Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order

By Francis Fukuyama

Free Press. 354 pp. $26

Reviewed by Michael Kazin

Are you worried about the rise of violent crime, the illegitimacy, the child abuse, and the pervasive cynicism that seem to have dominated public life over the past three decades? Then Francis Fukuyama has good news for you: We are, he maintains, on the verge of a new era in which ordinary people will strive to live morally and insist that their institutions and leaders do the same. An ethic of collective responsibility will gradually replace that of rampant individualism.

Armed with so bald a thesis, Fukuyama might sound like a right-wing polemicist straining to be a prophet. But the author who burst into prominence in the early 1990s with a remarkable argument about "the end of history" is a subtle, learned thinker who shares little with tub-thumping moralists like William Bennett and Charles Murray beyond a generally conservative worldview. Fukuyama is one of the few American intellectuals of any ideological bent capable of training a knowledge of world history and a grasp of social theory on topics of undeniable contemporary significance.

But the loftier the ambition, the greater the risk of failure. In The Great Disruption, Fukuyama has written two different books, each of which takes up roughly half the volume. The first and more successful half is an historical essay that interprets the decline of moral order since the 1960s and its sprouts of revival through the lens of "social capital." This is a concept, currently fashionable among academics, that Fukuyama defines as "a set of informal values . . . shared among members of a group that permits cooperation between them." "Social capital" is the fuel that runs the institutions of civil society; it depends on a culture of trust (subject of the author's last book) that exists to different degrees in every postindustrial society.

To his credit, Fukuyama avoids blaming the problem of diminished social capital on any ideological faction or bundle of policies. He points out that, from the mid-1960s to the mid-'90s, champions of the individual unbound reigned across the political spectrum and in nearly every developed nation. "To put it simplistically," he writes, "the Left worried about lifestyles, and the Right worried about money."

Such ubiquity can only be explained by a larger phenomenon: the instability that accompanies the shift from an industrial to an information society. Fukuyama argues that amoral behavior has gained legitimacy during every transition from one economic order to another. He points to the rise of intemperance and sexual promiscuity during the early change from agrarianism to industrialism. And he indicates, with a brief statistical survey, that "negative measures of social capital" increased from the late '60s into the '90s throughout Western and central Europe as well as the United States. The strength of family discipline in Japan and South Korea evidently protected those nations from the same ordeal.

Such a comparative perspective is valuable in rescuing debates about moral concerns from the verbal skirmishes of culture warriors on both left and right. But by presenting only the skeleton of an argument, Fukuyama skates over matters that could undermine it. For example, in a provocative chapter, "The Special Role of Women," he argues that the related upsurges of feminism and sexual liberty frayed social bonds from the mid-20th century on. Liberation movements targeted the oppressive aspects of monogamy and paternalist families but neglected to substitute an equally effective way to rear the young.

Fukuyama has swallowed one of the more popular myths of social history. In fact, the "traditional" order never existed for most women; they had to care for the kids while toiling, inside and outside the home, at a myriad of paid and unpaid tasks. And his worry about the impact of falling fertility in the United States and Europe neglects the possibility that adults with fewer children or none at all should have more time to participate in the types of associations, from churches to political parties, that make up civil society. Of course, whether they are motivated to do so is a different question.

But the first half of The Great Disruption is a model of originality and clarity compared to the second. Instead of fleshing out his historical claims and predictions, Fukuyama launches into a rambling survey of what a hefty roster of scholars has written about the "genealogy of morals." His capsule summaries do serve a purpose -- to reveal the roots of cooperative behavior in both evolutionary biology and the networks and hierarchies every culture needs. But the result is an unhappy marriage of the banal and the abstract. "Thus, to say that human beings are by nature social animals," Fukuyama concludes one chapter, "is not to argue that they are inherently peaceful, cooperative, or trustworthy. . . . Rather, it means that they have special facilities for detecting and dealing with deceivers and cheaters, as well as for gravitating toward cooperators and others who follow moral rules." I think we all learned that in kindergarten.

The lengthy digression into other people's research seems to contradict the very title of Fukuyama's book. If biologists and social scientists have come to agree that "the capacity to create social capital through elaborate forms of social cooperation" is integral to human nature, was "the great disruption" that big a deal? The author who once announced the end of history now implies that it never really mattered. Thus does Pollyanna get dressed up in the verities of sociobiology.

Michael Kazin's "America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s" (with Maurice Isserman) will be published this fall. He teaches history at Georgetown University.