At the turn of the year, I stumbled upon an intriguing article by the columnist John Harris in The Guardian. Harris, who builds upon the ideas of historian Joseph Tainter, suggested that the underlying factor of many societies which leads to their collapse is their overwhelming complexity: societies create complex systems for economic benefits, but they eventually become overstretched and end up offering little benefit to ordinary citizens. These citizens resent and attack the system, which inevitably leads to its collapse.
Harris, quoting Tainter’s work, lists examples of societies where complexity was a major factor in their downfall: ancient Rome, the Mayan civilisation, the Zhou dynasty of China. In each case, citizens reacted to the complexity of their society by trying to simplify it: cutting ties with the outside world, ceasing long-distance trade and leaving infrastructure to fall into disrepair. In each case this led to economic and social decline: the complex system was not working for the citizens it was created to provide for, but the irresistible collapse of that system made things worse.
In his article, Harris draws parallels between the demise of these civilisations with the present day; he suggests that Brexit and Trump are phenomena caused by people reacting against a complex global system that no longer works for them. Indeed, it is the only explanation for such self-immolations in which I sympathise with Brexit and Trump’s supporters: these voters, who didn’t know the ins and outs of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy or the minutiae of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (except for the fact it wasn’t working for them) decided to do away with the whole, complex system.
The danger, now, is that the backlash against the complex systems we have built will lead to the collapse of our whole civilisation. In short, we need to adapt or create a system which is simpler than the current one but still offers benefits to everyone. One important cornerstone of such a system could be a Universal Basic Income (UBI), or Citizen’s Income.
The UBI is an unconditional cash payment to every citizen of a country. So if the UK paid its citizens a UBI, you as a citizen of the UK would automatically receive a UBI by virtue of being a citizen of the UK. It would be paid directly into your bank account every week or month. It would be an amount of money that was enough for you to live on. It would largely replace the current benefits and pensions system.
There are many advantages to a UBI: it allows unemployed people to take up work without worrying about losing their state benefits; it gives family members who care for others a regular income; and it allows you to start a business, go back into education or take a break without the worry of falling into poverty.
The other main benefit of the UBI is that it isn’t complex. For those receiving it, it’s simple. To receive current means-tested benefits, claimants must fill out endless reams of paperwork and pass a series of tests to prove they are entitled to that particular benefit. This wastes the claimant’s time and causes misery as they have to jump through hoops to prove to the state that their claim is bona fide. The UBI does away with all of this: everyone receives the UBI, so nobody has to prove they are entitled to it. Stacks of needless paperwork and countless wasted hours are dissipated in an instant.
As well as being simple for individuals, doing away with paperwork makes things simple for the state, too. By scrapping complex systems for assessing and processing claimants, the government no longer needs so many civil servants, so can cut down on bureaucracy. UBI would allow the government to do less with more, offering a sleek, simple welfare system that costs less and helps everyone.
Finally, the UBI is conceptually simple. Everyone would know and understand that, as a citizen of the UK, they would be entitled to a UBI whatever their circumstances. They would also know that their spouse, parents, neighbours, colleagues and random people in the street would also be entitled to the same amount of money. Unlike the EU or TPP, everyone would know exactly what the UBI gives them and their country, and what the consequences of its end would mean.
So, if we are facing a complex global system on the verge of collapse, how do we move to a simpler system with UBI at its core? The answer would seem to be begin as we mean to go on, which means ensuring simplicity and transparency from the very start. I was pleasantly surprised by the British Liberal Democrats’ recent announcement that they would introduce a new tax to pay for the National Health Service (NHS). The policy is great for moving towards a simpler system in several ways. Firstly, it’s conceptually straightforward: you pay this tax, you get the NHS. Secondly, it’s transparent: the party is saying explicitly where this money would go. Finally, it uses a dedicated tax to pay for a specific service — key thinkers like Dr. Malcolm Torry (check out his great book, Money for Everyone) have suggested a similar means of funding the UBI.
While 2017 could be remembered as the year when our civilisation buckles under the weight of its own complexity and the barbarians take over the citadel, it could also be the point at which we begin transitioning towards a simpler, more efficient society. For example, the Finnish government (and a centre-right government at that) is embarking on a basic income trial for the unemployed. If this trial proves successful, it could spread to other countries around the would — perhaps a way to inoculate against the Trump/Brexit contagion.
It will take time and effort. As the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs said:
“Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
Perhaps this is the start of a new heyday for our civilisation.
And if not? Well, the modern Rome was good while it lasted.