Fukuyama on institutional development & institutional decay

“Rapid transformation destroys old coping mechanisms, old safety nets, while it creates a new set of demands, before new coping mechanisms are developed.”

–Joseph Stiglitz, Forward to Karl Polanyi’s Great Transformations

Notes on Fukuyama’s Origins of Political Order (2011)

Overview of Institutions

“Institutions initially appear for what in retrospect were historically contingent reasons. But certain ones survive and spread because they meet needs that are in some sense universal. This is why there has been institutional convergence over time, and why it is possible to give a general account of political development. But the survival of institutions involves a lot of contingency as well: a political system that works well for a rapidly growing country whose population’s median age is in the twenties may not work so well for a stagnant society where a third of the citizenry is at retirement age. If the institution fails to adapt, the society will face crisis or collapse, and may be forced to adopt another one.” (482)

Definition of Institutions

“In this book, I have been using Samuel Huntington’s definition of institutions as ‘stable, valued, recurring patterns of behavior.'” (450)

Development of Institutions

“Samuel Huntington lists four criteria for measuring the degree of development of the institutions that make up the state: adaptability-rigidity, complexity-simplicity, autonomy-subordination, and coherence-disunity. That is, the more adaptable, complex, autonomous, and coherent an institution is, the more developed it will be. An adaptable organization can evaluate a changing external environment and modify its own internal procedures in response. Adaptable institutions are the ones that survive, since environments always change.” (450)

Institutional Decay

Institutions are conservative with respect to change. They are “sticky,” writes Fukuyama: i.e., risk-averse, change-resistant.

Changing external conditions can cause unadaptive institutions to decay or collapse. “[T]he fact that societies are so enormously conservative with regard to institutions means that when the original conditions leading to the creation or adoption of an institution change, the institution fails to adjust quickly to meet the new circumstances. The disjunction in rates of change between institutions and the external environment then accounts for political decay or deinstitutionalization.” (452)


Ours is an unsettled time. Overpopulation, unsustainable ag, higher ed bubble, civil society implosion, family shake-up, modern state losing legitimacy, etc.: some non-adaptable, middle of collapse. In the interregnum: many experiments, most of which likely to fail, a few possibly survive and flourish.