In Fukuyama’s telling, The Origins of Political Order is a landmark work of political science because this book finally recognizes that -- although he deplores nepotism as leading to “political decay" -- it is human nature to favor your kin.
Fukuyama cites evolutionary theorist William D. Hamilton’s famous 1964 papers quantifying “kin selection.” Back in the 1950s, biologist J.B.S. Haldane had quipped that while he wouldn’t give up his life for his brother, he would for more than two brothers or eight first cousins. That joke is funny because each of us shares about half of our variable genes with our siblings and an eighth with our first cousins. Hamilton formalized this insight, offering a revolutionary gene-centric explanation for altruism toward relatives. According to Hamilton’s logic, the ultimate reason you nepotistically gave a job to that useless young nephew of yours was because it might help him thrive and pass on some of your gene variants, one quarter of which you share with him.
Fukuyama’s recent gig trying to foster state building in Melanesia has reminded him that the human norm is politics without much political philosophy. In preliterate times, what mattered instead were kin relations. When the Westminster parliamentary system was transplanted to Papua New Guinea, Fukuyama explains, “the result was chaos. The reason was that most voters in Melanesia do not vote for political programs; rather, they support their Big Man and their wantok.” (Wantok is pidgin for “one talk,” or ethnic group sharing one language.) “If the Big Man … can get elected to parliament, the new MP will use his or her influence to direct government resources back to the wantok.”
Yet how functionally different are these Papuan politicians from my own congressman, Howard Berman (D-Calif.)? Berman’s 28-year career in the House has revolved around kinship, too. His primary concern as the former chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee was empowering the ethnocentrism of his Hollywood Hills constituents in the Middle East conflict. And in the great crisis of his career after the 2000 census showed that the San Fernando Valley was due a Latino seat, thus making likely a strong Democratic primary challenge by a Mexican-American, Berman hired his brother, who craftily redistricted all of California, ensuring his political survival by selecting a new people for him. Who else could he trust?
Unfortunately, Fukuyama never gets around to wrestling with the obvious question that has been central to the study of ethnic nepotism since Hamilton made explicit the genetic basis of tribal altruism in a 1975 paper: Who, exactly, are your kin? Where do your relatives end? The answer is: It depends. You grapple with this same question in your daily life, where the answers turn out to depend upon circumstance. You might send a Christmas card to a third cousin whom you wouldn’t invite to Thanksgiving dinner. Similarly, Rep. Berman clearly trusts his brother more than he trusts voters. Yet he also trusts Jewish constituents more than Hispanic ones because he fears the latter will vote for a hermano instead of him.
When you stop to think about it (which Fukuyama doesn’t), your relations with your relatives are, unsurprisingly, relativistic.