Megan McArdle offers an essay assignment:
Pascal Emmanuel-Gobry has an essay question:
Tainter’s story goes like this: a group of people, through a combination of social organization and environmental luck, finds itself with a surplus of resources. Managing this surplus makes society more complex–agriculture rewards mathematical skill, granaries require new forms of construction, and so on.
Early on, the marginal value of this complexity is positive–each additional bit of complexity more than pays for itself in improved output–but over time, the law of diminishing returns reduces the marginal value, until it disappears completely. At this point, any additional complexity is pure cost.
Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.
The ‘and them some’ is what causes the trouble. Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.
In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change. Tainter doesn’t regard the sudden decoherence of these societies as either a tragedy or a mistake–”[U]nder a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response”, to use his pitiless phrase. Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites.
When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.
Please write an essay describing whether and how Tainter’s thesis applies to welfare states undergoing demographic slide. You have four hours.
Answer: sounds exactly like the subject of Mancur Olson’s outstanding book about institutionalized, bureaucratic, economic sclerosis, The Rise and Decline of Nations. I’m sure he spent more than four hours writing it, and you’re likely to spend more than four hours reading it, but it’s well worth the investment.