January 26, 2013



We, the Editor, have seen references to Joseph Tainter’s excellent book a few times in recent months. This is appropriate and timely. His argument is a glorious counterpoint to the doctrinaire faiths of the free-market true believers that free-market extremism will produce the highest and best good for all, endless progress, and technological and transformational solutions to the depletion and degradation of our societies and the planet.

These teleologies rest on illusory tenets of classical economics that have, of course, been discredited and renounced as having absolutely no explanatory usefulness for real events. However. Perhaps free-market true believers who would still parrot classical economics are willing to live or die by that sword.

In brief, under classical presumptions about marginal utility, the devolution of societies from more complex to less complex states is an economically “rational” efficiency-seeking “choice,” and a near inevitability, for complex societies. This is especially true in sticky limiting conditions of an absolute nature, and in “global” systems in which there are no “peer polities.”

So much for Progress. Here is a summation of Tainter’s argument:

“Sociopolitical organizations constantly encounter problems that require increased investment merely to preserve the status quo. The investment comes in such forms as increasing size of bureaucracies, increasing specialization of bureaucracies, cumulative organizational solutions, increasing costs of legitimizing activities, and increasing costs of internal control and external defense. All of these must be borne by levying greater costs on the support population, often to no increased advantage. As the number and costliness of organizational investments increases, the proportion of a society’s budget available for investment in future economic growth must decline.

Thus, while initial investment by a society in growing complexity may be a rational solution to perceived needs, that happy state of affairs cannot last. As the least costly extractive, information-processing and organizational solutions are progressively exhausted, any further need for increased complexity must be met by more costly responses. As the cost of organizational solutions grows, the point is reached at which continued investment in complexity does not give a proportionate yield, and the marginal return begins to decline. The added benefits per unit of investment start to drop. Ever greater increments of investment yield ever smaller increments of return.
A society that has reached this point cannot simply rest on its accomplishments, that is, attempt to maintain its marginal return at the status quo, without further deterioration. Complexity is a problem-solving strategy. The problems with which the universe can confront any society are, for practical purposes, infinite in number and endless in variety. As stresses necessarily arise, new organizational and economic solutions must be developed, typically at increasing cost and declining marginal return. The marginal return on investment in complexity accordingly deteriorates, at first gradually, then with accelerated force. At this point, a complex society reaches the phase where it becomes increasingly vulnerable to collapse.
Two general factors can make such a society liable to collapse. First, as the marginal return on investment in complexity declines, a society invests ever more heavily in a strategy that yields proportionally less.

Once a society enters the stage of declining marginal returns, collapse becomes mathematical likelihood, requiring little more than sufficient passage of time to make probable an insurmountable calamity.

Secondly, declining marginal returns make complexity an overall less attractive strategy, so that parts of a society perceive increasing advantage to a policy of separation or disintegration. When the marginal cost of investment in complexity becomes noticeably too high, various segments increase passive or active resistance, or overtly attempt to break away.

At some point along the declining portion of a marginal return curve, a society reaches the state where the benefits available for a level of investment are no higher than those available for some lower level. Complexity at such a point is decidedly disadvantageous, and the society is in serious danger of collapse from decomposition or external threat.

Tainter, Joseph A.: The Collapse of Complex Societies (New York: Cambridge University Press 1988)
pp 195-6

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editor @ 10:35 pm

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