Verbal Regression Analysis, the “End of History,” and Think-Tanks

There once was a Washington DC careerist with whom I crossed verbal swords. I won; he lost and moved on to another job. I must, however, credit him with at least one accurate observation: Regression analysis is a method of predicting the past with great accuracy.

What did he mean by that? Data about past events may yield robust statistical relationships, but those relationships are meaningless unless they accurately predict future events. The problem is that in the go-go world of DC, where rhetoric takes precedence over reality, analysts usually assume the predictive power of statistical relationships, without waiting to see if they have any bearing on future events.

Francis Fukuyama has just published an article in which he admits that his famous article, “The End of History” (1989), was a kind of verbal regression analysis — a sweeping prediction of the future based on a (loose) verbal analysis of the past.

What is the “end of history”? This, according to Wikipedia:

[A] political and philosophical concept that supposes that a particular political, economic, or social system may develop that would constitute the end-point of humanity’s sociocultural evolution and the final form of human government.

What did Fukuyama say about “the end of history” in 1989? This:

In watching the flow of events over the past decade or so, it is hard to avoid the feeling that something very fundamental has happened in world history….

What we may be witnessing in not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. This is not to say that there will no longer be events to fill the pages of Foreign Affairs‘s yearly summaries of international relations, for the victory of liberalism has occurred primarily in the realm of ideas or consciousness and is as yet incomplete in the real or material world. But there are powerful reasons for believing that it is the ideal that will govern the material world in the long run. To understand how this is so, we must first consider some theoretical issues concerning the nature of historical change.

What does Fukuyama say now? This:

I argued [in 1989] that History (in the grand philosophical sense) was turning out very differently from what thinkers on the left had imagined. The process of economic and political modernization was leading not to communism, as the Marxists had asserted and the Soviet Union had avowed, but to some form of liberal democracy and a market economy. History, I wrote, appeared to culminate in liberty: elected governments, individual rights, an economic system in which capital and labor circulated with relatively modest state oversight….

Twenty-five years later, the most serious threat to the end-of-history hypothesis isn’t that there is a higher, better model out there that will someday supersede liberal democracy; neither Islamist theocracy nor Chinese capitalism cuts it. Once societies get on the up escalator of industrialization, their social structure begins to change in ways that increase demands for political participation. If political elites accommodate these demands, we arrive at some version of democracy.

The question is whether all countries will inevitably get on that escalator. The problem is the intertwining of politics and economics. Economic growth requires certain minimal institutions such as enforceable contracts and reliable public services before it will take off, but those basic institutions are hard to create in situations of extreme poverty and political division. Historically, societies broke out of this “trap” through accidents of history, in which bad things (like war) often created good things (like modern governments). It is not clear, however, that the stars will necessarily align for everyone….

A second problem that I did not address 25 years ago is that of political decay, which constitutes a down escalator. All institutions can decay over the long run. They are often rigid and conservative; rules responding to the needs of one historical period aren’t necessarily the right ones when external conditions change.

Moreover, modern institutions designed to be impersonal are often captured by powerful political actors over time. The natural human tendency to reward family and friends operates in all political systems, causing liberties to deteriorate into privileges….

As for technological progress, it is fickle in distributing its benefits. Innovations such as information technology spread power because they make information cheap and accessible, but they also undermine low-skill jobs and threaten the existence of a broad middle class.

No one living in an established democracy should be complacent about its survival. But despite the short-term ebb and flow of world politics, the power of the democratic ideal remains immense. We see it in the mass protests that continue to erupt unexpectedly from Tunis to Kiev to Istanbul, where ordinary people demand governments that recognize their equal dignity as human beings. We also see it in the millions of poor people desperate to move each year from places like Guatemala City or Karachi to Los Angeles or London.

Even as we raise questions about how soon everyone will get there, we should have no doubt as to what kind of society lies at the end of History.

And blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

The “end of history” will be some kind of “democracy,” and it will arrive despite all of the very real obstacles in its way, which include sectional and sectarian conflict, the capture of governmental power by special interests, and economic realities (which are somehow “wrong,” despite the fact that they are just realities). In the end “hope and change” will prevail because, well, they ought to prevail, by golly.

In sum, Fukuyama has substituted a new verbal regression analysis for his old one.

You may have guessed by now that “verbal regression analysis” means “bullshit.” Fukuyama emitted bullshit in 1989, and he’s emitting it 25 years later. Why anyone would pay attention to him and his ilk is beyond me.

But there are organizations — so-called think-tanks — that specialize in converting your tax dollars into bullshit of the kind emitted by Fukuyama. It’s unfortunate that the output of those think-tanks can’t be bagged and used as fertilizer. It would then have real value.