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April 4th, 2022
Autoimmune diseases have been on the rise for quite a few decades. No one is sure why, but a leading theory within virology is The Hygiene Hypothesis. The tldr of this hypothesis is that our immune system has always been revved up to a high gear because for the majority of our evolution we were in circumstances that guaranteed enemies for the immune system to deal with. More specifically, large parasites were ubiquitous, and because of these unwelcome friends, our immune system evolved to constantly be in a state of aggression. But today, few in the developed world have such parasites. Our environment has become so clean that our immune systems are left without their usual sparring partners and in their absence, the trigger happy aggression of our immune system is taken out on the body itself instead.
This is a tidy example of unintended second-order effects. When something outlives it’s usefulness, does it then begin to unravel the improved situation?
“Embedded within the fruits of their success are the seeds of their decline.”
This is a quote from Ray Dalio’s latest book entitled “Principles for Dealing with the Changing World Order.” In this book he details his thesis about the rise and decline of world empires. As the quote indicates, his thesis holds that the situation generated by hardworking people contributing to a rising empire in fact lays the foundation for its undoing. Fueled by innovation and creativity a society greatly improves, making the value of its currency rise. But then there’s a switch in the culture and the society. The improved condition undermines the mindset of the society as a whole. People are less driven to improve their condition because at this point, it’s one of the best conditions that can be found around the world. The child of a wealthy individual who worked very hard to rise out of poverty does not experience that same poverty that shaped their parent’s mindset. This is an oversimplification, but an appropriate one which captures the larger trend. Another aspect of the change in society is relative condition. For a country or a group of people who are just beginning to rise, they are all essentially in the same boat. But when an empire has matured, that’s no longer the case. While the general condition of most people in such an empire might be much better than conditions found in most every other country, the economics of innovation inevitably create large gaps in wealth. People in the empire don’t compare themselves to people in other countries, they compare themselves to those who have it the best within their own country.
Notice the difference in mindsets here: when a nation begins to rise, the predominate mindset is to work hard and to try and improve things. At the top that mindset has vanished from the majority population. The “enemy” of poverty is absent, and this has a fundamental impact on mindset which develops without that worthy adversary of poverty, and just like the immune system which is overreactive in the absence of parasites and other expected enemies, the mindset of a population begins to rile against itself. Populism rises as people bicker and gaps in wealth become the concern of most people. The virtuous cycle tips into a vicious cycle and the status achieved by innovation and hard work is undone in the absence of a mindset that generates innovation and hard work.
Generations of people born during or after the height of an empire fundamentally lack the situation necessary to develop a perspective required to continue growing that empire.
Just as our own bodies begin to unravel themselves in the absence of expected hardship, societies unravel in the absence of the conditions that created them.
Something about all this feels odd, in the same way we can witness ourselves taking part in a behavior that undermines our larger goals. Like opting for dessert over and over when we have a larger goal to lose some weight. Do we have to make the same mistakes over and over? Like a bad habit? Like another flair up of an autoimmune condition? Like the crash of another country?
Clearly not. Changes can take place that enable people to achieve their goals, and not everyone has an autoimmune condition. But so far - given human history - all empires fall.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that nothing changes, and that cyclical crashes are a fundamental aspect of human experience. But innovation is itself the process of discovering and leveraging a fundamental change in the way things work. Da Vinci and countless people before him dreamed of flight, and it was likely widespread for people think it would be impossible. But today flight is commonplace. The same applies to something as simple as soap and germ theory. Countless people have died due to an ignorance about germ theory, but once the concept took hold, it changed human behavior. There’s a particular combination of awareness and imagination that’s required for innovation. It’s not enough to simply imagine a better future; an awareness of the present circumstance is required. A sensitivity of perception is fundamental for realizing something about the current situation that can help us change it. Ray Dalio’s book is perhaps the first inkling of a mass awareness of a problem that exists at the size of societies. Our ability to identify the trend - to become aware of the problem is likely our first step to innovating our way out of it.