I was just reading a good review of Fukuyama’s life work in the NAS’s Academic Questions. He is best known for his “end of history” idea around 1989 that nations were all converging to liberal democracy and would stay there forever. People laugh at him for that, because Russia is somewhat autocratic, China is still communist, the Arab world still undemocratic, and so forth. Maybe what they should laugh at him for, though, is thinking that the West is made up of liberal democracies. Is the United States, for example, a democracy at all?
We have a constitution that says the laws are made by elected representatives, to be sure. But the laws aren’t made by elected representatives. They’re mostly made by bureaucrats who are appointed by other bureaucrats by self-perpetuation, with a veneer of political appointees chosen by elected executives (President or governor or mayor) who are their titular bosses. That is because most laws are regulations, not statutes. And even many, perhaps most, statutes are not the real laws– they are more like hunting licenses for the bureaucrats. Section 1001 of the US Code, the “Martha Stewart law” famously makes it a felony to lie to federal employees. 99.99% of such lying, however, goes unprosecuted; it is only people like General Flynn, who offend the ruling bureaucracy, who are prosecuted, or people who have committed some other crime whom the government charges with section 1001 to make it easier to get around the need for proof of the real crime. Section 1001 is not the only statute like this. President Obama’s DACA program is another example, of a kind very common in immigration law: the statute says various things, but the executive branch declares it won’t enforce the parts it doesn’t like. In that case, the next executive, President Trump, tried to go back to enforcing the statute, but the courts blocked him because they, like Obama, don’t like it.
And that brings in the courts, another set of bureaucrats who make law. Instead of regulations, they change the meaning of laws, often reversing it entirely, so that, for example, a law against racial discrimination becomes a law requiring racial discrimination. They just take the general subject matter and do what they like with it, under the pretence–often extremely thinly veiled– of interpreting the statute.
Think, dear reader, of how laws constrain you yourself in your daily life. Most likely, you don’t want to steal or murder, so the laws made by the legislative branch don’t affect you. You might want to go faster than 25 mph down your street, though. Who decided that, for your street? You might take prescription pills— who decided that that medication was illegal unless prescribed by an expensive authorized person? Today, in July 2020, you might want to go in a store without a mask— who made that a crime? You might want to look at a webpage without notices popping up asking you to authorize cookies— who forced websites to put up notices like that? In your daily life, you confront restrictions on your liberty at every turn, and very few of them are imposed by your elected representatives. Rather, they delegate their law-making authority, or someone else simply issues decrees in the same way a dictator would.
But we do have a “liberal” government, you may say. We have kept the important freedoms like freedom of speech, press, and religion, even if we aren’t free to do what we want to in our mundane daily life.
First off, I’d say that it isn’t a liberal society if every hour you are hemmed in by government power. That’s more like totalitarian, though totalitarianism has degrees. For most people, a government like ours is more oppressive than one in which they lack freedom of speech but are free to do what they want in their private lives. Traditional absolute monarchs used the power of the state far less than the U.S. government of 2020.
Second, take a look at the size of government. Taxes are very high– 24% of economic output in the US, 34% in other developed countries (in the OECD). To that we need to add the deficit, since it will be paid for by taxes eventually— another 4% or so for the USA. Thus, about 30% of our income is taken by the government, its use controlled by our rulers. If a third of what you do is controlled by your rulers, how free are you, really?
Third, it isn’t at all clear that we have freedom of speech any more. You can say a lot of things publicly without getting punished, of course. They just have to be things that the rulers don’t care much about. That’s true of every regime. This includes criticism of the government. You can say taxes are too high or too low. You can say that the rulers are racist– they even like that. It’s kind of like how in Stalinist Russia you could disagree strongly with the government and say that Pravda newspaper was far too limited in its praise of Joseph Stalin and far too negative in its coverage of the wonderful things happening in Russia. But what if you say that blacks are inferior, or that Moslems will all go to hell, or that the Holocaust never happened? The test of whether a society has free speech is whether the government allows truly offensive statements to be made. (Or, we might require that private people such as employers allow them, too, to call it a society with free speech– but let’s not get into that here.) But if you say something offensive, you will be fired from your government job— and remember, 30% of economic activity is paid for by the rulers, whether in the form of government jobs or with other government spending. Moreover, the rulers leverage their spending. If a private college refuses to fire someone for saying something offensive to the rulers, the rulers can threaten to withhold all research funds and all student loans; they can threaten to slow down the building permit process; they can threaten to send investigators to look for regulatory violations; they can decide to condemn college property and route the new street straight through the middle of campus. And this kind of thing does happen. (link to the John Lott/Chicago story; find some research funding examples.) Companies that sell their product to the rulers are similarly vulnerable, and even if they don’t sell to the government, they still can be hit with selective enforcement of regulations.
It’s even worse, though. We still do have legislatures and statutes, after all, and you might think that the citizens still control government that way. As I’ve said already, the executive and judicial branches can and do nullify statutes they don’t like. But there’s another problem beyond that: increased geographic size of government.
Most statutes aren’t passed by city councils, but by state governments and the federal government. In Europe, it doesn’t even stop with the federal governments, because the European Union is up there above them. We have had less and less self-government, as power passes to the bigger region. We trade self-government for the power to govern people in other places. Thus, my power to affect people’s lives through government has gone up as the federal government expanded, but that’s because I get to restrict the freedom of more and more people, in return for them getting to restrict mine. This may or may not be a bad things, but it certainly is reduced self-government for me and for the others whom I now get to control.
This is often called “centralization”, but that’s a bad name for it. It isn’t that some center is doing more; it’s that a bigger group of people is doing it. True centralization would be that people in Washington D.C. get to decide more, and people in the rest of the country less. That does happen, via the increased power of the bureaucrats, who live in Washington, but it’s distinct from the problem of increased size of jurisdiction, of “country”. Congress is still composed of elected officials from all over America— it’s just that power over me has shifted from people in Indiana to people from all over. Now people in California get to tell me what to do with my life, and I get to tell them what to do with their lives. That’s distinct from some bureaucrat in D.C. telling me what to do instead of elected officials controlling me.
So I think Fukuyama had it wrong even in 1989, and even with respect to just the West.