Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

A Manifesto Without Evidence

Winter 1999

THE GREAT DISRUPTION: HUMAN NATURE AND THE RECONSTITUTION OF SOCIAL ORDER
Francis Fukuyama
The Free Press, 1999, xii + 354 pgs.

This is not a bad book, but almost every major thesis in it is wrong or unproved. According to our author, human society depends to a large extent on "social capital." This he defines as "a set of informal values or norms shared among members of a group that permits cooperation among them. If members of the group come to expect that others will behave reliably and honestly, they will come to trust one another" (p. 16).

Danger lies at hand. Since the 1960s, social capital in the United States and Europe has become depleted, as rising crime rates and increased family disruption demonstrate. This is the great disruption referred to in the book's title.

Fortunately, we need not despair. Strong biological tendencies urge human beings toward cooperation, limiting the extent to which social capital can dissipate. Further, people are capable of cooperative behavior spontaneously, as game theory illustrates. But biology and spontaneous cooperative behavior do not suffice: for a well-functioning and just society, hierarchical elements must be present. A complex mixture, no doubt. But we can take solace in the upward trend of history toward universal acceptance of liberal capitalism.

In one sense, Mr. Fukuyama's thesis that civilization rests on social capital cannot be challenged. He sometimes uses social capital and trust as synonyms for cooperative behavior. Of course, in this sense he is right: as Mises never tired of insisting, only social cooperation through the division of labor enables human beings to survive above the level of animals.

From the undoubted fact that social capital in this sense is essential to civilization, it does not follow that people, in order to prosper, must trust each other in a way that goes beyond rational self-interest. Mr. Fukuyama argues, on grounds of evolutionary biology, that human beings have natural instincts to cooperate and trust one another. He does not contend that evolution developed these instincts apart from individuals' self-interest, but the self-interest involved here is not present-day conscious self-interest. Rather, it is self-interest in the sense of genetic fitness of our supposed evolutionary ancestors that is here involved.

In brief, Mr. Fukuyama thinks we have social instincts. These need not lead us to do what is in our rational self-interest, as dictated by the conscious disposition of means to best achieve what we want. But these instincts became embedded in us because evolution favored those who had them.

After this longwinded account of what Mr. Fukuyama is saying, we can return to the question of whether he is right. I cannot see that he has shown that social trust, in the sense of instincts for social behavior, is needed to establish a complex society. Why is it not enough if people recognize, entirely consciously, that social cooperation is to the advantage of each of them?

I do not say that this is all that is involved in civilized societies; but rather that our author has failed to show that social trust in his stronger sense is necessary. Cannot mistrustful individuals engage in mutually beneficial trade?

If there is anything to this line of thought, Mr. Fukuyama's notion of a Great Disruption contains a crucial gap. Suppose he is right that social trust, in the sense of actions based on inherited social instincts, has gone down. It may still be the case that social cooperation does not atrophy, since people may recognize it is in their self-interest to cooperate. If so, the Disruption may not amount to so much as our author thinks. Once more, I do not assert that the hypothesis just canvassed is true: but Mr. Fukuyama has not shown it false, and he needs to do so if his thesis is to stand.

Another difficulty in the idea of a Great Disruption our author recognizes: "It should be noted at the outset that there is one very serious problem with using social dysfunction data as a negative measure of social capital: it ignores distribution. Just as conventional capital is unevenly distributed within a society...so social capital is also likely to be unevenly distributed: strata of highly socialized, self-organizing people may coexist with pockets of extreme atomization and social pathology" (p. 23). Thus, increases in crime, drug use, family breakups, etc., may not show a general downturn in trust. But though our author recognizes the problem, he nevertheless goes ahead exactly as if it did not exist.

And there is a further problem our author does not recognize. Some of the measures of social dysfunction he adopts seem entirely compatible with high levels of social trust, even among the dysfunctional people themselves. Why cannot people from broken homes trust one another in their business and social affairs? Need drug users be socially mistrustful?

Again, suppose that Mr. Fukuyama is entirely right: social pathology does measure social trust, and there has been a sharp increase in social pathology since the 1960s. Is the thesis of a Great Disruption proved?

I do not think so. It does not follow that whenever social capital goes down, that this has untoward consequences for society. For all he has shown to the contrary, the optimal rate of social trust has come closer to achievement, because of the increase in antisocial behavior. Maybe the rate of trust was too high before: who says there cannot be an oversupply of social capital?

In any case, Mr. Fukuyama has argued that there has been a Great Disruption. He spends the remainder of the book trying to show that grounds for hope exist. Humpty-Dumpty has had a great fall, and now Mr. Fukuyama proposes to put him together again.

He does so principally by appeal to evolutionary biology. As suggested earlier, he thinks that evolution has implanted social instincts in us. These have evolved, not through group selection, but according to what promoted the inclusive fitness of our ancestors. (Readers unfamiliar with this term should read our author's brief reprise of Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, pp. 168-69.)

Evolutionary explanations of behavior are all the rage nowadays, but they seem highly speculative in the bad sense. As Mr. Fukuyama recognizes, "It is, of course, both easy and dangerous to draw facile comparisons between animal and human behavior. Human beings are different from chimpanzees precisely because they do have culture and reason, and can modify their genetically controlled behavior in any number of complex ways" (p. 165). Nevertheless, he assures us that findings from primatology do give us insight into politics. Once again, our author states a problem and then passes by untroubled.

Again, though, suppose I am mistaken: it has happened. Evolutionary biology, we shall suppose, succeeds entirely in explaining human behavior and it does show that human beings have social instincts. (I confess, though, that I very much doubt that the alleged facts that preferences stem from the limbic system and rational thought from the neocortex will ever be shown to have any relevance for social thought [p. 182]).

The imagined success of evolutionary explanations of social instincts gives us little grounds for thinking that the Great Disruption is limited in its scope. If Mr. Fukuyama is correct that there has been a Great Disruption, then whatever the constraints of evolution, they by hypothesis did not prevent some degree of disruption in social capital. If this degree, why not more? Why not enough disruption to create total social chaos? We are left in the dark.

Mr. Fukuyama, I fear, has a penchant for assertion without evidence. He informs us that "[h]ierarchy is necessary to correct the defects and limitations of spontaneous order" (p. 234); but the defects in question appear to be that, without the hierarchical "charismatic" leadership, societies will not be governed by the universal values he thinks appropriate. Without legislation in the 1960s, e.g., "popular norms on race" might not have changed (p. 234). In order to come to a reasoned judgment on our author's case for hierarchy, one would need to know in some detail the nature of the universal values only hierarchy can secure.

One would also have to have an argument that these values ought to be supported rather than resisted. These our author does not provide. He gives us instead a brief sketch of his version of historical progress (pp. 280-81).

The Great Disruption contains an abundance of material on various areas of social science, and is for this reason worth reading. Mr. Fukuyama confuses behaviorism, a school of psychology, with behavioralism, a movement in political science; in any case, William James was not, as our author thinks, a behaviorist (p. 73). The remark "social capital is not a public good but a private good pervaded by externalities" (p. 251) suggests that Mr. Fukuyama's grasp of the nature of a public good is not altogether solid.

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