16 October 2015

How to avoid societal collapse

We haven't evolved to think long term and globally, according to Joseph Tainter, author of The Collapse of Complex Societies. In a recent and fascinating podcast interview Dr Tainter sees the collapse of the Roman empire as a template for societal collapse: 
Everything the Roman government did in the short term was rational. Everything they did made sense at the time they did it. It's the long-term consequences that they couldn't foresee. ... It's the long-term cumulative effects that do the damage, and these are unforeseeable. Societal Complexity and Collapse, 'Omega Tau', 13 October

It is this lack of an over-arching objective that is (and, I suspect, always has been) missing from policy. At almost every level of policymaking we do not explicitly target the crucial goal of societal survival. We cannot anticipate and so we cannot, with our conventional policymaking process, forearm ourselves against all possible threats to society. That's because conventional policymaking relies on some body (usually, at the national level, government) trying to anticipate threats and then work out the best ways of dealing with them. But the most potent threats are those likely to be long term in nature and to arise from outside the purview of the policymakers - precisely the qualities that evolution has not equipped us to tackle.

What we can do though is this: target societal survival, whichever threats to it might arise, and reward people for achieving it, however they do so. We don't know what these threats will be and we don't know who will be best at nullifying them nor how they will go about doing so. But, under a Social Policy Bond regime, we don't need to know any of those things. We issue bonds, at the national or global level, that target the avoidance of such calamities as violent political conflict (war or civil war) or other disasters, natural or man-made. These bonds, floated on the open market, become redeemable for large sums, after a long period of societal survival. Policymakers don't need to identify specific threats, nor debate about their significance or relative priority. Investors or would-be investors in the bonds would do all that, and would be motivated to do so continuously, throughout the targeted time period: which could be two or three decades in length (after which, similar bonds could be issued for a further period).

Social survival is perhaps our most important goal: it's worth targeting it explicitly and motivating people to find the most efficient ways of ensuring it. We cannot and should not look to government to take care of threats to our survival. But we can - and should - set in place a regime that explicitly targets our long-term survival and rewards its achievement. With Social Policy Bonds we can do that.

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