16 December 2017

The Collapse of Complex Societies

Clay Shirky writes about Joseph Tainter's 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies
One of the interesting questions about Tainter’s thesis is whether markets and democracy, the core mechanisms of the modern world, will let us avoid complexity-driven collapse, by keeping any one group of elites from seizing unbroken control. This is, as Tainter notes in his book, an open question. There is, however, one element of complex society into which neither markets nor democracy reach—bureaucracy.even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites. Clay Shirky, The Collapse of Complex Business Models, April 2010 (?)
In my view, these elites include the bureaucrats themselves. As Mr Shirky writes: "In a bureaucracy, it’s easier to make a process more complex than to make it simpler, and easier to create a new burden than kill an old one." There are too many powerful people with an interest in maintaining the complex way we do things. This includes policymaking. It suits vested interests to keep it complex and arcane, so that only they or, more likely, their paid agents, can follow and influence it.

Social Policy Bonds would simplify policymaking because policy goals would be expressed in terms that ordinary people can understand. Goals would be explicit, transparent and meaningful to ordinary citizens, who could then engage in the policymaking process. If Trainter's thesis is correct, it might well be the complexity of our politics that precipitates societal collapse: too few of us understand it, so we have very little buy-in to the process and its institutions. In the west we are seeing the result of this lack of buy-in: extreme polarisation, whereby different views are barely tolerated. Yet buy-in is going to be essential if we are to face up to urgent, huge challenges facing all of us: climate change for instance, or nuclear proliferation.

Social Policy Bonds could help remove unnecessary complexity further down the track, when it comes to solving our social problems. Under a bond regime, inefficient operators would be penalised - whoever they are - and only efficient approaches would receive funds. It would be the self-interest of bondholders that would ensure this: their goal would be exactly congruent with those of society: to achieve our social goals as efficiently as possible. There might still be complexity in achieving these goals, but only if it boosted efficiency. The contrast with today's system, in which complexity is almost a deliberate ploy to deter scrutiny, would be total.

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