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’s Demosclerosis: 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.

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