live, hence their curse "May you live in interesting times".

As the British Empire waxed, the Ch'ing dinasty was none too stable. The opium sold to the masses was ruining them and society suffered. China tried to manage the trade somehow, but the British would have none of it. The UK went to war to protect their trade rights, beat the Chinese, and extracted humiliating concessions from them.

Yet the war should not have happened and the British were uncomfortable at the idea of depending on China for such a large share of their trade. They had to find a new source for tea, ideally grow it themselves, and if not at home in England then within their own Empire. India was the logical place and they began experimenting. They managed to get a few shrubs out and to hire a few tea workers. Their early attempts failed: the tea varieties grew badly, the workers were third rate, the product was heavy, musty and unpleasant.

Enter Robert Fortune: a highly competent self taught botanist with an inventive entrepreneurial streak, and a man ambitious to rise above his station. The ideal agent. He was asked to go to China, to bring back the good stuff and to find the right men to help the British start their tea plantations in India.

Success depended on secrecy and discretion. If the higher authorities got wind of Fortune`s activities, if they caught him, the mission would fail and Fortune could be killed. It was dangerous work: even if the Chinese authorities never found him, diseases and criminal gangs could kill him.

This then is the story Sarah Rose offers us: an exciting tale of industrial espionnage where this time the Chinese are the victims.

A wonderful read.

Vincent Poirier, Montreal

by Honoré de Balzac
Edition: Paperback
Price: $8.99
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2.0 out of 5 stars Cheating the reader, June 24, 2015
This review is from: Ursula (Paperback)
With Balzac's "The Magic Skin" (La Peau de chagrin) with Dickens's "A Christmas Carol", and with Shakespeare's "Macbeth" readers are willing to suspend disbelief because the supernatural premises are given early in the story and they are part of what sells the story to us. Even when the supernatural appears unannounced and unlooked for, as when Caesar's assassins and Richard III are haunted, the device adds to the mood rather than resolve the plot.

Not so here. We have a good story about relatives conspiring to take for themselves a young girl's inheritance. The novel deals with the very real world of the French Civil Code, of family disputes, of kindness to strangers, and of falling in love. So why ruin this with a ridiculous twist?

I'm willing to accept magic when the author lived in a world where everyone believed such things (The Tale of Genji has the most wonderful ghosts, for instance) but when Balzac, who despite his Catholicism was a humanist, decides to have a plot like this depend on ghosts, séances, and Mesmerism, well I almost felt like giving up on the novel. And I would have if I hadn't resolved to read all of the Comédie Humaine.

What makes it unforgiveable is that Mesmerism was already shown to be quackery. An 18th century French royal commission, which had invited American ambassador Benjamin Franklin to join, had even refuted Mesmer's claims by testing them, even following Mesmers instructions, with their feet soaking in basins, holding each other by the thumbs so that the "magnetic fluids" could flow through them. That must have made quite a scene! Deepak Chopra and Uri Geller invented nothing.

So one star above the lowest score for the writing and the characters, but that’s all.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

(Despite my last two Balzac reviews of only two stars, I really am enjoying La Comédie Humaine. I haven't gotten around to reviewing Old Man Goriot, or The Mariage Contract yet, or the wonderful short story The Atheist's Mass, but I will soon. All of these are five stars, and among the best of the best.)

Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas
Price: $2.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What yarns will people spin around tomorrow's campfires?, May 18, 2015
This review is from: Cloud Atlas (Amazon Instant Video)
Science fiction films are getting better. As enjoyable as it is, even Star Trek makes for pretty lame SF: every alien species speaks perfect American English and yet Chekov never overcame is Russian (RAAASHun) accent.

There are only a half dozen or so films that really qualify as serious science fiction and I rank Cloud Atlas at number three, after 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner.

(In some ways the very best hard SF film ever made is Terminator because it is, like all good science fiction, completely self-consistent. So much so that a very proud and smug James Cameron had one of the characters make the point in the film. But I digress.)

Like 2001:A Space Odyssey, Cloud Atlas leaps from era to era. We follow slave colonies in the nineteenth century, a young composer in the early twentieth century, an investigative journalist in 1972, a publisher hounded by a murderer author in 2012, the executed leader of a slave revolt in 2144, and the world her sacrifice made possible centuries later.

The stories feature the same actors (among others Halle Berry, Tom Hanks, and an unrecognizable Hugh Grant who finally shows the world he can play other characters besides romantic leads) reappearing in different roles across different times. The frame story, which is also the core story, starts with a sage old man who yarns a tale in a language we cannot recognize but cannot fail to understand, a kind of future English where people verb familiar nouns and they noun their doings. By the fire the old man tells the tale, and we jump in and out of his tale and of other tales he isn’t yarning but that happened just the same.

By the end, every story is resolved to a satisfactory dramatic conclusion. Sometimes the ending is happy, sometimes sad, sometimes unfair and tragic. We are left perplexed and wondering "What does this all mean?" and there is no simple easy answer.

In so many ways, this film beats 2001 and Blade Runner hands down. It avoids the heavy, grand, almost religious overtones of humanity's destiny that fill Kubrick's work and instead offers introspective insights into what destiny awaits the film's characters, and by extension what destiny awaits you and me. And while Cloud Atlas doesn't make me feel as much empathy for any of its characters as I did for the dying Roy Batty in Blade Runner, it does make me look at more aspects of what it means to be human than does Blade Runner.

But I cannot claim to understand Cloud Atlas completely. I don't mean that it is confusing and I am not condemning the Wachowski Siblings of being unclear. Quite the opposite: Cloud Atlas offers so much that it requires repeated reflection to gain insights. You've got to think about it a lot, you've got to forget about it, and you need to come back to it to get everything that it says. You need to live with it to understand the yarn that an old man will spin around a campfire a few centuries from now.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution
The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution
by Francis Fukuyama
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.95
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Where did our liberal democratic institutions come from? And where could they go?, May 9, 2015
The title is no accident, I'm sure.

In the early 19th century naturalists developped the classification of living things to such an extent that their work is one of the great achievements of human history. The unit was the "specie" and the resulting immense catalogue of living things recorded begged the question: "Where did all these species come from?". The answer came in a flash to Charles Darwin in the 1830s as a result of his travels across the world and his systematic first hand study of plants and animals. He worked on writing out his answer, Natural Selection, for thirty years and finally published "The Origin of Species".

For some reason, many intelligent well-read people make the mistake of thinking Darwin's work proves that somehow the Ascent of Man was inevitable and the process of evolution has a direction. It does not, and biologists agree that evolution is largely contingent, a sort of continuous random walk. Evolution might be evolution-from-something but it isn't evolution-towards-anything. Where you are does depend on where you've been and it imposes a constraint on where you can go, but it doesn't decide if at the crossroad you'll go left, right, straight on or turn back. That part is contingent.

And so with Fukuyama's 2011 book "The Origins of Political Order". We've studied history, we've seen the rise and fall of nations and empires. We've had a go at now discredited economic theories of what caused these. But still we too often think that the rise of Liberal Democracy is somehow inevitable, or that all political development tends towards Liberal Democracy, just as we too often wrongly think the evolution of man is the end-all and be-all of evolution.

Francis Fukuyama himself is guilty of promoting this thesis in his otherwise brilliant and insightful 1992 book "The End of History and the Last Man" where he passionately argues that once a society has achieved a stable form of Liberal Democratic government, there is nothing left to improve, that the process of developing social and political institutions has reached its satisfying conclusion.

Fukuyama is now older and wiser; he's outgrown his youthful exhuberance and he has reconsidered the conclusions towards which his earlier insights had led him.

From the start, a humbler Fukuyama recognizes that because of the relatively small number of cases available for study, it isn't possible to create a complete predictive theory of political development. But working with what is in fact available, we can tease out insights and clues as to how successful societies develop the instiutions that characterize them and in which their people live and thrive.

Institutions form the foundation of Fukuyama's ideas of political development, more precisely he studies the relationships among three instututions: the state, the rule of law, and accountable government. Says Fukuyama "A successful modern liberal democracy combines all three sets of institutions in a stable balance."

He surveys history to look for examples of these institutions and others coming into existence then thriving or failing. He looks at India, China, and Russia. Fukuyama looks at Hungary and examines why despite the king having had his own Magna Carta imposed on him, the kingdom never developed accountable government. He looks at Denmark and studies how that kingdom did develop accountable government and that this came from the king without a Magna Carta and at the expense of the aristocracy (the force was peasant literacy brought from Lutherism and having the Bible translated in Danish).

The author saves the study of England for last for the reason I mentioned above: English Speaking Peoples tend to see the rise of their liberal democracy as inevitable. Fukuyama shows that it was contingent on many factors coming together and that parliament (government) the king (the executive or the state) and the rule of law balanced the other two. Each institution was strong but none was ever able to fully dominate the other two. The crucial idea of balance comes through.

I find only a few things wrong with the book, and even then they are merely cosmetic. I don't know why Fukuyama bothered with diagrams: they add nothing to the author's wonderfully clear prose and they risk oversimplifying his ideas.

The other defect is only a minor sin: Fukuyama has a knack for occasionally coming up with truly ugly words: "repatrimonialization" (p 81) and "subinfeudate" (p 107). I'll leave you the pleasure of finding out what these words mean.

(At least when Winston Churchill used the word "depotabilize" while quoting one of his memos in his World War II memoirs, he had the decency to apologize. Perhaps Fukuyama constructs these ungainly technical monstrosities because of an unwarranted envy social scientists feel towards the more mathematical hard sciences. Pish posh! History is history and physics is physics. If no word exists and a writer can't come up with a good one, he should simply use a phrase.)

On the other hand, Fukuyama shows tremendous courage in bluntly articulating hard truths. One in particular deserves to be singled out: a major problem liberal democracy faces today is that of the weak state. It is tremendously difficult for stable liberal democracies to make major corrections to social problems. Witness the United States inability to deal with healthcare. Conversely, strong states with little or no rule of law and where government is not accountable can simply run roughshod over anyone opposing their will. Witness China building the Three Gorges hydroelectric complex and simply forcing people out of their ancestral villages.

This doesn't mean the Chinese model works. Fukuyama reminds us that while it does deliver prosperity today when the leadership is smart and displays economic wisdom, the Chinese model doesn't allow for "bad emperors" ie dictatorial leaders that don't know what they are doing or who work exclusively for themselves.

The author calls these and other problems "political decay" and he examines them in the second part of of his work, his 2014 book "Political Order and Political Decay", which I look forward to reading very soon.

Vincent Poirier, Montreal
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 10, 2015 6:07 AM PDT

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