History shows that societies collapse when leaders undermine social contracts

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The ruins of the Roman Forum, once the site of a representative government. Credit: (c) Linda Nicholas, Field Museum

All good things come to an end. Whether societies are run by ruthless dictators or more well-meaning representatives, they fall apart over time, with varying degrees of severity. In a new article, anthropologists have examined a large global sample of 30 pre-modern societies. They found that when ‘good’ governments – those that provided goods and services to their people and did not blatantly concentrate wealth and power – collapsed, they collapsed more intensely than despotic regimes that collapsed. And researchers have found a common thread in the collapse of good governments: leaders who have undermined and broken respect for basic principles, morals and ideals of society.

“Pre-modern states were not that different from modern states. Some pre-modern states had good governance and were not that different from what we see in some democratic countries today, ”says Gary Feinman, MacArthur Curator of Anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago and one of the authors. of a new study in Frontiers in Political Science. “States that had good governance, although they were able to hold on a little longer than those ruled by autocrats, tended to crumble deeper, more severely.”

“We noted the potential for failure caused by an internal factor that might have been manageable if it was properly anticipated,” says Richard Blanton, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Purdue University and lead author of the study. “We are referring to an inexplicable failure of the main leadership to uphold the values ​​and norms that have long guided the actions of previous leaders, followed by a loss of citizens’ trust in leadership and government and collapse. “

Great Council

An engraving by Giambattista Brustolon showing the Grand Council of Venice. Credit: Illustration by Giambattista Brustolon, Creative Commons

In their study, Blanton, Feinman, and colleagues took an in-depth look at the governments of four societies: the Roman Empire, the Ming Dynasty in China, the Mughal Empire in India, and the Republic of Venice. These societies flourished hundreds (or in the case of ancient Rome, thousands) years ago, and they had a comparatively fairer distribution of power and wealth than most of the other cases examined, although they seemed different from what we now consider to be “good governments”. they did not have popular elections.

“There were hardly any electoral democracies before modern times, so if you want to compare good governance in the present with good governance in the past, you can’t really measure it by the role of elections, which is so important. in contemporary democracies. You have to find other criteria, and the core features of the concept of good governance are a good measure of that, ”says Feinman. “They didn’t have an election, but they had other checks and balances on the concentration of personal power and wealth by a few individuals. They all had ways to improve social well-being, to provide goods and services beyond a few, and ways for citizens to express themselves.

In societies that meet the academic definition of “good governance,” government responds to the needs of the people, in large part because the government depends on these people for the taxes and resources that keep the state afloat. “These systems depended heavily on the local population for a lot of their resources. Even if you don’t have an election, the government has to be at least somewhat responsive to the local people, because that’s what finances the government, ”says Feinman. “There are often brakes on both the power and the economic selfishness of the rulers, so that they cannot accumulate all the wealth. “

Societies with good governance tend to last a bit longer than autocratic governments which keep power focused on one person or a small group. But the flip side is that when a “good” government collapses, things tend to be more difficult for citizens, as they come to depend on that government’s infrastructure in their daily lives. days. “With good governance, you have communication infrastructure and bureaucracies to collect taxes, support services and distribute public goods. You have an economy that jointly supports the people and funds the government, ”says Feinman. “And so, social networks and institutions become highly connected, economically, socially and politically. Whereas if an autocratic regime collapses, you might see a different ruler or you might see different capital, but that does not permeate throughout people’s lives, as these rulers usually monopolize resources and fund their regimes. way less dependent on local production or general taxation.

The researchers also examined a common factor in the collapse of good governance societies: leaders who abandoned the founding principles of the company and ignored their role as moral guides for their people. “In a good governance society, a moral leader is one who defends the fundamental principles, ethics, beliefs and values ​​of the society as a whole,” explains Feinman. “Most societies have some sort of social contract, whether it’s written or not, and if you have a leader who breaks these principles then people lose confidence, decrease their willingness to pay taxes, walk away or take other measures that undermine the fiscal health of the policy.

This model of amoral rulers destabilizing their societies goes back a long way – the newspaper uses the Roman Empire as an example. Roman Emperor Commodus inherited a state of economic and military instability, and he fell short; instead, he was more interested in playing as a gladiator and identifying with Hercules. He was eventually assassinated and the empire fell into a period of crisis and corruption. These patterns can be seen today as corrupt or inept rulers threaten the fundamentals and therefore the stability of the places they rule. Growing inequality, concentration of political power, tax evasion, crowding out bureaucratic institutions, shrinking infrastructure and declining public services are all evidence in today’s democratic nations.

“What I see around me is similar to what I observed while studying the deep stories of other parts of the world, and now I am living it in my own life,” says Feinman. “It’s a bit like Groundhog Day for archaeologists and historians.”

“Our results provide information that should be useful in the present, especially that societies, even those that are well governed, prosperous and highly regarded by most citizens, are fragile human constructs that can fail,” says Blanton. “In the cases we are discussing, the calamity very likely could have been avoided, yet citizens and state builders too readily assumed that their leaders would feel compelled to do what they expected for the sake of the nation. society. Given the lack of anticipation, the kinds of institutional safeguards needed to minimize the consequences of moral failure were inadequate. ”

But, Feinman notes, learning what led to the collapse of societies in the past can help us make better choices now: “History has a chance to tell us something. That doesn’t mean it’s going to repeat itself exactly, but it does tend to rhyme. And that means there are lessons in these situations.

Reference: “Moral Collapse and State Failure: A View From the Past” by Richard E. Blanton, Gary M. Feinman, Stephen A. Kowalewski and Lane F. Fargher, October 16, 2020, Frontiers in political science.
DOI: 10.3389 / fpos.2020.568704

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