Examples (and Non-Examples) of Social Cycle Theories

Let us try to distinguish true social cycle theories from cycle theories involving humans but not representing true social cycles. Let us define a true social cycle as one in which both the initial disruption, the subsequent adjustments, the disruptions that follow them, the adjustments that follow on, and so on, are all primarily social in nature, i.e., they are driven by human action and the social environment that gives human action its setting. Let us offer a paradigmatic case of a true cycle that is not a social cycle: the spike in the sale of sunscreen in the summer, and its trough in the winter. This cycle clearly includes human action and social factors, but the primary driver of the cycle is the earth's rotation around the sun, a distinctly non-human, non-social phenomenon. That, we will say, is a genuine cycle, but not a social cycle. The fact that farmers en masse plant corn in the spring and harvest it in late summer is another such cycle: it is obviously true that they do so, so in saying that is not a true social cycle I am not disputing the facts on the ground, I am just saying that a major factor driving this cycle is not social in nature.

In the following list, we are not concerned with whether a cycle theory is true, but merely whether it is a genuinely social cycle theory.

Some social cycle theories:

1) The Aristotelean-Polybian theory of anacyclosis: Here, it is the weakness inherent in each form of good rule (monarchy, aristocracy, democracy) that drive the system into the next form in the cycle. These are all social factors.
2) The Malthusian theory of the population cycle: Abundance drives population increase, which creates scarcity, which drives population reduction. Query: Is this really a social cycle, or is it more of a biological cycle?
3) Marx's theory of the business cycle: The "anarchy of capitalist production" drives waves of high investment, which prove over-optimistic, and are followed by a wave of low investment, producing the slump.
4) Pareto's theory of alternation of the elites: Any elite class rules either mostly by guile or mostly by force. Whichever is the case, a group within the non-elite class gradually comes to have a decisive advantage in the other means, and then, by force or guile, it displaces the current elite.
5) The Mises-Hayek theory of the business cycle: Too-low interest rates prompt the boom, which threatens to turn into the "crack-up boom," and that threat prompts higher rates. Those higher rates expose malinvestments, producing the slump. The response to the slump by the central bank is a renewal of too-low interest rates.
6) The Keynesian theory of the business cycle: The animal spirits of investors are riding high, but get spooked, by the threat of war, by a supply-side shock, by a threat of high tariffs, and so on. As a result, they reduce investment spending. That causes cut-backs in consumption spending which further spook investors, causing further reductions in investment spending, and so on. This continues (absent government intervention) until the price of capital goods sinks low enough that profit opportunities again become obvious: mathematically, we can use IS/LM model and the multiplier (in its negative manifestation) to see where this might occur, but the problems in that approach were pointed out early on by Hicks.
7) Callahan's theory of fads as social cycles. (Yes, this is a rather trivial example, but I think it is a real one, and highlights the phenomenon in a situation relatively free of ideological conflict. By doing so, I hope to penetrate past the ideological disputes towards the real essence of social cycles.)


What about Kondratiev? Schumpeter? Lucas? Do they have genuine social cycle theories?

What/who should we be looking at that we are not? Are the social cycle theories in anthropology? Linguistics? In sociology, besides Pareto?


  1. Did you ever actually read Malthus? Because that's not really my impression of what he said. I remember reading an essay by David Stove where he says that this is one of the most amazing phenomena -- that of all the things said about Malthus, even by ostensibly knowledgeable people, not one in a thousand actually seems to have read and understood his argument.

    My impression (and Stove's, it seems) is that he was making the case for a steady state, not a cycle. Populations always push themselves up against resource limits, such that scarcity always exists. They do not generally exceed them, because the scarcity of resources acts to rein in reproduction.

    1. Scott, the "positive checks" of "war, famine and disease" can hardly be steady-state phenomena, unless we envision, say, a war that kills off people very carefully, making sure a birth occurs just when each soldier is killed.

  2. I don't think he meant for war, famine, and disease to be particularly important parts of the 'model,' though he did certainly talk about them. If you check the statistical arguments that he uses, he is showing that European population growth is linear, while American growth is exponential (because America was a thinly populated colony at the time with surplus resources). The point wasn't that war, famine, and disease were keeping down European populations. The point was that the system of private property allowed people to 'detect' scarcity before the pangs of hunger kicked in, and people voluntarily checked their tendency towards reproduction through one or the other of 'misery or vice.' This would have been undermined by the socialistic suggestions of William Godwin and the Marquis de Condorcet, which were the real target of the essay. He talked a great deal more about contraception, homosexuality, infanticide and the like than war and famine.

    Certainly wars, famine, etc. happen, but, for example, even though they certainly affect the economy, I don't think this effect disproves ABCT.

    This guy seems to have it basically right:

    "Everybody thinks that Malthus predicted doom by overpopulation.

    Not so.

    Malthus’s theory was a steady state one. He said that a species will breed up to the point at which no more of it can be fed. He made the logically undeniable point that no more of a species can exist than can be supported by the available food supply. The population will increase and stay at those levels and cannot—*because there is no food to*—go beyond that point. The doom of which you constantly hear is impossible. "


    I don't know about the rest of his post, but that part seems to be the impression I got, too.

  3. "Certainly wars, famine, etc. happen, but, for example, even though they certainly affect the economy, I don't think this effect disproves ABCT."


    "Everybody thinks that Malthus predicted doom by overpopulation."

    I didn't say anything remotely like that.

  4. OK, look, Gene, I'm not 'out to get' anybody, I'm just sayin' I've read the book, and I've read lots of people talk about the book, and the impression I get from people who posit that Malthus described a sort of 'boom/bust' population cycle don't know what they're talking about because they haven't read the book but only heard about it in textbooks and the like. The people who talk about it being a steady state theory generally seem to have read the book to me, and to have more well-thought-out opinions about other things, too. If I had to pick which camp to belong to -- David Stove, this guy, a few other people, vs. my college professors (biologists/geneticists), most other commentators I have read, I choose the first camp.

    Now, if you've read the book, and you still think that he's talking about cycles, by all means, it's your own opinion to do with and defend as you will. But if you haven't read it (and I suspect that you haven't, and that's fine, nothing against you or anything like that...), I suggest you take a look at it before you go on record in a big way saying Malthus is talking about a cyclical phenomenon.

    Just looking out for you, that's all. I think this is one of those things like people believing that people in Columbus's time thought the earth was flat, just because it appeared in some fictional account that managed to somehow make its way into a textbook.

    Since very few people read the original works anymore, it's hard to stop these things once they start. A popular misconception gets rolling, makes it into a popular textbook, and there's nothing to do about it. So much for the 'scientific' method of education. I think we should go back to reading Homer and Virgil.

    1. OK, Scott, thanks. I will read Malthus more carefully. (I have read excerpts of Malthus, but not the entire book.)

      Actual animal populations *do* have boom-bust cycles by the way, so it would be to Malthus's credit if he had thought that way!


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