I happened to be reading two things at once last week that in combination led to some disturbing thoughts.
The first was Joseph A. Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, which looks at the fall of various ancient empires, from the early civilizations of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, to the Roman Empire and the Maya. Tainter’s theory, to simplify things quite a bit, is that as societies grow they become more complex, slapping on layer after layer of institutions, regulations and customs to deal with challenges (and, I suspect, to facilitate the ruling classes’ extracting resources from the ruled).
Over time, these layers grow more and more rigid and take more and more of the society’s resources. It’s hard to change them because every layer of complexity represents some group’s livelihood or claim on power. Eventually, the society is devoting almost all its resources to maintaining these institutions and has very little reserve left to deal with the unexpected. The result is that challenges that it would have weathered easily in the past are now sufficient to bring it to an end.
In essence, Tainter’s theory is a more general version of Jonathan Rauch’sDemosclerosis: The Silent Killer of American Government, which is about how special interests have parasitized the United States governmental apparatus, turning much of its resources to their own benefit and doing their best to prevent change.
The other thing I was reading was a piece by Richard Fernandez on ”the surprising weakness of invincible institutions.” Fernandez notes that all sorts of big institutions are currently failing: Illinois is being bankrupted by public pension debt, and its own state constitution prohibits any attempt to get out of paying it. His worries sound a lot like Tainter’s.
Nor is Illinois the only place being bankrupted this way. Puerto Rico is on the verge offinancial collapse too. Its political class has been borrowing and spending for decades, and it has finally reached the point at which it can’t go on. (As Herb Stein famously said, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”) Yet Puerto Ricans, such as the territory's congressional representative Pedro Pierluisi, still resist a federal financial control board as part of a bailout because that might limit the politicians’ gravy train. Likewise, Venezuela, “a country floating on oil with a climate where anything grows,” as Fernandez describes it, is so broke it appears unable even to pay the people who print its money.
Because political leaders’ chief concern is their own power and position, they’re willing to do almost anything to stave off a collapse, except reduce their own power and position. Kicking the can down the road usually just makes the problem worse in the end, but politicians would rather do that than make any sacrifice up front.
Of course, collapse isn’t, as Tainter notes, always so bad. When the Western Roman Empire collapsed, ordinary people were often better off because they were freed from the empire’s oppressive taxes and regulations (like the rules that sons of soldiers, civil servants and workers in government factories, among others, must enter the trades of their fathers). Many people in the provinces welcomed the barbarians. The new governments were actually better at what governments are for, as Tainter writes: “The smaller Germanic kingdoms that succeeded Roman rule in the West were more successful at resisting foreign incursions (e.g., Huns and Arabs). ... The economic prosperity of North Africa actually rose under the Vandals, but declined again under Justinian’s reconquest when Imperial taxes were reimposed.” Likewise, Venezuelans will probably be better off when they eventually get a new government. They could hardly be worse.
Our society isn’t likely to face a collapse like Rome’s — as Tainter notes, everything now is global. But institutions within it are still at risk from politicians’ tendency to skim off benefits for themselves and their cronies while putting the price off into the future. One advantage that democracies have over empires is that they can reset things with an election, tossing out one band of special interests in favor of a new and different band, which at least keeps things mixed up.