Monday, November 22, 2010

The 30-year rule and 70-year cases

There are patterns in history. Not the Marxian “grand repeated scheme” nonsense, but persistent or recurring tendencies.

In modern politics, there seems to be a roughly 30-year cycle regarding inter-ethnic welfarism: it takes about 30 years for a policy which transfers benefits disproportionately from one ethnic group or region to another to cause a significant polirtical reaction. I suspect it takes about 30 years because that is how long it takes for two things to happen:

First, for it to become clear that the transfers will be endless unless policy changes – that is, that the transfers are not solving the original problem, the problem has become a justification for transfers with no foreseeable end to them.
Second, for a sufficient generation of political activists to grow up for whom the experience of the policy is much more important than the original justification and expectations.

For example, in the mid 1960s, and particularly from 1972-5, we begin to see significant and specific welfare transfers to indigenous Australians. In 1996-8 we get the Pauline Hanson/ One Nation eruption. In the 1960s, Canadian PM Pierre Trudeau introduces bilingualism in Canada with associate welfare transfers; by 1990 the Reform Party of Canada is a serious political contender. In the 1960s, LBJ introduces the Great Society; by 1996, welfare reform is all the rage. In the 1950s and 1960s, transfers to southern Italy became a feature of Italian public policy; by 1991 the Northern League is a serious political contender. The Belgium welfare state expands in the 1950s and 1960s with Flanders disproportionately subsidising Walloonia; by 1991 the Vlaams Blok is becoming politically serious.

Note, these are not cases of reaction to migration, but to transfers between already established ethnicities and/or regional identities. So, for example, the recent surge in the Sweden Democrats vote seems to be very specifically about the surge in Muslim immigration and associated problems. While, in the UK, the issue of the EU has a particular resonance, so the UKIP, which started its surge with the 1999 European Parliament elections has captured current policy-protest vote.

Nevertheless, there do seem to be enough cases to suggest that there is something of a “30 year rule” for significant political reaction against transfers disproportionately from one ethnicity or region to another.

The 70-year cases hardly constitute a rule, but I have noted a curious pattern: that intense centralisation can to lead to some sort of collapse in about 70 years. The most obvious case in the Soviet Union (1917-1991), but it is not the only case in that sort of time frame. For example, France centralises greatly under Louis XIV (r.1643-1715) and (particularly set in train by Colbert, who served 1655-1683). By 1789, there is the French Revolution. Khrosrau Anurshivan (r.531-579) centralises Sassanid Iran; this rather brittle centralism collapses under the Arab attacks of 633-644. The most dramatic centralisation in East Asian history, that of the Qin dynasty, barely lasted 15 years (221-206 BC). If, however, one dates the centralisation from the reforms of Shang Yang (minister 361-338 BC) then one get a roughly 70-year time frame.

Four cases, however prominent, hardly make a strong pattern. The most famous case of centralisation in Western history, that of Diocletian (r. 284-305), is not followed by the official collapse of the Western Empire until 476 while the Eastern Empire kept going. That the official collapse of the Western Empire was 81 years after its final separation from the Eastern Empire does not seem to be other than coincidental.

Still, it does seem a bit odd that you get four such prominent cases of centralisation-followed-by-collapse over a roughly 70 year time frame. Perhaps that is the time it takes for unresponsive brittleness to set in: for the control system to be driven by its internal dynamics rather than adapting to changing conditions.


  1. The 30-year-rule seems to be a good one, but I would amend it slightly. The key, it seems to me, is that the groups do not see themselves as fundamentally indivisible. For example, take the large-scale transfer payments from England to Scotland, which have been going on since 1888. They were uncontroversial for over a century. But once Scotland started agitating for autonomy in the 1970s, we see the 30-year-rule regarding transfer payments come into effect.

    Of course, the large-scale transfers may themselves serve to weaken the sense of solidarity.