março 05, 2012

Tainter - The collapse of complex societies III

Any complex hierarchy must allocate a portion of its resource base to solving the problems of the population it administers, but must also set aside resources to solve problems created by its own existence, and created by virtue of overall societal complexity. Prior to the development of modern welfare states it is likely that these increased administrative costs did little for the population as a whole other than to maintain some semblance of basic needs. And often even that was not accomplished. To maintain growth in complexity, hierarchies levy heavier taxes on their populations. At some point even this yields declining marginal returns. This happens when rates are so high that avoidance increases, and taxation-induced infation erodes the value of the money collected.

Rulers [...] must constantly legitimize their reigns. Legitimizing activities include such things as external defense and internal order, alleviating the effects of local productivity fluctuations, undertaking local development projects, and providing food and entertainment (as in Imperial Rome) for urban masses. In many cases the productivity of these legitimizing investments will decline. Whatever activities a hierarchy undertakes initially to bond a population to itself (providing defense, agricultural development, public works, bread and circuses, and the like) often thereafter become de rigueur, so that further bonding activities are at higher cost, with little or no additional benefit to the hierarchy. [...] The alternative course is to reduce legitimizing activities and increase other means of behavioral control. Yet in such situations, as resources committed to benefits decline, resources committed to control must increase. Although quantitative cost/beneft data for such control systems are rare, it seems reasonable to infer that as the costs of coercion increase, the benefits (in the form of population compliance) probably do not grow proportionately [...] These remarks are not meant to suggest that social evolution carries no benefits, nor that the marginal product of social complexity always declines. The marginal product of any investment declines only after a certain point; prior to that point benefits increase faster than costs. Very often, though, societies do reach a level where continued investment in complexity yields a declining marginal return. At that point the society is investing heavily in an evolutionary course that is becoming less and less productive, where at increased cost it is able to do little more than maintain the status quo.


For human societies, the best key to continued socioeconomic growth, and to avoiding or circumventing (or at least financing) declines in marginal productivity, is to obtain a new energy subsidy when it becomes apparent that marginal productivity is beginning to drop. Among modern societies this has been accomplished by tapping fossil fuel reserves and the atom. Among societies without the technical springboard necessary for such development, the usual temptation is to acquire an energy subsidy through territorial expansion.

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