Jacks Random Reflections
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Diocletian and Constantine - our future?

Permanent Linkby Jack on Wed Sep 30, 2009 11:05 pm

The growing complexity of society, along with the reduced returns produced by such complexity, has been considered by Dr. Joseph Tainter. He's produced a paper that gives pause.


In planning or preparing for the future, we face the challenge of first discerning the future. What might it hold? Let us consider the following quotation from the cited paper:

In the half-century from 235 to 284 the empire nearly came to an end. There were foreign and civil wars almost without interruption. The period witnessed 26 legitimate emperors and perhaps 50 usurpers. Cities were sacked and frontier provinces devastated. The empire shrank in the 260s to Italy, the Balkans, and North Africa. By prodigious effort the empire survived the crisis, but it emerged at the turn of the fourth century AD as a very different organization.

In response to the crises, the emperors Diocletian and Constantine, in the late third and early fourth centuries,
designed a government that was larger, more complex, and more highly organized. They doubled the size of the army. To pay for this the government taxed its citizens more heavily, conscripted their labor, and dictated their occupations. Villages were responsible for the taxes on their members, and one village could even be held liable for another. Despite several monetary reforms a stable currency could not be found (Fig. 6). As masses of worthless coins were produced, prices rose higher and higher. Money changers in the east would not convert imperial currency, and the government refused to accept its own coins for taxes.

Now let us consider the upcoming events which our own society must face.

We have a financial crisis, one which extends around the world. There is talk of recovery, but even the optimists see crushing debt - currently $11.7 trillion, with a further $9 trillion over 10 years. This does not consider the incipient insolvency of the U.S. Social Security program, nor of Medicare.

We are likely to see the effects of peak oil soon. Thus we will have a second crisis which will strike after the society has been weakened by the first.

Note that this ignores the possibility of substantial climate change. Should that occur, a third crisis will add to the challenge.

Might we see a future U.S. government do precisely as the Romans did? And if so, what does this imply for those who face such a regime?

Is it possible that those who create doom-steads and practice sustainability will face seizure of their property and conscription of their labor for some purported greater good? Or, might pampered city dwellers be forced into the fields - in a manner not unlike that seen in Cambodia, with the Khmer Rouge?

It is easy to dismiss such possibilities, for surely no representative democracy could enact them. And yet, a society in distress - or, more pointedly, one fighting for survival - may do the unthinkable under the law of necessity.

There is no easy answer to such possibilities.

Perhaps individuals should attune themselves to mobility, and arrange their affairs to facilitate easy relocation as the situation develops. Likewise, assets that are frozen in real estate may not serve the needs of those who find that travel is highly desirable. Or perhaps mobility will merely lead one from a bad situation to a worse one.

But the shadows grow longer as the twilight approaches.

By the way - only friends can add comments to this blog. If you have a history of cogent posts and wish to add your thoughts, please send a PM so I can add you to the list.

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