I've never been taken any classes in political theory. Or political practice, for that matter. How polities are best structured, what institutions help make you rich, what other ones lead to stagnation or eternal conflict, how even originally good institutions decay over time, what makes people accept a government as legitimate, how people can take the stability of their society for granted until it all dissoves around them....
Well, for some reason, I am thinking about those things now. My current reading is Francis Fukuyama's The Origins of Political Order, the first of two volumes, this one covering the history of state building up to the French Revolution.
Thick, dense, and tremendous fun, so far. He spends a great deal of time on China, and a lot on India as well, and lets the Roman Empire kind of take care of itself.
One big theme is the negative effects what he calls patrimonialism has on state building and strength. Loyalty to your relatives is natural. Successful states are, by that token, deeply unnatural. They break the link between family and political authority. He posits that feudalism in the West, essentially a contractual relationship, formed a stable base on which more complex polities could be built. There is certainly a lot of the personal in feudalism, as there is in any relationship between people. But it started the West down a road where the important thing was office and not person.
I don't want to oversimplify. Fukuyama gives a good deal of attention to what characterized each type of government, how it grew out of its circumstances and history, what expectations people had of the systems under which they lived, and how, inevitably, changing expectations weren't met by the existing system.
How the Mamelukes and Ottomans built successful systems based on giving political power to high-status slaves (to eliminate the risk of patrimonialism), only to have these systems eventually fracture as these successful slaves found ways to pass their wealth and power on to their descendants, may seem to have little to do with our current troubles, but seeing how many different ways there are to deal with a recurrent problem is definitely enlightening. It's easy to be distracted by the immediate details. What are people really after? How different is that, really, from one age to another? What mechanisms slow people down from destroying the system that benefits them so much? I won't say prevents--nothing has ever prevented societal collapse.
I'm not done yet, and need to think it through once I am, but there is a lot to like about this book.