Escalating Complexity and the Collapse of Elite Authority

One never knows what links you’ll find at the Chateau

Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein argued tellingly in their 1994 book The Bell Curve that 20th-century American society had become a remarkably effective machine for spotting the cognitively gifted of all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds and tracking them into careers that would maximize their output. They pointed out, though, that the “educated class” produced by this machine was in danger of becoming self-separated from the mass of the population. I agree with both arguments, and I think David Brooks and Will Collier are pointing us at the results.

In retrospect, I think race- and class-blind meritocracy bought us about 60 years (1945-2008) of tolerably good management by Western elites. The meritocracy developed as an adaptation to the escalating complexity of 20th-century life, but there was bound to be a point at which that adaptation would run out of steam. And I think we’ve reached it. The “educated classes” are adrift, lurching from blunder to blunder in a world that has out-complexified their ability to impose a unifying narrative on it, or even a small collection of rival but commensurable narratives. They’re in the exact position of old Soviet central planners, systemically locked into grinding out products nobody wants to buy.


Since we can no longer count on being able to plan, we must adapt. When planning doesn’t work, centralization of authority is at best useless and usually harmful. And we must harden: that is, we need to build robustness and the capacity to self-heal and self-defend at every level of the system. I think the rising popular sense of this accounts for the prepper phenomenon. Unlike old-school survivalists, the preppers aren’t gearing up for apocalypse; they’re hedging against the sort of relatively transient failures in the power grid, food distribution, and even civil order that we can expect during the lag time between planning failures and CAS responses.


CAS hardening of the financial system is, comparatively speaking, much easier. Almost trivial, actually. About all it requires is that we re-stigmatize the carrying of debt at more than a very small proportion of assets. By anybody. With that pressure, there would tend to be enough reserve at all levels of the financial system that it would avoid cascade failures in response to unpredictable shocks.

Cycling back to terrorism, the elite planner’s response to threats like underwear bombs is to build elaborate but increasingly brittle security systems in which airline passengers are involved only as victims. The CAS response would be to arm the passengers, concentrate on fielding bomb-sniffers so cheap that hundreds of thousands of civilians can carry one, and pay bounties on dead terrorists.

Yes, this circles back to my previous post about the militia obligation. I’m now arguing for this obligation to be seen as, actually, larger than arming for defense (although that’s a core, inescapable part of it). I’m arguing that we need to rediscover CAS behavior in politics and economics — not because financiers or bureaucrats are dangerous or evil, but because even with the best will in the world they can’t cope. The time when they could out-think and out-plan the challenges of the day operating as an elite has passed.


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