Archive for the ‘sociology’ category

A Democratic Method of Deciding Secession

April 12, 2008

Secession conflicts between a nation-state A and a smaller regional state B within it are often intense and violent; destructive of people, wealth, and order. Even in their unrealized, idealistic, aspirational form or phase, they create fear and economic uncertainty and weakness. The containing state is fighting to maintain not only the resources and territory and energy of the population of the region, but also to maintain the credibility of its authority, and its right to exist in its present form and constitution as the dominant hierarchy in the region. Both states are fighting for their “lives” as self-determining complex organisms.

It has been difficult to fairly apply a democratic voting method to the question of secession, because the containing state A will always perceive it as unfair that a simple majority vote among the population of substate B should allow secession. The entire population of nation-state A has a clear stake in the maintenance of the current larger order that includes B. A without B may very well be ill-defined and infeasible.

On the other hand, the secessionist faction within state B would never accept the result of a referendum asking all of the population of A (including B) whether B should secede. They would say that that method violates the principle of self-determination (that the latent nation B should have a right to.)

This is what I call the Incompleteness Theorem of Democracy: You cannot hold a simple democratic vote to determine who the constituency that can vote should be. An apparent paradox.

But maybe there is a way out. Maybe there is a fair algorithm for holding a democratic vote on secession. I humbly propose such a method here. I believe it would be of great benefit to geopolitical peace if such a method were agreed upon and enforced by an institution like the United Nations.

Secession affects both the containing state A and the substate B proposing to secede. Therefore citizens of both B and of (A-B) should have a say in the question of secession, but the key to the proposed algorithm is to agree that the question means more to the more local group, and that therefore they should have a larger say. This balances the strong right to self-determination with the right of an already determined state to stable continued existence.

The basic form of the algorithm is that a simple yes no question on secession is put to the entire population of A in a referendum. However, each member of B gets 1 vote in the final vote tally, whereas each member of (A – B) gets a fractional vote, with the fractional value being Population(B) / Population(A including B).

Thus the say of a citizen outside of the seceding region is in proportion to how much of A would be lopped off if the secession went ahead.

There is one modification of this algorithm that is necessary. Containing states that are aware of the possibility of secession of a regional substate often use a tactic of flooding substate B with former (A-B) residents, thus diluting any will to secession. China has clearly used this tactic in the disputed region of Tibet, for example. To mitigate the unfairness of this tactic, the voting algorithm should be modified as follows. People who reside within B and who have at least one parent who was born in B, should be the only ones granted the full vote. Let’s label these long-term residents B’ (B prime). The remaining present-day population of B should be granted only the fractional vote that the members of A-B are granted. Also the vote fraction should be adjusted to be Population(B’) / Population(A including B’). This adjustment gives precedence to representatives of the founding members of the regional culture within B.

An additional rule is required. It is essential that the referendum not have mandatory voting, and that populations are not threatened with personal consequences for not voting. The algorithm relies for its fairness on measuring the will of both populations to express an opinion on the issue.

With this algorithm, a containing state A which had a population in A-B’ that were passionate about retaining region B might be able to pull it off, provided the residents of B were only lukewarm to or evenly divided on the question of secession. However if the long-term resident population of B felt strongly that they needed to be a separate nation, they would fairly be allowed to carry this out.


The Illusion of Free Will

April 12, 2008

Societal order-regulatory mechanisms are so weak, and so subtle in their operation in some cases, that many members of a liberal democratic society labour under the misapprehension that their society allows them to exercise free will. In fact, the society allows that exercise only to the extent that the person’s actions are not dangerous to other persons or to the order of the state. But these curbs are so ingrained, by education, story-telling, and peer pressure, that society members consciously or subconsciously self-censor their own actions to remain in the “civil” range most of the time, and many citizens will never encounter the more punitive behavioral corrections that the society applies.

Early societies used, and unsophisticated societies to this day use a heavy club, a fundamentalist moral code based on outlandish fear-mongering myths, and outright bribery, to keep their members and subgroups in line. A society can be liberal and democratic only if it is self-confident and secure in the knowledge that its members truly prefer it and its constitution (the current bounds of the state and the current form of hierarchical governance) to the potentially available alternatives.

The general nature of a sophisticated modern liberal democratic society’s behavioural constraints is that it is not impossible for a member to violate them, just somewhat or even very uncomfortable, or energy-wasting, or self-defeating, to do so. A member of society who strays outside the acceptable bounds is no longer following the lifepath of least resistance provided by that society.

One might argue that modern liberal democratic states have perfected statecraft to the extent that only the minimum amount of governmental authority required to “keep it together in economically good times” is implemented, and that in a virtuous circle, this freedom granted to citizens and subgroups has engendered healthy internal competition and creativity, and in general, economic success. On the other hand, these states are arguably pushing this envelope too far, because some subgroups (specifically, corporations) are attaining power to rival that of states themselves, and are applying in some cases unjust forms of economic control and are harnessing and co-opting the will of individual members of society, and thus the will of society as a whole, via public relations and marketing techniques. A significant instability is developing.

The very definition of a hierarchical society is that it is
a self-sustaining trade-off of individual free will for
collective security and the economic benefits of fairly and
peacefully exchanged specialization of labour.

If the word “will” is replaced by “position, motion, and function”,
this is the very same trade-off made by individual cells
in a conventional multi-cellular organism. A society is an
organism and its connective tissue is a web of
inter-constrained wills and intentional actions:

  1. The will and actions of the societal organism itself as a whole (a shared, stored, and promulgated ethos, and regulatory actions, constrained to be fair, efficient, and effective), and
  2. The will and actions of its subgroups and individual members (who are only allowed by the society to exercise their will to the extent that their actions would not damage collective trust.)

Divided Loyalty

April 12, 2008

Societies, and their members, choose the boundaries of co-operation and competition

A conventional multi-cellular organism is held together physically, by the chemical bonds that glue its molecules and cells together, and at a higher level by the constraints on freedom of movement that the adjacent solid physical parts of the organism place on each other.

A society as organism, on the other hand, is held together by the agreement of its members to co-operate with it, and with each other under the society’s established terms and conditions. More precisely it is held together by a complex regulated network of institutionalized, conventionalized, or legislated agreements that govern, civilize, and protect everyday life and livelihoods within the society.

We have explored various mechanisms that a hierarchical society uses to obtain and retain agreement. For one thing, it demonstrates security
to its members. For another, its regulation of its economic system manifestly enables wealth creation (energy stockpiling) by allowing
efficient complex resource gathering, manufacturing, and distribution processes to flourish. Thirdly the society creates and promulgates
moral stories and myths to provide ideals of civilized,
co-operative, and benevolent-leadership behaviours (heroic behaviours),
and to discourage selfish or treasonous behaviours (villainous behaviours).
And fourth, it enacts and enforces laws to curb egregious forms of
antisocial villainous behaviours.

In summary, these mechanisms can be described as the carrot (security, peer regard, monetary reward) and the stick (law enforcement, shunning) methods of behavioural alignment or agreement maintenance.

A key difference between a societal-level organism and a biological
multi-cellular organism is that the constituent parts of the organism;
the members and subgroups of the society, have more autonomy and
more freedom to move and to re-organize, than is the case within a
biological organism’s body. Both types of organisms have order-regulatory,
homeostatic mechanisms, as we have discussed, but the society’s
regulatory mechanisms are relatively weak, considering the strength of
independent information processing and independent will that human
beings individually possess.

This level of freedom within societies is enough to allow society members
to “think outside of the box”; to dream of alternate hierarchical
groups to the prevailing powerful one. In particular, if the
current group, with its particular boundaries and membership criteria,
and its particular ethos and economic techniques and security techniques, seems to be producing only rotten carrots and wielding a broken stick,
some society members will be actively plotting to arrange things into
one or more alternatively defined or bounded or governed societies.
Society members are always implicitly gambling that they are signed
up with the right state; with an effective state that will save them
energy for a given survival probability level. When a society’s economy
becomes weak, or its authority corrupt or ineffective, members
will look to place their chips elsewhere.

At any time, among any large set of people, there are an essentially
infinite number of possible differently defined hierarchical groups they could agree to get together in
. Unfortunately, competition for resources and taxes, and conflict over incompatible behavioural norms means that
there is only room for a few groups to be “actual” and powerful
at one time. There may be more than one group governing a person,
but not that many more than one, and those groups need to be of
different spatial scales or have different, orthogonal jurisdictional
domains, to avoid conflict.

A given person may be loyal to a greater or lesser degree to
several different societal groups simultaneously. In many cases,
this won’t be problematic for the person, because the groups
are of different scale and the loyalties not incompatible
(for example, being a citizen of both a city and the surrounding
nation), or because the groups do not have substantially overlapping
jurisdictional domain ( for example, adhering to one’s religion,
and identifying as a loyal citizen of one’s secular nation-state.)
In each of these cases, the pair of hierarchical societies
do still compete with each other even if their interests don’t
seem to overlap, because they are competing for tax (a share of
the person’s organized energy production) from the single person,
but this revenue competition can often be negotiated.

In some important cases however, a person’s divided loyalties to different hierarchical groups are of grave concern to the person and their societies. Consider the case when a person is a member of a smaller regional state, and the person strongly identifies as belonging to that ethnic or cultural group, but the person is also resident within a larger nation-state that has subsumed the regional state. (This sort of subsumption /annexation
happens all the time, due in general to the natural growth
tendencies of hierarchical societies over historical time, as
explained in a previous post.)

In such a case, the citizens of the sub-state may wish
independence. If the sub-state has been subsumed for a long time,
and membership in the larger state has been an economic success
for the sub-state, then it may be that the sub-state members
become assimilated, and grudgingly accept their new or dual
identity. But should the wound of annexation be fresh, or should
the larger nation be oppressive, or on the other hand ineffective
at either security or economic welfare, then secession will be
an active goal of many of the sub-state’s members.

The subsuming nation-state (and probably a majority of
its indoctrinated citizens who are not from the region in question)
will treat ideas or plots of secession as something to be combatted; as villainous, treasonable, and punishable,
because the sub-state is now part of the larger-state’s body
and identity, and separating it will be like losing a limb,
in terms of disruption of the nation’s integrated economic
form and function. Also a successful secession will be a
severe loss of face for the authority regime of the
larger nation (whose major goal is, remember, to “keep it together”
and to keep it functioning as an integrated complex whole), and this
loss of face (and of “threat credibility”) may lead to further secessions and substantial chaos and re-organization of the nation’s constitution and
boundaries. It may dissolve the nation entirely, leaving a set of
alternate, initially smaller states/nations in its place.

To sum up, a human being is a member of several different societal groups of different scales and different jurisdictional concerns. Often, these groups can co-exist by negotiating the physical or logical boundaries of their jurisdiction with each other so as to minimally step on each others’ toes. But sometimes, for reasons having to do with not fully resolved historical change, a person finds themselves expected to maintain loyalty
to two competing societal groups. Such a person has power in their hands, because the direction they move in; the society that they decide to support
at the expense of the other, may gain power and independent existence,
and its rival society may lose power or its very existence,
depending on the sum of such loyalty assignments among its populace.

We should expect the loyalty assignments that members give to competing hierarchical societal groups to be influenced by both historical allegiance (historically ingrained identity perceptions), and
also, in large measure, by present-time economic and security service-effectiveness of the societal groups in question. A state providing rotten carrots (a poor economy, or economic injustice) or wielding broken sticks (an ineffective or inefficient oppressive internal security and defense regime) is likely to be replaced from within by secession or
revolution, or from without by invasion and subsumption. A hierarchical society, a nation-state, is only stable to the extent that its members believe in it and agree to it and work for it more strongly than other people, or even the same people, believe in an alternate arrangement of affairs in the region.

Heroes and Villains

April 10, 2008

Like any other complex organism, a hierarchical society uses
regulatory mechanisms to conserve its order in the face
of the underlying physical tendency to disorder, and in
the face of active threats of disruption of its form and

Just as a physiologist might delve into some details of
the form and function of the immune system, let’s explore
the rationale for, and the pattern of operation of a
societal-level homeostatic regulatory mechanism.

Whereas when studying an animal’s immune system we would
look for essential physical, bio-chemical, and information
communication aspects of the system, when studying a
societal-level regulatory system, we would look for essential
patterns of problem or opportunity conceptualization and
information communication, and mechanisms to influence or constrain
the behaviour of society members; ways of influencing members
to move toward harmless and mutually beneficial behavioral

One such order-conserving regulatory mechanism is the society’s classification of its members or their behaviours into the heroic,
or the villainous, and society’s means of encouragement of the
former, and discouragement of the latter.

What is the definition of a hero? And what is a villain?
It is very simple. A hero is an exemplar of co-operative, civil
behaviour, or is a group builder.

A villain is one who acts selfishly, or acts outside of
or against a group’s laws or norms, which were designed to promote
peace and co-operation. One kind of villain is of particular note
to a group, and that is the traitor; one who acts intentionally and illegally with the aim of destroying the prevailing hierarchical
society, and replacing it with an alternate organization.


Heroes rush into burning buildings to save people at great risk
to themselves.  Heroes do unto others more good than they expect
done for themselves. They are the model of personally selfless
behaviour which if universal, would promote co-operation and efficient, fully aligned and fairly exchanged efforts. Because a frictionless co-operating society confers great benefits on all its members
as we have seen in previous posts,
an exemplary altruistic co-operator; a hero, is revered by all.

When a condition exists in which people “do unto others
as they would have others do unto them”, and even go as far
as altruistic assistance to each other, a high degree of
trust is engendered in the society. The average interaction
between members becomes less conflictual. More efficient
aligned efforts reinforce and resonate with each other,
and organized exchange of effort happens.
Security against threats becomes collective.
Individuals can focus more energy on
their own positive development, and have more left over to
contribute as tax toward ongoing stable co-ordination and
governance of the group.

Therefore societies use stories to encourage the
altruistic form of heroic behaviour,
and reward heroes with both gold and high regard.

Rewards for being a group co-ordinator

Another kind of hero is the society builder; the exemplary leader;
the effective shepherd of the flock.

For example, heroes build philanthropic organizations that assist
many others. Heroes unite disparate neighbouring cultures and clans into larger and more prosperous nations. Heroes resolve conflicts between
factions or nations, allowing a larger hierarchical co-operating
group to flourish.

Every hierarchical society needs leaders; those who will
co-ordinate at each level in the hierarchy. This leadership
is most significant and valuable when it exercised skillfully
at the largest-scale, in top-level governance of the

Hierarchical society, with few co-ordinating many at each level, has a structural incentive system for encouraging members to perform the co-ordination function. Leaders, since they co-ordinate and regulate the
activities of the layer of hierarchy below them,
are able to divert a fraction of the resources harnessed
by their group toward their own personal fortune, whether merely
in the form of the highest salary and personal staff, or in more
under-the-table forms of wealth skimming from the group’s production.
Literally: “Rank has its privileges”. This
provides an incentive toward leadership, and specifically toward
leadership of ever larger groups with larger excess production
to partake in, for those with the abilities.
(Of course this incentive system is self-correcting, and
excessive diversion will lead to discontent and revolt and
replacement of the greedy leader.)

Societies provide additional incentive toward leadership by idolizing and
mythologizing exceptionally successful “heroic” leaders,
particularly top-level “nation-builders” who expand the
society’s bounds or resources, or its productive capacity,
or improve its members’ security in trying times.
Humans naturally care to be regarded well by their peers,
and the highest and broadest regard is reserved for heroic leaders.

Villains steal from others.
Villains do violence to members of their own group.
Villains do not comply with established laws.
Villains do not pay taxes to support the co-ordination of the group.
Each of these behaviours destroys trust within society, and reduces
co-operation and alignment of effort.

Arch-villains form hierarchical organizations of their own,
such as criminal gangs or breakaway factions based on race,
culture, or geography. These outlaw
organizations not only don’t pay taxes, but actively seek to
replace some of the dominant society’s authority structure and
taxation flow and laws with their own; If these acts succeeded,
they could destroy the effectiveness of governance of the
established society.

Villains are freeloaders who take advantage of society’s
energy-saving benefits, but do not contribute toward the
functioning of the societal organism. In fact they are
parasitic on society, and weaken and destabilize it,
with their selfish and antisocial behaviours.
Therefore society discourages villainy
in moral tales in which virtue is rewarded and villainy and
greed punished. And society punishes villains with its
law enforcement arm.

Whether one is a hero or villain may be relative to the particular
group that the person is helping or hurting by their actions.
“Hero” and “Villain” are functional terms: Hero(group),Villain(group).
One who wins a battle for one group loses it for the opposing group.
One who destroys a prevailing regime or nation
creates the seeds of another. Universal heroes, completely
unbiased and selfless good samaritans, who help those entirely unlike
themselves, do exist. They, perhaps, signify
hope for the creation of a global society, by demonstrating
the ultimate form of civilized behaviour.

These observations about society’s treatment of heroes and
villains may seem like truisms, but by analysing the
phenomenon in terms of a fragile order’s order-maintenance
system we have illuminated in some detail
why societies act like this.
The classification into laudable, rewarded hero and despicable,
punished villain is one of the homeostatic mechanisms of the
society as an organism; as an organism vulnerable to
disruption of its internal metabolism of co-operation; as an
organism vulnerable to stagnation of its co-ordinating
hierarchical leadership subculture; as an organism
vulnerable to attack by competing and treasonous individuals and
as an organism which must always have as its first concern
its need to keep itself, and its governing order, together.

The Holy Order of Hell’s Angels

April 5, 2008

How to keep yourself together – writ large

A previous post posited that the primary concern of any organism is keeping itself together, in good form and function. To do so it must have means of fighting against the ravages of the physical tendency toward entropy and the ravages of active attacks by other agents on its person or its energy and material resources.

I contend that a hierarchical society is simply another level of organism. This is not a metaphor; it is a literal truth that must be fully comprehended in order to understand the common mechanisms and likely evolutions of societies. A hierarchical society is an organism whose body; whose form and function, is held together by informationally mediated constraints on interactions between the members of the society, and informationally mediated constraints on the society’s interactions with its environment and its neighbours. Instead of the shin bone being physically connected to the knee bone, and having the shin’s degrees of freedom of movement constrained by the knee’s pressures on it, the members of a hierarchical society are constrained to move (direct their lives and their energies) only in certain directions, within certain bounds, by constraints that have both an abstract informational component (laws, or moral tales) and a hard physical component (law enforcement actions, or active shunning or welcoming rituals). The society member, whether a person or a sub-organization such as a corporation, is constrained by the regulatory mechanisms of the society (its laws and norms and the teaching and enforcement of those), and by the economic paths of least resistance that the particular complex economic process structure of the society affords.

Just as multi-cellular collections of organs (higher animals) come in various species, we see several types of hierarchical human societies of various shapes, sizes, and specialized forms, such as extended families, religious groups, social clubs and interest groups, criminal gangs, corporations, militaries, political parties and nationalist factions waiting in the wings, democratic or autocratic state governments, and actual full-fledged constitutional states, including federations.

Biology shows us, however, that different higher animal species are variations of common themes, and that, at some level of generality, different animal species are just emphasizing different tactics for solving what are essentially common problems of:

  1. “food” (energy and material) gathering and transformation,
  2. security and shelter (avoidance of energy and material structural loss), and
  3. reproduction (avoidance of pattern breakdown due to entropic processes acting on individual organism bodies.)

Hierarchical societies all have the very same general problems to solve.

1. Resources and metabolism
To solve the challenges of resource gathering and transformation into usable forms of energy and material, societies create monetary systems, and enforced regulation of business exchanges, to allow for the development of stable, organized, complex “metabolic” (economic) processes of resource gathering and production of goods and services needed for the functioning of the society and its members. And societies defend and extend their frontiers by organized projection of force, to ensure a stable supply of resources from the surrounding environment into the society.

2. Security and shelter
Societies all have semi-permeable membranes (physical and/or legal borders) which have precisely the same function at the general level as cell walls, or as skins with orifices of multi-cellular organisms. They form a boundary inside which the members of the society can interact with protection from both internal disorder, and external attack.

To quell internal disorder, policing and jurisprudence operate together as an immune system within the border. The physical border, or societal membership/citizenship criteria, serves to make it clear when and where such law applies and how it is to be administered. The border is usually drawn at the physical or legal-membership-definitional edge of the territory that can be policed efficiently or legitimately, given the governance techniques and technologies of the society.)

To forestall external attack and tame the frontier regions of the environment, including the disempowering of adjacent rival societies, societies maintain a border patrol and an expeditionary armed force. The border patrol (physical or legal, depending on the variety of society) serve as the gate-keepers of the semi-permeable membrane, determining who gets in or out, determining what forms of commerce and information can flow across the border, and how much that commercial flow of resources can be taxed at the border to go directly toward maintenance of the hierarchical order within the border.

The expeditionary armed force acts pro-actively or re-actively against real or perceived active threats from adjacent societal agents that would “steal” the society’s external resources, or even attack the society’s border for purposes of invasion and usurpation of the authority of the society over its members.

3. Reproduction
Reproduction is just a specialized means for continuation through time of the essential information pattern of a life form. A society’s essential form is its core informational patterns. There are two major forms of these core societal information patterns; stably recorded constraints (laws and norm stories), and loyalty-building identity symbols and stories.

To continue their particular system of effort aligning, conflict moderating constraints, societies write down their laws, and create institutions for the study and maintenance of those laws. They elevate the central, general laws (those that state the aspired-to ethos of the society) to the position of a sacred constitution of the state; that which must be defended at all costs, by force if necessary. As well as laws, each society has a surrounding body of looser, more informal constraints, in the form of norms. To continue their norms, societies use curricula in their youth education systems, they tell moral tales to each other in the form of literature and mass media, they celebrate exemplary citizens who embody the norms, and they publicly vilify those who deviate from the norms.

To continue their loyalty-building identity symbols and stories, societies develop and maintain symbols such as flags, anthems, and sports teams. They develop and promulgate foundation myths and celebrations around foundational events and around historical triumphs over trials that tested the society’s ability to survive. They turn heroic nation-builders or saviors (pivotal leaders and warriors), into national treasures and symbols; embodiments of the mythic core ethos of the society.

A corollary of the hypothesis that a hierarchical society is an advanced form of organism, facing the same survival problems common to other organisms, is that we should expect all successful forms of human hierarchical society to be variations on a common theme; to be essentially the same as each other, in their general form and function; to exhibit a similarity driven by their common need to confront common categories of challenges to their continued existence.

If we look beyond variations in their size, color, niche, and tactics, we will find that the logic of form and function of all human hierarchical societies is shaped by their overall strategy for overcoming entropic degradation and active resource re-patterning threats originating from their membership and their neighbours.

All successful human hierarchical societies will exhibit common core organizational patterns designed to confront and overcome the continual organism or species survival problems of

  1. energy and material resource acquisition and processing,
  2. security and shelter for efficient peacable organized complex internal “economic” metabolism, and
  3. “reproduction”, or more generally continuation and passing down through generations of members, and to sub-groups, of the essential identity information patterns and essential activity-constraint information patterns that define the society.

We should find that extended families, religious groups, social clubs and interest groups, criminal gangs, corporations, militaries, political parties and nationalist factions waiting in the wings, democratic or autocratic state governments, and actual full-fledged constitutional states, including federations, are much more the same as each other in form and behaviour and evolution over time, much more similar to each other in the types of benefits they confer on their members, than they are different from each other.

The King Is Dead – Long Live The King

March 29, 2008

We’ve seen how hierarchical societies have properties suggesting they could be a stable form of organization of self-interested agents that have a need to expend the usable energy they can obtain in a manner that will optimize their survival probability. Indeed such hierarchies of co-operating semi-autonomous parts are, for groups of energy-conserving intelligent information-processing agents, probably a near-optimal solution arrived at by evolution.

A corollary of this hypothesis is that as humans, we get to choose some details of the form of hierarchical governance we get, but we do not get to choose whether we get hierarchical governance. The energetic efficiency and hence survival-adaptive considerations, and the stable manageability properties of a hierarchical form will almost certainly overpower ideas and ideals, such as libertarianism or anarchy, which do not give hierarchy its due.

We may choose, for example, to elect our leadership democratically, but we may not choose not to have leadership. If we reject representative democratic hierarchy, then hierarchy over us will be imposed by those individuals who are effective at building, harnessing, and wielding the power of hierarchical groups. There are always latent empire builders and latent power groups in society. The only question is which hierarchies will come to the fore, and what their scale and compass will be in a given historical time period.

The hypothesis would also predict that there should be no such thing in human history as a total societal collapse of any prolonged length.

Instead, what we should see is that hierarchy gradually builds up in each historical era to the size and number of layers that the underlying technologies of the era will support. We have noted that there are costs of co-ordination (governance), and despite hierarchical grouping being an efficient shape for the organization of such governance, the possibility of effective governance will run into limits with increasing population size and increasing geographical size of the governed region. In other words, beyond a certain size, co-ordination requires too high an energy tax on group members, and so a larger group becomes infeasible energetically. Where this limit is encountered will depend on the efficiency and effectiveness at various spatial scales of the society’s technologies and cultural affordances for

  • communication and information conservation (for co-ordination of collective action, for ethos teaching, law creation and promulgation, monetary system (i.e. regulated exchange of process outputs) development)
  • transportation (economic flows, enabler of force projection at a distance)
  • force projection (internal policing, and resistance to external threats by other group of various sizes and at various distances over various terrain/ocean barrier types.)

More precisely than saying that hierarchy gradually builds up, we should say that it would be predicted to evolve in punctuated equilibrium fashion toward the maximum supportable size in a given technological/cultural era. The reason for that is that each particular hierarchical society of necessity builds homeostatic mechanisms into its governance rules and procedures; mechanisms which resist any change to the status quo.

Such homeostatic systems of the hierarchical order include laws against treason, laws against usurpation of or ignoring of “legitimate” authorities within the society as established, laws requiring payment of taxes, laws against internal violence, laws enforcing behavioural constraints designed to prevent internal unrest and violence, historical education that builds and encourages loyalty, stories and rituals that communicate and motivate shared aspirations, and of course, law enforcement including policing, and sovereignty maintenance including diplomacy and armed forces.

These subsystems of the hierarchical society actively resist change within certain levels of internal and external disruptive force, but then break rapidly when their capacity to resist is overwhelmed.The overwhelming of a society’s homeostatic systems will occur, generally speaking, when the society’s costs of co-ordination, policing, and defense, as a fraction of the society’s ability to harness and channel resources, rises to a ratio where increasing co-ordination, policing, or defense to a level needed to quell the disruptive influences becomes untenable. When this may occur depends on:

  1. the size that the society (or state) itself has reached, compared to the efficiency of its governing technologies in acting at that scale, and on
  2. the extent to which the society’s economic processes and techniques have depleted the resources in its environment beyond its capacity or ingenuity to renew or replace them, and on
  3. the scale and power of any potentially disruptive active threats.

External Threats: Other societies building themselves adjacent to the boundaries of the society, pose a threat to the society’s order. Societies tend to want to subsume and cannibalize the human and other resources of an adjacent society, because an adjacent society is an unpredictable, self-interested, active, thus potentially dangerous part of the surrounding environment. Yet it contains riches and people power if it can be re-organized to be part of the society that is contemplating invasion.

Internal Threats: An internal faction within a society may start using technologies or organizing methodologies that are more capable or efficient at the state’s scale than those of the dominant state.

If a hierarchical society in a given techological/cultural era does break down, we would expect that latent hierarchies, initially shallower and of smaller compass, would fill the power vacuum. In a somewhat turbulent process of conflict and consolidation, one of them, or an evolved enlargement of it, would eventually become the new dominant or legitimate hierarchical society; the new state government. Unless technology and cultural organizational techniques had advanced, we would expect the new stable state to be of a similar size to the one it replaced.

Because technologies of communication, information storage and processing, transportation, and force projection have increased over human pre-history and history, coordination at larger and larger scales has become feasible, and so the average size of the dominant hierarchical societies (states or other governance orders such as organized religions) has also increased over historical time. One might hypothesize that the hierarchy size has been a function of the population increase in the species. I rather posit that the population increase has been a side-effect of the energy-efficiency gains of technological and cultural development, and possibly most significantly, of the energy-efficiency gains per increment of survival probability that larger and better organized hierarchical societies have afforded.Size of Nations over Historical TimeFigure 1: The Red line indicates the maximum diameter in kilometres of the geographic area of a typical top-level societal group (tribe … nation).

Staircase form of the growth is due to quantum leaps in the technology or techniques for communication, information conservation, control, transportation, and force projection.

The blue and green lines show the incorporation of sub-states, and sub-sub-states into federal versions (i.e. hierarchically layered versions) of nations. Sub-states allow the top-level state to grow larger (harness more resources, quell conflict further out from the centre, invent more complex and efficient organized modular processes) while the technology for transportation and communication and force projection at great distance is still only effective or efficient at the size of the substates. i.e. It allows the state to grow larger on more limited governance technology. Federalism is an innovation in organizational technique that compensates for lack of other technologies of large-scale direct communication and transportation.

Today, at the beginning of the 21st century AD, ongoing improvements in technology; notably computing, the Internet, and fiber and satellite communications, continue to shrink geography from the perspective of communication and force projection. Therefore it would be surprising indeed if the average size of the dominant hierarchical societies did not continue to increase. If the cost of effective coordination at larger-than-present-national scales is reduced, by means of these technologies, to feasible tax rates, the hypothesis predicts that there are more energy efficiency gains of increased global security and more energy efficiency gains of global coordination of economic activity to be had.

Perhaps the only question is whether we will end up with two or three top-level federal states/sovereign economic regions in the human world, or just one. One speculation would be that two to three may be more a more stable endgame because they are competition for each other and force each other to continue improving, whereas a single global state would stagnate and frequently be subverted by a few of its dominant substates. Another speculation is that we will go through a two-or-three state phase leading eventually to a single global state having jurisdiction in limited domains such as human rights, amelioration of extreme poverty, mediation and limitation of state or factional conflict, international trade law, and environmental regulation.

If the hypothesis that

  1. energy-efficiency economic benefits of hierarchical governance increase generally with the size of the governed group, and that
  2. ever larger groups can be governed effectively as technology and organizational techniques improve

is correct, then the onus is clearly on political or economic theorists to show why an endgame of further consolidation of power as described above is less likely than a continuation of the status quo.

Upsizing Social Friction: Energetic Considerations in Social Dynamics

March 22, 2008

How To Keep Yourself Together – Once More With (Semi) Formality!


This article is not based on scientific experiment. It contains diagrams and numbers meant only to illustrate general concepts, which are merely hypothesized as pertaining to the operation of human society. Ideas about how to test the hypotheses laid out here are welcome.


Hierarchical societal grouping is a stable configuration for resource-processing intelligent agents (such as human beings and other animals).


a. Hierarchical societal grouping results in reduction of “social friction” energy losses of individuals, through upsizing and outward movement of social friction to the boundary of the group, which leads to higher survival probability of individuals in the group.

b. Aggregated, co-ordinated, aligned and specialized effort allows invention of new complex, more energy efficient living processes within the group.

c. The hierarchical topology of the arrangement yields stable manageability of processes essential to the operation and continuation of the group.

Use of Energy By Individuals Without Society

Tribes protect members and conserve energy for survival

Kingdoms provide even more safety and energy conservation

(larger image)

At the next level of detail:

a. Hierarchical societal grouping reduces per-capita frictional losses of energy to social conflict, by aligning the activity of members of the group via enforced agreements on constraints on individual behaviour; that is, the rule of law, pressure to adhere to social conventions, and development of a shared ethos, within the group. Social friction, therefore, tends to be upsized in the sense that, in the ideally aligned group, it occurs only at the border of the social group, where the group impinges on other groups and may have interests that conflict with those of the other group.

b. Aggregation and co-ordination of effort of individuals within the group allows the invention of new efficient resource extraction and utilization processes, enabling the group and its members to more efficiently use their environment to ensure their survival and growth, to more efficiently defend against environmental threats and other groups, and to transform parts of the environment into subprocesses of the group as a living process.

As the number of individuals and co-operating sub-groups increases, the vocabulary (alphabet and grammar) of process combination increases. Complex processes use hierarchical co-ordination and constraint to corrall together process elements, leading to innovations like supply and distribution chains, scientific and technical process development, and specialized agricultural or manufacturing processes.

The result of innovative combinations of a large vocabulary of societal metabolic processes (i.e. economic activity) can be more efficient than any smaller simpler subsistence process could be.

c. Stable Manageability – Hierarchical social grouping is efficiently manageable (each manager manages only a relatively small and simple sub-domain of the whole complex system, requiring the manager to use only a simple network of communications, and making such management feasible). As well, hierarchical social group activity coordination accumulates surplus resources toward managers (more rewards going toward managers with responsibility over larger, higher-tier domains) yielding stability of the hierarchical co-ordination (management) regime if managers are self-interested.

The consequences of a. b. and c. combined:

Each individual group member must pay a group membership tax, in order to support the functioning of c. hierarchical management and policing of the group’s activities. This tax may be a real monetary payment toward the next levels up in the group control hierarchy, as in modern human societies, or it may be only a metaphor for the opportunity cost the individual pays by constraining their behaviour to conform to the group’s norms and laws. Outlaws can make a good living, for a time, but the law eventually “gets its man”.

But in a successful form of society, a. (friction reduction on survival activity), and b. (emergent efficient complex regulated economic processes), combine to produce a tamed, secure, and “edible”, “shoppable” environment for the individual member; an environment in which they can achieve increments of increased survival probability at considerably less marginal energy expenditure than if they were not cocooned within the society.

Hierarchical groups are stable when Energy Savings (a. + b.) are greater than Energy Tax(c. flow of energy in central direction for group maintenance)

If this is the case, then being in the hierarchically organized group conserves the individual member’s energy so they will have more to use for basic survival, health, welfare, reproduction, and guardianship of offspring. Being in the hierarchical group is beneficial, in terms of survival probability, to each conforming member. From an evolutionary perspective, belonging to the group, and acting according to its constraints, is adaptive.