When Good Governments Go Bad: History Shows That Societies Collapse When Leaders Undermine Social Contracts

Roman Forum

The ruins of the Roman Forum, once a site of a representational government. Credit: (c) Linda Nicholas, Field Museum

All good things must come to an end. Whether societies are ruled by ruthless dictators or more well-meaning representatives, they fall apart in time, with different degrees of severity. In a new paper, anthropologists examined a broad, global sample of 30 pre-modern societies. They found that when “good” governments—ones that provided goods and services for their people and did not starkly concentrate wealth and power—fell apart, they broke down more intensely than collapsing despotic regimes. And the researchers found a common thread in the collapse of good governments: leaders who undermined and broke from upholding core societal principles, morals, and ideals.

“Pre-modern states were not that different from modern ones. Some pre-modern states had good governance and weren’t that different from what we see in some democratic countries today,” says Gary Feinman, the MacArthur curator of anthropology at Chicago’s Field Museum and one of the authors of a new study in Frontiers in Political Science. “The states that had good governance, although they may have been able to sustain themselves slightly longer than autocratic-run ones, tended to collapse more thoroughly, more severely.”

“We noted the potential for failure caused by an internal factor that might have been manageable if properly anticipated,” says Richard Blanton, a professor emeritus of anthropology at Purdue University and the study’s lead author. “We refer to an inexplicable failure of the principal leadership to uphold values and norms that had long guided the actions of previous leaders, followed by a subsequent loss of citizen confidence in the leadership and government and collapse.”

Great Council

An engraving by Giambattista Brustolon showing the Great Council of Venice. Credit: Illustration by Giambattista Brustolon, Creative Commons

In their study, Blanton, Feinman, and their colleagues took an in-depth look at the governments of four societies: the Roman Empire, China’s Ming Dynasty, India’s Mughal Empire, and the Venetian Republic. These societies flourished hundreds (or in ancient Rome’s case, thousands) of years ago, and they had comparatively more equitable distributions of power and wealth than many of the other cases examined, although they looked different from what we consider “good governments” today as they did not have popular elections. 

“There were basically no electoral democracies before modern times, so if you want to compare good governance in the present with good governance in the past, you can’t really measure it by the role of elections, so important in contemporary democracies. You have to come up with some other yardsticks, and the core features of the good governance concept serve as a suitable measure of that,” says Feinman. “They didn’t have elections, but they had other checks and balances on the concentration of personal power and wealth by a few individuals. They all had means to enhance social well-being, provision goods and services beyond just a narrow few, and means for commoners to express their voices.”

In societies that meet the academic definition of “good governance,” the government meets the needs of the people, in large part because the government depends on those people for the taxes and resources that keep the state afloat. “These systems depended heavily on the local population for a good chunk of their resources. Even if you don’t have elections, the government has to be at least somewhat responsive to the local population, because that’s what funds the government,” explains Feinman. “There are often checks on both the power and the economic selfishness of leaders, so they can’t hoard all the wealth.”

Societies with good governance tend to last a bit longer than autocratic governments that keep power concentrated to one person or small group. But the flip side of that coin is that when a “good” government collapses, things tend to be harder for the citizens, because they’d come to rely on the infrastructure of that government in their day-to-day life. “With good governance, you have infrastructures for communication and bureaucracies to collect taxes, sustain services, and distribute public goods. You have an economy that jointly sustains the people and funds the government,” says Feinman. “And so social networks and institutions become highly connected, economically, socially, and politically. Whereas if an autocratic regime collapses, you might see a different leader or you might see a different capital, but it doesn’t permeate all the way down into people’s lives, as such rulers generally monopolize resources and fund their regimes in ways less dependent on local production or broad-based taxation.”

The researchers also examined a common factor in the collapse of societies with good governance: leaders who abandoned the society’s founding principles and ignored their roles as moral guides for their people. “In a good governance society, a moral leader is one who upholds the core principles and ethos and creeds and values of the overall society,” says Feinman. “Most societies have some kind of social contract, whether that’s written out or not, and if you have a leader who breaks those principles, then people lose trust, diminish their willingness to pay taxes, move away, or take other steps that undercut the fiscal health of the polity.”

This pattern of amoral leaders destabilizing their societies goes way back—the paper uses the Roman Empire as an example. The Roman emperor Commodus inherited a state with economic and military instability, and he didn’t rise to the occasion; instead, he was more interested in performing as a gladiator and identifying himself with Hercules. He was eventually assassinated, and the empire descended into a period of crisis and corruption. These patterns can be seen today, as corrupt or inept leaders threaten the core principles and, hence, the stability of the places they govern. Mounting inequality, concentration of political power, evasion of taxation, hollowing out of bureaucratic institutions, diminishment of infrastructure, and declining public services are all evidenced in democratic nations today. 

“What I see around me feels like what I’ve observed in studying the deep histories of other world regions, and now I’m living it in my own life,” says Feinman. “It’s sort of like Groundhog Day for archaeologists and historians.”

“Our findings provide insights that should be of value in the present, most notably that societies, even ones that are well governed, prosperous, and highly regarded by most citizens, are fragile human constructs that can fail,” says Blanton. “In the cases we address, calamity could very likely have been avoided, yet, citizens and state-builders too willingly assumed that their leadership will feel an obligation to do as expected for the benefit of society. Given the failure to anticipate, the kinds of institutional guardrails required to minimize the consequences of moral failure were inadequate.” 

But, notes Feinman, learning about what led to societies collapsing in the past can help us make better choices now: “History has a chance to tell us something. That doesn’t mean it’s going to repeat exactly, but it tends to rhyme. And so that means there are lessons in these situations.”

Reference: “Moral Collapse and State Failure: A View From the Past” by Richard E. Blanton, Gary M. Feinman, Stephen A. Kowalewski and Lane F. Fargher, 16 October 2020, Frontiers in Political Science.
DOI: 10.3389/fpos.2020.568704

18 Comments on "When Good Governments Go Bad: History Shows That Societies Collapse When Leaders Undermine Social Contracts"

  1. Harry Wallace, Jr. | January 5, 2021 at 5:18 pm | Reply

    Fortunately, the United States elected Joe Biden in time. He has made the LGBT agenda one of his top priorities, which is wonderful. If America were to continue to oppress the gay man, we certainly would be coming under judgement sooner than later. President-elect Biden will be the first to nominate an LGBTQIA person to the Supreme Court, which is what this country needs, especially if that person is a transsexual from whom we can learn much. Biden will also install LGBTQIA people on his staff, which is breathtaking and encouraging. I wouldn’t go as far as to say Biden is the savior of the world, but he certainly is the savior of America. He and Vice President-elect Harris know that it is a beautiful thing when two or more men lie down together. There is something about homosexuality and wisdom that make the two almost one and the same. Just look at Elton and John and Freddie Mercury who is now in heaven leading the mighty chorus. This article is very timely and certainly telling. Fortunately the LGBTIA+ community will no longer suffer oppression but will be lifted up as the beautiful people God has created us to be.

    • What are you talking about? The collapse of this society started awhile ago. Before the current president and was going on during the president elect’s last administration. It has nothing to do with the freedoms of special classes. It has to do with the erosion of responsibility. I guess responsibility itself will soon come into question when machines and AI take over most of the work. Trying times we live in. The freedoms of special classes is not what will save us.

    • Sir, please seek some professional mental help immediately.its quite obvious you are in fire red of same. Oh and just an FYI: hate never conquers love. Dueces!

    • You are either a troll or evil. If you’re the former then great job, the only hint was equating homosexuality with wisdom–an absurd notion even by liberal standards today. Or so I hope, anyway. You could very well just be the worst type of person, evil and intelligent. Cunningly framing gpbad as good and grotesque as beautiful takes a certain talent few possess.

      It sounds like veiled praise, but to be clear, this is purely criticism.

    • Blah, blah blah. The mere fact that homosexuals and the gender benders feel they must be so set apart from the rest of normal gender and quietness heteros have in being what they are is what may eventually lead to a very weird demise for many places. I see no need for ANY society have to SCREAM on pedestals someone’s sexual proclivities. Be who you are in full consciousness and awareness of your own happiness, but a nation that continues to try to defy natural law, make it a platform or manifesto and then proceed to try to guilt shame people who are suddenly saying, wait, when did it become some weird need to have to now defend our own hetero identities. It’s going to be ugly again in this country. Just as it was under Obama and the non stop twisted social slams and attempts to twist our culture to make it full of confusion and assault on normalcy, natural law, cosmic alignment of what is good.

  2. Your opinion is of a lost soul. Your vision of who you are is not whom the beautiful person God intended for you to be. I encourage you to just give Jesus Christ a chance in your life. Study him and you may not only find the greatest friend you ever had. but a savior who can love you beyond measure. Man whether President or whomever can love you and give you true happiness that you can find in Christ.

  3. Mr. James King you must be out of your mind!

  4. How the hell is appointing LGBT to positions of power going to save this country? Bad take. There is actually data to support that great societies often fall right around the time sexual ambiguity explodes.. I say that not giving a sh*t about what you do in your bed, but to say what does any of what you just said do for our country?? America’s problem is that the easiest way to get any attention anymore is being a victim online, this sh*t is more contagious than covid. Everybody is always offended by something, when they could just say, I don’t know you and I don’t care what you have to say and get back to work…. Doesn’t matter where you come from now a days there is always something online to get upset about. Also, when our media blatantly lies to derive narratives to strike fear and submission into their viewers, that never ends well. Especially when the truth finally comes out. I guess cnn is just lucky that most Americans have short attention spans or just don’t care.

  5. Then I guess it wasn’t good government to begin with. As for myself i Paid off student loans in 2 months 35k. No credit boost, no fresh start to get my name cleared. I worked during a pandemic because I was “essential” but never received a bonus during it but 600 dollars will cover your mouth. Wish I had lobbies to write blank checks to help me stay afloat. Or millions of dollars to learn about “gender studies” in Pakistan. Your life is a joke and we as savage humans have learned nothing… and that should be something to be upset over.

  6. Ahh, orange man bad. How erudite. A royal sh*t ton of the Roman emperors and senators were probably degenerates having wine infused orgies beyond the scope of the modern imagination. It’s like most academics are impermeable to the idea that people have real grievances, and that the universities, big tech, and the media are pushing an out of touch with reality monoculture on the population that is highly destructive to their lives. You sir are part of the problem. But hey, have a nice day bud.

  7. This article ignores a vast amount of knowledge about ancient societies and history to the point of being a source of confusion and misinformation. As for any one specific group of rights, let’s respect all human rights rather than exclude.

  8. I love all the subtle hints and jabs in this article at the successful Trump administration, but what I find most ironic, is their subtle hints that the great covilizations if the past could have some how averted their fall if they had simply “embraced” a more socialist model, when the opposite is true! In the case of Rome, their fall almost coincided with their practice of the empire beginning to provide “free grain” to its citizens at the tail end of its reign, making them less dependent on their self and more dependent on the government, sound familiar?

  9. President Elect Kidsniffer | January 6, 2021 at 12:56 am | Reply

    It appears no one is going to put a stop to theft of our election. Our votes no longer matter. The globalists in charge do not even need to buy the votes from the useful idiot socialists anymore. Our country is now in a death spiral.
    Congrats, you leftist scum. You achieved your goal of destroying America. I hope you get to live with the result for a loooonnnnggg time.

  10. Mr. Trollanoscopi | January 6, 2021 at 1:42 am | Reply


  11. Tragically despite or is it because of our information age or is it disinformation age,history still repeats itself in spalling ways where it could be otherwise.Our history departments fail us.Now information is getting controlled by tyrants.The post Christian west is ideologically disarmed!

  12. stephen schaffer | January 6, 2021 at 8:42 am | Reply

    The Mongol Empire in India was a moslem usurper of Hindu peoples by despotic and cruel rulers, typical of the 1500 years of slaughtering, raping, forced conversions, looting, and constant persecution of filthy kaffirs. They don’t deserve to be in this article or “study.”
    After the moslems murdered upwards of 200 million Indian people under shariya during three hundred nightmarish years you should not wonder why Modi is a popular leader.

  13. “There were basically no electoral democracies before modern times, …”

    It seems that the authors didn’t do their homework:

    Should we trust the rest of their claims?

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