In the previous episode of this endless series of posts, I explained my view of history as a random stagger. Societies move from one phase to another haphazardly, constrained by the choices of those who came before them. North Korea has the options it has due to the choices made by those of the previous generations. The decisions made today will constrain future generations.
Those decisions, however, don’t spring from thin air. The choices made by Kim Il-sung were for a reason and that reason was to address a problem. The organization of his political party, for example, was about solving problems that Kim and his people were facing. Like all solutions, they were trade-offs. As is always the case with good commies, Kim let the debit side of the trade-off fall on his people, while he kept the credit side.
Everything around us, the political institutions, the laws, the customs, etc., all evolved to address the immediate needs of society and the desires of the people in charge of society. There’s not a single punctuation mark in the legal code that is not there for a reason. Every jot and tittle in the regulatory code has a constituency behind it that wanted it in the code to fix a problem for them.
The temptation is to point at these things and dismisses them as corruption, greed, or ideological lunacy. Even when that is true, self-dealing solves a problem for the political elites doing the dealing. The modern Democrat party shovels money to public sector unions because it is good for the party. The unions use those funds to elect Democrats, who in turn shovel them move money. From their point of view, it is the perfect solution.
Even the ideological stuff is done to address what the ideologues see as a pressing need. FDR and the New Dealers rolled out the welfare state because they truly feared popular unrest due to the Depression. They thought social security was a great solution to the problems of old age. They thought the Wagner Act would help stabilize labor and prevent the sorts of radicalization they saw in Europe.
Thus, the world into which all of us were born is a world populated with solutions to problems. Some are cultural institutions like churches and social customs. Others are in the political economy of society. Government, the legal structure of every society, was created and evolved as a solution to the problems of how to best organize and rule society.
Of course, many of those problems were long solved and the lingering solutions no longer seem to have a justification. This is where Progressives get into trouble. They swing the wrecking ball without wondering why the thing they intend to destroy was created. In the 1980’s, America emptied out the lunatic asylums because lefty felt bad for the crazies. Ever since, American cities have had a “homeless problem.”
Then there are problems that have been truly solved. In America, food shortages have been solved and now the poor are fat, while the rich are skinny. Despite the abundance of cheap calories available to everyone, we still have food subsidy programs for the poor and farm subsidy programs for farmers. Billions are taken from taxpayers, given to rich farmers and fat people so the rich farmers can sell the fat people cheap food.
Every year, sensible people propose that we spend public funds on new problems, but the cost of farm subsidies for rich people and food programs for the fat people means there’s not enough money for the new solutions. We kick a lot of cans down the road in order to avoid unwinding unneeded solutions to long solved problems.
Even though we have long blown past the point where the returns turned negative, the perceived costs of rolling back these old solutions exceeds the benefits. As a result, they keep rolling along, becoming ever more draining on society. Many public policy solutions take us down a cul-de-sac.
The most well-known example of this is the Roman Empire. Early conquests had huge returns that more than paid for the cost of gaining them. That meant new conquests were the obvious solution to adding to the wealth of Rome.
That made sense up to the point where the costs of new conquests exceeded what the Romans could loot form the newly conquered people. By the time of Augustus, expanding the Empire further simply made no sense, because the cost of conquering more barbarians exceeded the benefits.
The trouble for the Romans was the ongoing cost to past conquest. Those conquered lands had to remain conquered. The frontiers had to be guarded and that meant paying for legions to fight the barbarians. Administering an empire had costs as well. Roads had to be built, army officers bribed, dissent suppressed. The on-going costs of maintaining the empire eventually hollowed it out, leading to collapse.
An example of how culture can become a suicide vest can be found with the Celts. They had a tradition of burying their dead leaders with their wealth. New leaders acquired their own wealth, which created a meritocracy of sorts. To become a great Celtic leader, you had to be good at war and peace so you could gain great wealth for yourself and your people.
The trouble was, destroying that wealth on the death of the ruler made it harder for each generation to acquire gold, silver, precious gems, etc. Eventually, the number of people seeking gold far exceeded the amount available in Celtic lands. Historians believe this led to the collapse of Celtic society and the Celtic invasions.
That’s fundamentally why companies fail, revolutions topple governments and empires collapse. The cost of the status quo becomes untenable, but the cost of reform is also untenable. The business cannot reorganize, the elites cannot reform and the empire cannot downsize. The only “solution” left is liquidation, a clearing off all the old solutions and their costs. A clean start.
At a nation level, revolution is just bankruptcy with more theater. The revolutionaries seize the public assets of society, liquidate them and start over with a clean sheet of paper. What is useful is retained, but all obligations are voided. The whole point of a revolution is to wipe away all those old solutions, which are viewed as mistakes and burdens, so the people can have a fresh start.
The crisis faced by the West is not just the wave of migrants or the mountains of debt. Those are easily solved. The crisis is caused by the overhang of old solutions to old problems. Angela Merkel is the answer to a question posed thirty years ago, one no one asks anymore, because we have new questions to answer, like how to keep Mohamed from self-detonating in Europe.
What comes next, what always follows an economic revolution, is a massive political reorganization. Maybe this time it is collapse under a wave of flea infested migrants from the south. Maybe the popular uprisings in response to the flood of migrants will usher in a clearing of the debts. Maybe the Germans will stop apologizing for Hitler and Southerners will stop apologizing for slavery.