Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Playing a Fool's Game

. Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Scott Sumner asks what is the best social science prediction of the past 20 years, and frames the question thusly:

Before answering this question, let’s first examine what has happened over the past 20 years.

1. The world has gotten much more peaceful. I recall reading that the last couple years were the most peaceful in all of human history (and pre-history for that matter.) Perhaps someone can find the article.

2. The world has gotten much more democratic. The number of democratic countries has soared at the fastest rate in history, by far.

3. The world has gotten much more market-oriented. There has been a huge wave of privatization and deregulation of prices and market access. And this trend extends far beyond the formerly communist countries.

So who got it right? According to Sumner, it was the much-maligned Francis Fukuyama, who first considered the "end of history" in an article in 1989 (his book of the same title was published in 1992). Fukuyama basically argued that the era of major inter-state war had come to an end, the norm of democracy was entrenched and would only be strengthened, and that capitalism would triumph over communism. Despite some setbacks, the trends on all three have pointed in Fukuyama's direction.

Commenters at Sumner's place almost immediately cited Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" as a counter-point. Indeed, Huntington intended that article (also expanded to a book) as a rebuttal to Fukuyama, his former student. But despite the frictions and conflicts of the past two decades, Fukuyama's theory still holds up better than Huntington's: the world is still moving towards integration, not away from it, and overall violent conflict is still trending downward.

Of course history makes every prediction look foolish in the end, but that's part of Fukuyama's point: the "end of history" doesn't mean that conflict will never occur, or that the world order has permanently metastasized. Rather, Fukuyama argues the opposite, claiming that the old "great powers motivated by ideology" dynamics that dominated international politics for centuries has come to an end: ideological battles have been settled in favor of capitalism and democracy, the era of colonialism has come to an end, and great-power wars have been made obsolete by technology.

So is Fukuyama right? Probably not. But for several days I've been trying to think of a recent general theory that out-performs Fukuyama and I can't. Certainly not Chua. Not Barnett either, at least yet. Friedman? You gotta be kidding me. Putnam? I'm not at all convinced.

The floor is open to readers. Is Fukuyama's prediction really the best of the past 20 years? If not, what's better? If so does that say more about the goodness of Fukuyama or the badness of general theorizing?


Playing a Fool's Game
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