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The Savior State Is Unsustainable

The 4th of July is a fitting day to ponder the reality that we are at Peak Government, and the Savior State is unsustainable. This is a matter of accounting: no nation can spend more than it generates in surplus real output forever. What goes unremarked is the intrinsically destructive nature of our rising dependence on a Savior State.

In his book Collapse of Complex Societies, anthropologist Joseph Tainter identified two causes of economic collapse: investments in social complexity yield diminishing marginal returns, and energy subsidies, i.e. cheap, abundant energy, decline. In my terminology, the dynamic he describes is one in which the cost structure of a society continues rising due to “the ratchet effect” but the gains from the added expenses are increasingly marginal.

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At some point the additional costs, usually justified as the “solution” to the marginal returns problem, become counterproductive and actually drain the system of resilience as dissent and adaptability (“variation is information”) are suppressed. This feeds systemic instability: on the surface, all seems stable, but beneath the surface, the potential for a stick/slip destabilization grows unnoticed.

Cheap, abundant energy offers a surplus of value that can be invested in social complexity and consumption. Once the cost and availability of energy declines, then that surplus shrinks and can no longer be used to support the high cost structure.

The U.S. economy has clearly been driven to the cliff edge of instability by both dynamics: the cheap, abundant energy which enabled fast growth of consumption and high cost social complexity is vanishing, and the cost structure of the economy has ballooned far beyond sustainability.


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