Cycles of War and Cycles of Violence
“When misguided public opinion honors what is despicable and despises what is honorable, punishes virtue and rewards vice, encourages what is harmful and discourages what is useful, applauds falsehood and smothers truth under indifference or insult, a nation turns its back on progress and can be restored only by the terrible lessons of catastrophe.” — Frederic Bastiat
There have recently been a number of articles on Steve Bannon’s interest in The Fourth Turning, a book on historical cycles by William Strauss and Neil Howe. Many of these articles treat this interest as somehow odd or fringe, but in fact, the idea of emergent system-wide patterns is hardly unusual.
We see this idea not just in Kondratieff waves, with its variation in Peter Turchin’s secular cycles, the El Farol Bar problem, and the Austrian Business Cycle Theory, but also in population dynamics, tipping points and fads, and even certain brain neurotransmitters. In each of these cases, positive feedback dominates and drives exponential growth until a physical constraint is hit, and then the system crashes. The system then begins exponential growth once again.
Each of the examples above demonstrates this. In the El Farol Bar problem, people are individually trying to go to the bar when it’s not too crowded. If there are few people at the bar one weekend, those people, and a few others, will show up the next weekend. This continues until the bar is crowded, and some people stop showing up. Bar attendance drops until people decide to give it another try, during which time attendance will again cycle up. Because people are making their decisions based on experience, and those experiences vary, and an overly-crowded bar isn’t any fun (this is the physical constraint in this system), we end up with cycling attendance. All of the potential bar patrons aren’t going to coordinate with each other to ensure everyone is attending when the bar is optimal, though because bars are social, and because people talk to each other, word gets around when it isn’t that packed, and soon thereafter, it ends up packed — and then, not. And then packed again.
Population dynamics works the same. The number of rabbits grows until the food runs out, then the population crashes, then food recovers, and then the population of rabbits increases. Over and over and over.
The same thing occurs in Austrian Business Cycle Theory. Cheap money, often through artificially low interest rates (held down for political reasons), siphons money into certain economic sectors, resulting in a boom and an increase in prices. This occurs until the market is saturated and nobody is buying anymore. With excess supply, prices go down, manufacture ceases, heterogeneous physical capital lays idle or is destroyed, there are layoffs, and another positive feedback sets in, driving the bust — until either prices clear or the government intervenes to create cheap money again and drive the next cycle.
In The Law, Frederic Bastiat identifies yet another positive feedback mechanism, which is that of government favors. This is how things inevitably work out: 1) government favors a few industries, to protect them from competition; 2) more industries begin to demand regulations and subsidies to protect them; 3) labor begins to demand protections and favors; and finally, 4) the poor begin to demand welfare payouts. Note that this is a positive feedback cycle, with more and more people getting benefits from the government. On the flip side, for the government to provide these benefits, more and more money is needed, meaning more and more taxes and borrowing. There inevitably comes a point where the government runs out of other people’s money. This will either result in reforms designed to get people less dependent on the government, or it will result in inflation and even hyperinflation as the government prints more and more money to cover its payouts. In Germany, the need to cover payouts (ranging from the extensive welfare state it had to the war reparations it had to pay) resulted in the government printing money so fast that there was hyperinflation, leading to an economic crisis that in turn led to the Nazis taking over Germany.
F. A. Hayek warned in The Road to Serfdom that socialism would inevitably lead to totalitarianism in precisely this way. The more government is used by vested interests for their own selfish ends (rather than to prevent injustices), the closer to crisis the country moves. Because granting favors inevitably leads toward “me-too”ism, there is a positive feedback which sets in. Because of physical constraints on the system, the system will inevitably crash. So long as positive feedback dominates the system, the system will cycle.
Because it seems that people don’t learn collective lessons very well (and ignore those who try to teach it to them), various kinds of cycles inevitably set in. Peter Turchin has identified a 50-year secular cycle of political violence in the U.S. that peaks in the ’20s and ’70s, with the last peak in 1970 and the next peak getting ready to occur in 2020. Strauss and Howe identified 80-year cycles that they further divided up into four “turnings,” with the fourth turning occurring at the end of the cycle, and the end of the cycle being a period of violence. The last “Fourth Turning” coincided with World War II. That coincidentally means that it will take place around 2020, meaning the Strauss-Howe cycle will coincide with the Turchin cycle. Given that both predict violence as an outcome before the new cycle (with new institutions) begins, this time around could be very frightening indeed — if these predictions are true.
There is very good evidence from a variety of scholars — if we just consider those mentioned, there is a Soviet scientist, conservative scholars, a liberal population biologist-turned-historian, a French classical liberal, and a school of economics — that cycles emerge in complex social systems when positive feedback dominates. This means that Steve Bannon’s belief in the Fourth Turning isn’t quite as crazy as many commentators like to make it out to be. The problem isn’t that he believes that we’re in a Fourth Turning; no, the problem is that he thinks he ought to contribute to it.
Hayek argued that with economics we cannot make precise predictions of the future, and that anyone who tries is essentially foolish. With economics, we cannot make precise predictions, but we can make pattern predictions. Using the Austrian Business Cycle Theory, we cannot predict when the bust will take place, only that it will take place. Equally, these cycles make allow us to predict, more or less, when a peak of, say, political violence will take place, but they cannot help us predict precisely why (though there are patterns behind why there are cycles, we still cannot be specific about those whys) or how violent that political violence will be. The 80-year cycle gave us 1776, 1860, 1940, and upcoming 2020. The 50-year cycle gave us 1870, 1920, 1970, and upcoming 2020. In the 80-year cycle there were wars (including a revolutionary war and a civil war), and the 50-eyar cycle gave us peaks of political violence, ranging from riots to terrorism. The fact that there was a major trough between 1776 and 1860 may help explain why the only point in the 50-year cycle that didn’t have political violence was 1820 (one may note that 1776 is almost direct-center of 1770 and 1780, the 50-year and 80-year peak years). This shouldn’t be too surprising, since waves can either cancel each other out, when the peak of one coincides with the trough of another, or they can reinforce each other when the peaks coincide.
The fact that there are two peaks coinciding should give us serious pause. We should also be concerned that there is someone in the White House who believes he can help things along. The problem is that Bannon is trying to provide even more positive feedback to the system. And we know what positive feedback does to a system. More, the higher the peak, the lower the trough. The bigger the economic bubble, the deeper and longer the recession or depression. Positive feedback can actually help keep the peak going. For a while. While Bannon may think he’s helping things along, meaning that he’s helping get us through to the next First Turning, the fact of the matter is that his “help” could in fact help prolong the violence. Prolonged political violence becomes revolution and overthrow; prolonged war becomes thousands of deaths and even defeat.
One of the problems with understanding these kinds of cycles is that people then think they can control them. Bannon certainly does, but so does Turchin (though they have different ways of doing it, they desire for control remains the same in both). Both are attempting to be social engineers. However, Bastiat points out that social engineers all falsely assume that people are passive clay they can manipulate at will. When people are treated this way, we get these very cycles people like Bannon and Turchin are concerned with. If, rather, our governments merely used their (attempted) monopoly on violence to provide responses to acts of injustice (to act as third party vengeance against injustices/violence in fact done against person and/or their property), then the varied goals of the varied people in that society would dampen out these cycles and give us rather complexly creative societies of ever-increasing healthy wealth-production. But so long as people think they can engineer society and treat people as parts of a machine to be manipulated at will, we are going to continue to have these kinds of cycles.