MEGAN MCARDLE at the Atlantic, posted an essay question by Pascal Emmanuel-Gobry.
Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.
The thesis is false. Luddite on top of false. But false.
1) Governors are simply unable to possess sufficient knowledge. In the absence of knowledge governors do the one thing we charge them with: make laws. They make laws without knowledge. It is the system of regulations that breaks down, not technological complexity. Lawmakers cannot make good laws because they lack the ability to possess or integrate the knowledge necessary to make economic laws. Why this is the general critique of socialism (central planning) but we do not apply the same logic to republican government (central legislation) is an more interesting topic of study. Knowledge and incentives. You need both. Government has neither.
2) His analysis of complexity is erroneous. There is no evidence of marginal decreases in effectiveness. And any such analysis belies a misunderstanding of technical and epistemic progress. It is not LINEAR or STATIC. As is biology, innovation functions by punctuated equilibria. In other words, random, large shifts occur due to accumulated minor innovations, whereby all previous innovations are disrupted, and all social orders reorganize around the large shifts.
3) The context is erroneous. Western dominance rose because of changes in trade routes. The USA became dominant by selling off a continent to immigrants, and concentrating that capital in military and political conquest. A republican government is the only government dynamic enough (incorporating enough people) to sell off a continent. We did not make an excellent country. We simply sold off a continent and funded technological development with the proceeds. These proceeds are now in the form of intellectual capital. That intellectual capital is fluid, and open to unfettered replication. The world is copying that technology at a low cost. This low cost is allowing vast increases in population and vast increases in the structure of production, allowing people to move from subsistence farming to a suburban and urban working class. This migration is creating a vast pool of available labor. Since people are NOT EQUAL in ability, this means that the USA is specializing in productive efforts open only to the top two quintiles. It means that the bottom three quintiles are not able to participate in the production of the USA’s specialisms (creative marketing, medicine, education, product development, financial innovation) and the specializations are no longer sufficiently profitable to assist the lower quintiles by redistribution.
Free Traders were wrong. Nations cannot specialize because people in them are unequal. CLASSES within NATIONS must specialize. Free trade is dangerous to the stability of advanced societies between whom differences are not sufficiently marginal.
4) We do not need simplicity. We need innovation and reorganization. We need the assistance of the government to concentrate capital in industries where we can be competitive, and to retain all possible capital inside the country, so that the lower quintiles do not so much suffer from the affect of increased competition from around the world. The Author of your essay is yet another Luddite. The way is not back, it is forward.
4) we have taken over the policing of trade routes from the British empire. We have built a political empire, if not an economic one. And we could afford that empire when Europe was in tatters, and the rest of the world languished in pre-capitalist technologies. We cannot afford to run this empire any longer. Any more than England could after the war. However, there will be no gains to be realize for the purposes of redistribution. The USA will no longer be able to borrow, nor productive enough to export it’s way to prosperity. We will not have either empire, nor our previous wealth.
Societies failed because the were no longer able to coordinate. People must have coordinating myths. Myths are the means by which codify what we pay for social order: respect for some form of property or another. Every ‘respect’ of some form of property is a forgone opportunity. These forgone opportunities are costs. These costs are very expensive. The most advanced societies contain people who forgo great opportunities to ‘disrespect’ property. The primitive societies do not forgo those opportunities. This behavioral development is a very high cost.
The first myths were simply conventions. They were formalized into Religions. Religions finally failed when the middle class developed, and societies became large enough that people could visibly ‘cheat’ with anonymity. Lawmaking developed in order, largely, to legitimize government (and it’s social order) by standardizing punishments for similar crimes against life and property.
That technology of Lawmaking has failed (although our government does not recognize this.) Because laws are too many and too irrelevant and too impossible to police. Our politicians knowingly state that they do not understand nor have they even read, many of the laws that they implement. They leave this process to the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy serves it’s own purpose. And it is the bureaucracy that citizens learn to loathe. “Revolutions are built from the accumulation of petty violence by the bureaucracy, not the heinous crimes of a few politicians, princes, or kings.”
The next form of government after lawmaking is banking and credit. The reason being that only that system will allow us to ‘sense’ the world, and only that system will allow the state to engage in the increase in capital so that redistribution is possible. Rather than the (current) assumption that capital will continue to accumulate and the government must simply confiscate enough of if to keep the citizens happy. To survive, we will become even more capitalist, not less. We must. Because only property, pricing, and numbers can provide us with the information to coordinate in vast division of knowledge and labor.
THE STATE OF THE UNION
Our current state of affairs is not a problem of politics and parties. It is a problem with the very structure of government, and the multitudinous myths that we live under, tell ourselves and use to justify our wants and wishes. Our government was very useful for selling off a continent in the agrarian era. In the post agrarian, dense-urban era, we are too sufficiently un-equal, to diverse, possessed of too fragmentary knowledge, for lawmaking as we understand it.
This is why our society is failing. It is why previous societies have failed: the inability to regulate consumption and concentrate capital for production because the social orders did not develop a level of granular management. That management is visible to us in the private banking, credit and finance systems. Our governments must realize that they are banks first.
You can’t redistribute something if you have nothing to start with.
The first purpose is defense and property definition (order)
The second purpose of the state is productivity (competition)
The third is redistribution. (the result of order and competition)
They must exist in that order. A state that does not focus on productivity will eventually be unable to redistribute, compete, or maintain order.
SPECIOUS ARGUMENTS BY LUDDITES
Arguments about complexity are specious. A division of labor is by definition complex. A market is complex, or we would not need it. Pricing systems are complex or we would not have had them. If we became less complex we would have to return more people to farming, and possibly, kill off billions of existing human beings. Complexity is our friend. The accumulated social and legal hindrances to reorganization, and the accumulated ERRORS in political philosophy that prohibit the concentration of capital behind innovative productive ends, is the problem.
Our institution of government, as we practice it today, is the problem. It is predicated upon erroneous myths. It is structured to make laws for farmers. It is burdened with assumptions of productivity that may never be met.
The institutions of government that are more socialist are even worse. They pretend knowledge of a future that cannot be known. And Luddite solutions are appeals to create a certain future, whose only certainty is destruction and poverty.