Joseph Tainter’s “The Collapse of Complex Societies”

This is a short, dense, book about a difficult subject. Tainter does a good job with his argument, which I admit evenJT-Collapse I though I disagree with one of his key premises.

His argument boils down to a few key points:

  • Major civilizations tend to experience an early period of rapid growth through the ‘low hanging fruit’ of available territory, resources, etc.
  • This growth inevitably leads to specialization, stratification, and complexity which initially serves growth, making society more effecient.
  • The civilization plateau’s and the structure established to help it grow becomes a part of society.  The adaptation becomes ‘the norm.’
  • When the ‘low hanging fruit’ disappears, further expansion may be necessary (be it territorial, trade oriented) but usually becomes less and less profitable, and eventually starts to work against the civilization.
  • Finally, the complex structure begins to a positive drain on the civilization as it has to spend more and more to get less and less. But now we depend on the structure, which has become brittle, and like a house of cards, easy to knock over.

Tainter supports his theory well from civilizations across time, and uses very obvious info, like territory, and some other more unusual information, like crop yields, colonial administrations, and so on. No doubt there are many lessons for economists here.

But — while his book has great value, it has big holes.

In his quest for absolute objectivity, he rejects all value-judgment theories of collapse. If you can’t measure it, it’s not useful. A civilizations beliefs, or our interpretation of those beliefs are not ‘objective’ and so have nothing to contribute to the study of collapse. So, after summarizing the work of people like Gibbon, Toynbee, Spengler, and others he essentially dismisses them with a wave of his hand. But as C.S. Lewis once pointed out, very few people are actually German economists. Any study of history must involve people, which will involve more than economic exchanges.

This over-emphasizing of economics shows up in what is actually a thought provoking idea. What happens after collapse, he argues, may actually be beneficial to society, because it removes a great deal of inefficiency that the old system labored under. Collapses might be the cleansing forest fires of history, events to almost welcome rather than fear.

This sounds good on paper, but no actual human being who lived through collapses would agree with him. Imagine living in Western Europe ca. 550 AD and thinking, “Boy, I sure am glad for the fall of Rome. Of course, our ramshackle village could be overrun, destroyed, and our people pillaged who knows when by some Goth, Ostrogoth, Visigoth, Vandal, Hun, or some other kind of Goth. But I’ll take that any day over the economic inefficiency of the late Roman Empire.”

To augment Chesterton’s oft quoted phrase, “If civilization is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”