Ancient history is a long list of civilizations that were once world leaders, region superpowers, and centers of innovation, that have since fallen from prominence. The British Empire, the Mongol Empire, the Roman Empire, various Caliphates, and too many to list. These were all at one point the dominant force on the globe, but now many are unexceptional.
We have long just taken for granted this is the way of history. But if humanity did not know anything about history, this is not at all the only way you could hypothesize history went. You could just as well imagine that the current leading civilizations were always world leaders, so why isn’t that the case? After all, progress is compounding, right? Capital accumulates, no? So how is it possible that a civilization has ever collapsed, as opposed to seeing the hierarchy remain rigid?
I am not qualified to answer that question, but I would like to hypothesize specific cultural changes that I believe can occur as a civilization evolves.
We begin with the Chaotic phase.
A civilization will usually begin less organized that it will later become. This is a harsh and unstable environment.
Captured in that is a sort of spirit of innovation and meritocracy. I do not mean to suggest that this is always true. But in general, there are less structural barriers. Everyone is just out for themselves.
This character, I will call a lack of “rule rigidity”. Rule rigidity refers to rules that are specific, rigidly enforced. Additionally, rules costly to enforce that have benefit that is often not immediately evident. The chaos faze has less of this, meaning a more unregulated environment, which allows room for innovation.
A good example is modern day China compared to the west. Far from a communist country, the nation is in fact quite permissive on-the-ground (almost paradoxically with the exception of very targeted crackdowns).
Stage 2: Domination
The previous world leader will become gripped by the forces I will later describe as leading to decline. The fledgling civilizations are eager to fill the power vacuum. Most will not be successful. But one will. In theme with the aforementioned meritocracy, whichever civilization best exploits the chaos phase will spread its wings.
These civilization will exploit innovation, and those who can ride the wave of this innovation will begin to accumulate wealth. And an interesting thing happens when people accumulate wealth: they become elites. These elites will exert influence over the civilization.
Stage 3 is a change-averse and please-all culture
The Change-averse culture
The attitude of this next stage I’ll refer to as “change aversion”. It’s not risk aversion because it is not necessarily risk per se being opposed. What is instead being opposed is change in general, even positive-sum change. Who could possibly appose positive-sum change? Answer: elites. Elites will:
- Oppose change, because they oppose anything which changes the status hierarchy. This is because if you are high up, the only direction to go is down.
- Will disproportionately have power to control society towards their will.
In short: to the extent that someone benefits from the way things are, they will be averse to change, because any change threatens the way things are. Elites have the incentive to use their influence to undermine any change in the system.
A note on the term “elites.” The word connotes (nominally) minority status, but that is not what I am necessarily trying to convey. A civilization growing in power acts as a rising tide; it can lift up many citizens across the society. To the extent that a culture is successful, many, maybe even most people in it will be well-off, “elite” relative to the world. The change aversion can permeates through the general society. Naturally, when things are good, people prefer things to stay the way they are. You could also call this “status-quo bias”.
But what is the problem with that? If a culture is successful, one may ask, “why fix what ain’t broke?” The problem is that the rule rigidity undermines even positive improvement, hurting the innovative structure of the chaos faze. Rent-seeking behavior is endorsed by society and institutionalized.
The notion that elites have a vested interest in the status quo is hardly a new idea. What (may be) original is my distinction between early and late culture. In the early-stage, chaotic culture, people have not accumulated success yet. In late culture, stakeholders have accumulated, with success, power, and consequently the influence to exert rule rigidity. So, although progress has been achieved, it comes at the cost of halted progress.
Picture this: (1) an innovation is born of the chaos phase. Innovations that are, for the time, an order of magnitude better than anything that exists. (2) When the innovation takes root in the culture, an industry of people forms around it to support it and profit from it. (3) These people become the established interests, and will be resistant to any new innovation that would make the existing technology defunct. These established interests will work in subtle ways, out of self-preservation, to make further innovation impossible. The result: (4) we are stuck with long-outdated technologies that are sub-optimal compared to what we are capable of. The implementation of technology will be the biggest hurdle to its development. Here are a few examples:
- Cars were a great improvement on horse-drawn carriages. However, cars are a far than optimal system of transportation. There is a great deal of evidence that cars, because of the space and resources they require, are an inefficient waste of resources and method of transport compared to other methods of transportation. But can you possibly imagine cars being phased out? It feels weird to even suggest, but why; shouldn’t a society always be trying to create something better than what we have? The simple reason we can’t think to replace cars is that auto industry is worth many billions of dollars. It will not be so eager to let go its stranglehold on our roads.
- Fossil fuels were a great improvement on the likes of whale oil. They allowed for widespread electricity use. But fossil fuels presents many problems. So why are we still using them in 2018? Nuclear power is safer, cheaper, better for the environment, and generally better in every way. But the fossil fuels industries are worth billions, so they’re hear to stay, for the time being. Only recently have we been phasing out coal, although to even utter a sentence with that framing is extremely contentious socially and politically.
At some phase, most people will not even be aware of their change-averse attitude, because these attitudes have so deeply and permeated culture. This attitude works in pernicious ways.
Consider large companies. A risk-averse company will err on the side of redundancies. It will prefer having useless employees to temporarily short-staffed offices. It will prefer inefficiency to risk. This explains the perpetuation of seemingly useless jobs in a developed economy.
Now consider regulations.
I will use a random example: the elevator. I have not read the elevator regulations, but I could assume with near certainty that there are specific requirements for how an elevator has to operate. Guidelines for what materials are approved, how the doors need to operate, how quickly or slowly they need to open and close, the certain safety features of an elevator, how many cables hold it up, etc. This restricts the creative possibilities in elevator construction, seen below:
If you are unfamiliar with the concept of the adaptive valley, please seem my previous posts. Please note, I am not writing about the elevator specifically, but simply using that as a stand-in for any regulated technology.
The regulations, while each my sound good in isolation, work to instantiate a particular peak on the adaptive valley. If someone tried to engineer an elevator design that looked absolutely nothing like existing elevators, it would be disallowed, because it would not exist within the framework where the regulations are compatible. But the regulations remain, and make it unprofitable to invest resources into engineering a radical elevator design. It is more profitable to simply optimize around the existing blueprints.
The reality of regulations is worse, because of regulatory capture. Bureaucrats will instinctively write regulations to be not too unfavorable to the existing companies, so they can feel that they’re doing something without getting so much pushback that new rules become unpassable. Because of this, the large corporations will support the regulations; they’re probably abiding by them already, they have the economies of scale to afford the administration associated with compliance. Meanwhile, the regulations create barriers to entry in the market, which protect the large corporations against competition from smaller firms.
You would be blown away by the gratuitous licensing requirements, copyright rules, hurdles to starting a business across industries. It is a misconception that consumer protection rules originated from broad public demand; in many cases, these rules were essentially written by the companies themselves.
Even if all parties are acting in good faith, there is a problem of regulatory buildup. Once a regulation has been created, it is difficult to remove. If you repeal a safety regulation, you may be accused of not caring about safety; it would have been easier to simply appose the creation of the regulation in the first place. The number of regulations in the US has been consistently growing, no matter who advocates deregulation. The only exception is immediately after a war, but the net effect of a war is always more regulation. Regulation is a zip tie; we can only get more.
Suppose we jump the adaptive valley, rendering the regulations on the books only counterproductive? Will we go back and repeal all of the now-no-longer-useful rules? Rarely. In the described situation, a technology has jumped the adaptive valley, but that is just what the regulations prevent from even happening in the first place! Even if it does happen, those who profit from the existing technology will oppose it!
This kind of rule-rigidity is often justified by the two most overrated things in the Western world: pity and safety. Now, you may think that is is good that these things are so highly rated. After all, it is better to err on the side of pity and safety, rather than the opposite. But this does not change that they are overrated. They both play on the problem with empathy: individualized suffering is to be given more thought than collective loss of benefit.
An example of this connects to my previous statements on automobiles.
Innovative urban designers suggest shared spaces: places where cars, pedestrians, and other methods of transportation can share space. Counter-intuitively, these are safer than conventional road designs.
But if you watched that video by Vox, you know what happened when shared spaces were introduced in the UK. The video pours empathy over the single disabled person who had to go and die, whose family blamed the shared space. This scenario appeals to both pity and safety. The person was disabled (pity centers activate!), and apparently made unsafe (safety-first proponents furious!).
Never mind the evidence for shared spaces benefits, and that are actually safer than the alternative. (See my my linked post on how empathy works.)
The above narrative was so gripping that “a 2015 House of Lords shared space report called for a temporary ban on shared space designs” and “asked to put all shared space schemes on hold until they improve the process of consulting disabled communities”.
Translation: shared spaces are banned in the UK permanently. Or at least until disabled communities are happy, which is never, because they were explicitly chosen for being the group that most dislikes the shared space concept. That’s like resting the decision of the legality of denim pants entirely on the anti-denim lobby. But with shared spaces, it was deemed ok, under the banner of pity and safety. So much so, that you may have gotten offended by this paragraph.
Whoever got the idea that we may only put in place innovative change if we first ensure that every group is ok with it? This please-everyone mentality is an obstruction act of change aversion.
The Please-all culture
The please-all culture is the second cultural trend I wish to discuss. When a group becomes larger, there are more of these people you have to please.
Nicholas Nassim-Taleb has discussed what he calls a “dictatorship of the small minority”. A group that is stridently intolerant of specific things can exert a disproportionate impact on the culture.
Suppose you are entertaining 10 of your friends. You can get away with edgier humor. When the audience swells to millions, offensive jokes trigger articles about “outrage”. You have to be more careful with a larger audience; there are more people to potentially offend. This explains why mainstream entertainment outlets trend towards politically correct.
A similar dynamic is at play with companies. In a small start up, it is easy to get a decision through to approval. With a large corporation, by contrast, there more more levels of approval you have to get through, more people who could potentially say “no”. Before a proposal is seen by decision makers/execs/higher-ups, someone had to get it through their boss, then their boss’s boss, and so on.
Think of it like ergodicity/time probability, where each executive level is like a dice-roll for rejection or not. If you are 6 clicks away from the CEO, that is 6 “dice rolls” your approval needs to pass. Your proposal needs to be crafted explicitly to be not the most approvable, but the least disprovable. This might explain why corporate types are outwardly people-pleasers.
You can map this dynamic onto a large civilization. A more metropolitan civilization will by nature be more politically correct, because there are more people you need to avoid displeasing.
Stage 4: Civilization Decline
For a civilization to have attained a level of success, its society must have reached a relative peak on the adaptive valley.
In the section on change-aversion, I talk about the negative-feedback loop: progress doesn’t necessarily compound, it can halt future progress.
For the civilization to dramatically improve, it must move a large distance on the adaptive valley, which is resisted due to the aforementioned change aversion. Moreover, a politics based on consensus is roaming.
For this reason, and for the aforementioned cultural reasons, a large and stagnant civilization will be disadvantaged compared to smaller, more agile and risk-taking civilizations that are more willing to experiment on the edges of the adaptive landscape.
But isn’t this Whig history? Am I suggesting that the world is always becoming more advanced, always moving towards a higher peak?
Not so fast. There are a few ways a civilization can actually decline.
Peter Thiel points out that a cooperative and consensus-based political environment demands positive-sum growth, requiring consistent innovation/growth. (Relevant portion: 3:30-5:10) This becomes harder to achieve as you approach a relative peak. When growth is not maintained, consensus-based politics, and society will return to factions.
To add to that, if a civilization that is built, like a Ponzi scheme, on the premise of future growth, it will not be able to maintain that coordination problem when the growth is removed.
Secondly, the adaptive valley is not stagnant, and can shift under your feet depending on the changing global landscape. A change-averse civilization will not change fast enough to adjust.
How I have portrayed the adaptive valley is a simplification. The reality is that maintaining your place on a peak is a complex coordination problem. Any unpredictable thing can jeopardize the balance, the civilization’s stability becomes its fragility because it is not agile enough to bounce back.
Thirdly, the rent-seeking behavior goes beyond change-aversion. Elites use their power coercively to beget more power. This is a feedback loop. No wonder the only thing that increases equality is the “four horsemen”: war, revolution, state collapse, and plagues.
Despite all this, the civilization in question will be able to enjoy its moment in the sun; it takes time for the inefficiencies and rent-seeking to add up to such an extent that the civilization can be overtaken by others.
Some forces can ward off change-aversion. War creates a level of competition and desperation to galvanize experimentation with novel solutions. As such, the World Wars were bastions of invention, as with the Space Race.
This is the part for a disclaimer. Didn’t I say at the beginning that I am not a history expert? To what extent are any of my arguments applicable to the real world?
I don’t know, but believe these mechanics certainly apply to the Western world. Watch the portion of the linked Thiel interview, or elsewhere, where he argues that we have entered a period of the slowdown of technological improvement.
Hopefully, if we understand these dynamics, we can ward off these cultural problems, and aim for new peaks.