Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Scylla and Charybdis of Human Societies

I was meaning to post this as a preliminary to getting into specific issues but it somehow got lost.

I think among other ways, there is a basic unresolvable trade off that has the potential to destroy any human society.  That is the trade off of control by the powerful and control by the weak.

It's not a terribly unique proposition but I think often in today's rhetoric people seem to have forgotten just how destructive rule by the powerful can be (except if the powerful are narrowly defined as Wall Street and university professors).  Aristocratic societies frequently succeeded in exempting most of their interests from taxation by the government (pre-revolutionary France had the activities of its strongest members exempted from taxation, certain groups in Spain achieved similar concessions, late Roman estates were frequently free of taxation, etc.).  This didn't exactly lead to broad based economic prosperity.  A key sign of the health of society is that the wealthiest classes bear a burden proportional to their relative place in society.  If they bear a smaller burden they can wreck the ship of state within a few generations.  The advantages they gain from low taxation, and the relatively larger burden of taxation felt by those who must bear the taxes not imposed on the rich, lead to them being able to gain an ever greater share of the productive assets of society.  The narrowing of the tax base renders the state unable to fulfill its obligations and the relative advantages gained by the powerful make it extremely difficult for those not powerful to improve their position.  This both chokes out entrepreneurship except among the powerful and renders the state illegitimate and subject to revolt (this is the rather more common kind of stagnation.  Medieval Europe fits the bill, as does the Roman Empire, China for much of its history.  This kind of society tends to be static and in slow decline, convulsed occasionally by populist revolts)

On the other hand, a society that seeks to ruin the rich and redistribute wealth finds itself with no one able to organize many of the economic and social activities that are necessary but fall outside the scope of the state.  Without the strong there is too little scope for economic growth or for innovation.   Heavily state run economies have never been successful in the long run and policies meant to wreck the successful in society (whether Alcibiades, the Marian revolts, the French Revolution, the Bolsheviks, or others) have never been successful in the long run.  The disruption caused by these sort of populist revolts have also been incredibly destructive.

The solution is of course relatively simple, though extremely difficult for a society to institute over long periods of time.  That solution is to simply make sure that society is able to tax and regulate the powerful so that they stay within bounds without imposing burdens on them so heavy that they are brought down to the level of the weak.  This is difficult because the powerful have consistently been successful at promoting ideologies and concepts that argue that they should be left free of restrictions by society (whether medieval ideas of a divine order of society, ideas of meritocratic selection, or ideas about the outsize economic contributions of the rich).  Overcoming these ideologies is extremely difficult to do without falling into the kind of destructive populism that brought down Athens, the Roman Republic, the ancien regime in France, and the Russian Empire.  I think this difficulty is fairly widely recognized but too little talked about.  Reigning in the powerful so that their talents, and the structural benefits of their social position ( for instance bankers fill a needed role whether or not the individuals possessing the money actually have any merit as individuals, which isn't to say that many don't possess merit just that they'll still make huge profits simply by value of possessing capital whatever their merit as individuals), contribute to society without tipping over into socially destructive populism is the careful, and fragile, balance that all societies must make to remain successful.  I tend to believe the best way to do this is through something of a system of checks and balances by keeping revenue streams diverse and not favoring any specific type of income or specific areas of development and investment.  Also types of power need to be distributed and kept distinct, those with power through wealth should not have too much influence on politics and those with political power should face obstacles in transferring this power into wealth.  Regarding all power as essentially similar is a major danger sign and a red flag that society may be heading in a direction that will either weaken in its ability to curb the powerful or that it will impose restrictions that will ruin the powerful and eventually the state.

[To put this entire post in a much simpler and more concise saying; the powerful in any society will argue that they fulfill a role so essential to society that they should receive favorable treatment and the weak in any society will argue that the basic unfairness of their weakness means the powerful should be brought down and they should be granted the spoils.  Societies must tell both groups to go to hell if they wish to survive.  It's not enough but it's a minimal condition.]


  1. Scylla and Charybdis are one (two?) of my favorite mythological metaphor(s.)

    Sorry, I have a cold. That's about all I've got for today.

  2. Tzi,

    I have been reading your posts for some time now, and this one is one that really tackles with my pet peeve topic. From what I have read in history books, the rich and powerful never ever wanted to share with the plebes, and when one of them tried, was put down (I keep thinking of Caesar, who was a brilliant man, but tried to limit the interest rates to under 10% - Brutus was one of the biggest bankers then - use state land to give to veterans, thus taking it from the usage of the equestrian class, etc.) without a blink. The great society was possible in the US because so many died in the WWII, and so many more returned from that war, thus creating an electoral mass able to keep going the start made by Roosevelt. But since Reagan the pendulum started swinging in the opposite direction and the citizenry has been duped and is been continuously duped. The feeling of entitlement the moneyed elite has in the US will only grow until will sap the power of the state completely (see the relatively slow decadence of Byzantium). I feel that the pendulum has quite a lot to move to the right yet in the US (in Europe, elites were chopped and shot, so they know better), but given the amount of weapons in the US, I am afraid.

  3. Cornel, thanks for reading. That's an interesting detail about Caesar and Brutus, I had known about both of their political affiliations but the loans bit I hadn't been aware of. It appears taking on the financial sector has been political suicide for thousands of years.

    And I agree with the growing sense of entitlement among our elites, it's something I'm afraid of too. It seems that elites always find some way to argue about why everyone will be better off if they have more privileges, and people keep buying these arguments despite it being a universal historical pattern that inevitably has a bad end.