While on vacation I read Joseph Tainter’s, The Collapse of Complex Societies. In it he looks at the late Roman Empire, the Mayan and the Chacoan (Arizona Indian) civilizations. His basic thesis is rather simple and elegant.
- human societies are problem-solving organizations;
- sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance;
- increased complexity carries with it increased costs per capita;and
- investment in sociopolitical complexity as a problem-solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns.
If a society is unwilling or unable to adapt it enters a phase of collapse. One of the most telling examples for our current age is Rome up to and after the reign of Diocletian around 284 A.D. Even by the earlier reign of Augustus, “the combined factors of increased costliness of conquest, and increased difficulty of administration with distance from the capital, effectively require that at some point a policy of expansion must end.” Rome had thought that the conquering of most lands would be “self-financing”, i.e. the plundered treasure of the conquered lands would pay for the expanded army and administrative staff. However, “for a one time infusion of wealth from each conquered province, Rome had to undertake administrative and military responsibilities that lasted centuries.”
By 284 A.D. the people were tired of being taxed for these costs of conquest and so the emperors started to “debase” the currency–literally put less gold in the coin, but call it by the same name. But Rome’s trading partners would not fall for this trick and a hyper-inflation began.
In Egypt, from which the best documentation has survived, a measure of wheat that in the first century A.D. sold for six drachmae, had increased to 200 drachmae by 276 A.D., 9000 in 314, 78,000 in 324 and to more than 2,000,000 drachmae in 334 A.D.
This struck me as analogous to what is happening today.Wolfowitz, Cheney and Co. sold the Conquest of Iraq to Bush as “self-financing”. When this turned out to be a false assumption and unwilling to pay for the Wars by raising taxes, they printed money–debasing our currency. Our trading partners have no confidence in this debased currency and so demand greater amounts of it for a barrel of oil. Thus the inflationary price spiral.
Tainter’s point is fairly clear. The diminishing marginal returns for administering an empire eventually either cause the empire to abandon their imperial ways (Great Britain in the 20th Century) or the empire collapses (Rome in the 5th Century).
It’s our choice.