Saturday, October 17, 2020

"COVID-19 and the Collapse of Complex Societies"

 From the hardcore libertarians at Reason magazine (they are also very good at costing out high-speed rail in the U.S., go figure)

April 16, 2020:

Sometimes pressure causes breakdowns, but sometimes it causes breakthroughs.

With the world experiencing the worst pandemic since 1918, many people may wonder if civilization is as secure as it might be. History offers insight into this question. Civilizational breakdown is a recurring historical process. Looking at how it has happened before can help us understand what causes it, the forms it may take, and how far away from it we may be. Civilizational crisis and collapse were given a formal scholarly definition in Joseph Tainter's 1988 book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, and Tainter's model underlies the work of later generations of scholars.

The model works this way. Since at least the advent of agriculture, people have responded to challenges and sought to improve their condition. One form this takes is through social cooperation and the division of labor, an approach that leads to more complex forms of economy, society, and politics. In the abstract, complexity means higher levels of heterogeneity, as opposed to uniformity. In concrete economic terms, it means a more elaborate division of labor, a larger number of distinct occupations, and greater specialization both geographically and among people. Socially, it means a greater number of roles and ways of living, more variety in the stages of life, increased differentiation, and more varied and changeable interpersonal relations. Politically, it means more structured political units, more elaborate administration, and higher levels of urbanization. Complexity in all of these forms brings a positive payoff in terms of more production, higher living standards, more inventiveness, and a more varied and commodious way of living. It therefore pays to move toward more complex ways of doing things and living.

But there are limits to this approach. Complexity has diminishing marginal returns: The gains from complexity become less as it increases, while the costs (such as information problems, ineffectuality, and difficulty in changing course) become greater. Eventually, increased complexity has negative returns. Moreover, as social, economic, and political orders become more complex they also become more fragile and brittle, less resilient and adaptable. They become less able to cope with unexpected shocks (or even shocks that are anticipated). As the system becomes more complex and interdependent—in ways that the people who are part of it do not fully understand—it becomes susceptible to a general breakdown caused by cascade effects. These happen when a failure in one part of the system leads to unforeseeable failures in other parts. These failures may have no obvious connection to the original problem, which in turn leads to further breakdowns elsewhere.

Underlying all of this for most (or all?) of history is the fundamental reality of limited resources. These impose constraints on the level of complexity that a given type of economic and social organization can support. These limits usually lurk in the background, but as the population, level of human activity, and complexity reach such constraints, they start to pinch in many ways. It is that pressure that brings the collapse of a complex order. For Tainter and his successors, the process is actually one of simplification, the breakdown and decomposition of complex forms of organization into simpler and less diverse ones. This has many aspects, including a decline in population and urbanization; a move from large polities to smaller, more local ones; and a decay of elaborate trade systems and divisions of labor. Sometimes the process is arrested or even reversed, and sometimes it continues until a new, simpler equilibrium is reached....


If interested see also:

"The Philosophy of Complexity: Are Complex Systems Inherently Tyrannical?"

In the end the universe itself is inherently tyrannical.
You are not the boss.
"The Limits to Racketeering"
It Wasn't 'Ecocide': What Happend On Easter Island
"The Hittites Lived in Interesting Times"
You never know when the flight attendant is going to get on the speaker and ask "Does anyone onboard know anything about the Hittites?"
And should that time come, you will be ready.
"Lessons From The Last Time Civilization Collapsed"