Empires Also Die*


In the early 1930s, Ralph Nelson Elliott developed a system to interpret action in the stock market in terms of recurring price structures.  The idea was that by figuring out where you are today with respect to repeating price patterns you can predict where you will be tomorrow, or one or two decades down the road.  The Elliott Wave theory suggested a human behavior corollary, and some philosophers and historians believe that, in the "natural order of things", empires have their own life cycles.  They wax strong in youthful exuberance and attain a vibrant maturity, only to wane in their hubris and excesses, and then die in an overextension of resources and a loss of moral values.  It was this kind of thinking that led Will and Ariel Durant to come up with their observation: "Civilizations are born stoic and die epicurean."

According to this paradigm, the average age of the great civilizations is thought to be around two hundred years.  That would position a country like the United States at just about the age of decline.  But even if you don't subscribe to the pattern theory, the causal factors that account for the rise and fall of empires are recorded in history and cannot be easily dismissed.

Each of the great civilizations in the world has passed through a series of phases from its birth to its decline to its death.  At least one historian has chronicled them as 'descriptive stages' in the life of an empire: the first stage moves from bondage to self-determination and confidence; the second from confidence to great courage; the third from courage to liberty; the fourth from liberty to abundance; the fifth from abundance to selfishness; the sixth from selfishness to complacency; the seventh from complacency to apathy; the eighth from apathy to moral decay; the ninth from moral decay to dependence; and the tenth and last stage moves from dependence to bondage.  We have reduced these descriptive stages to five causal factors, and they can be seen to overlap:

  • Hubristic arrogance applied to resolving problems

  • Unregulated immigration and dilution of the culture

  • Misplaced altruism that sustains a lower quality population

  • Loss of respect for societal values and traditions

  • Loss of economic discipline and overextension of resources

The problem, of course, is that we don't really learn from history.  George Santayana said that "those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it."  The philosopher Hegel said: "What experience and history teach us is this: that people and government never have learned anything from history or acted on principles deduced from it."  Or, in the words of Winston Churchill, "The one thing we have learned from history is that we don't learn from history."

Some contemporary historians view the decline of ancient civilizations as the precedent for a similar fate that will befall Western Civilization.  They look to Greece, Rome, the Holy Roman Empire, the British Empire, the former Soviet Union and the United States and argue that history indeed is cyclical, that our destiny is somehow preordained from birth to flourish and then decline and die.  Like any other civilization, they say, America will collapse.

What can the rise and fall of the Roman Empire teach us about the future of the 'American empire'?

The Roman Empire ruled over the Western World for 1000 years.  It took seven centuries of dedicated work to transform a village on the Tiber into the capital of the world.  Perhaps two centuries passed while Romans could enjoy the proceeds of the achievements and conquests of their forefathers-  ----------a period during which they came to rely more and more on others to do their work for them, in return for sharing in the wealth and status of Rome.  Mercenaries fought Rome's battles and maintained the Pax Romana; the provinces grew the food and provided the other essentials required to keep the Roman populace fed, tame and obedient----------  and also the slaves to do the work and the men for the spectacles of the circuses.  Romans themselves first grew fat and lazy and, later, decadent, confident in the belief that they were the elite of the world and that they could have and enjoy anything they wanted.  Intrigue and pursuit of fleeting pleasures became the daily routine of the wealthy; the daily issue of bread and the regular fun and games of the Coliseum were high points for ordinary citizens of Rome.

It is said that 'pride goeth before the fall'.  From the perspective of the Roman citizens of this later period, they were still the elite-  ------------still able to enjoy the apex of luxury and power, even though by then the seeds of the destruction of Rome already had been sown, had germinated and were growing rapidly in the fertile soil of decadence and corruption.  The battle was already being lost long before the barbarians came knocking at the gates.  During the final two centuries of Rome's existence as the imperial capital of the world, its borders shrank progressively under increasingly confident assaults from outside.  As we know, success breeds success and draws support from those who earlier may have been uncommitted.  But as time passed, Rome's inability to keep the waves of intruders at bay became more evident, which meant attacks became more confident until, finally, Attila stood at the gates, while the Goths, Visigoths and the rest were mustering their forces in the north in preparation for their own attacks on what remained of the Roman Empire.

A key point of Rome's history, and of some of the empires preceding it, is that when the citizens of an empire become too comfortable, too corrupt, too caught up in the pursuit of pleasure and personal power, too reliant on others to do their work and fight their wars, these are danger signs.  They warn of a moral slackness in society, the loss of values and a decline in resolve that in times past had ensured both the survival of society and its material success.  One could say that, viewed from a perspective of ethical norms and values, a new barbarism has to arise within the civilization, sapping it of earlier strength, before it becomes vulnerable to an outside threat, which, when it does come, induces panic and fear among the population, rather than a common and firm resolve among all citizens.

In the past, when these changes had set in-  ------------when it was seen as self-evident that the citizens of the empire, purely by virtue of their citizenship, had a right to privilege, that they were first among the nations not on the grounds of what they themselves were achieving, but of what previous generations had achieved, when long held norms and moral values were discarded as old fashioned and it became accepted that anything goes; in other words, when there are barbarians within the walls -  ------------it was time for the other barbarians outside the walls to come knocking.  And there is no reason to think that this has changed.

The main concern of the rulers of Rome, at the peak of its power, was to keep the citizens loyal ----------  -they perceived a greater threat from within than without.  Their objective was to keep the large Roman populace happy and well fed.  In due course it was easier to hire mercenaries from the provinces to man the Legions and protect the borders than to expect Roman citizens to take up arms.  And later it became obligatory of any Caesar who desired to retain the laurel crown to ensure that there is enough bread for the populace and frequent entertainment at the Coliseum.  During the final phase of increasing vulnerability, it seems that government itself lost direction.  Intrigue and political infighting in pursuit of personal power became the main occupation, while career administrators had to keep the wheels turning over.  Appearance became more important than substance on the political stage, while behind the scenes the power brokers were at work to further the aims of the elite at the cost of everyman. 

Even so, it took Rome two centuries of decadence and dissolution, of corruption and debased currency, to finally become so vulnerable that Alarik and his barbarians could knock down the gates and sack Rome.  This extended grace period also means, when the above signs first become evident in a civilization, that there is still time to rectify the situation before it is too late  ----------- provided one can read the signs correctly when they appear, and then be able to muster the necessary support to change history in the making.

We of the West today confront a situation not much different from 2000 years ago.  Our civilization is in a similar position to Rome-  -----------rich, successful and powerful.  Much of the rest of the world, like the 'new' barbarians beyond our borders, is poor and far less developed by comparison.  But there are signs of deterioration from within, as well.  Western culture is in flux.  Until quite recently, it was characterized by a more strict, conservative outlook on life with a strong work ethic and relatively strong moral values that are now often seen as narrow-minded and old-fashioned.  The new dogma since the 1960s is one where nearly anything goes as long as it gives pleasure or brings riches.  A society in which all the comforts of life are taken for granted acquires a "low patience threshold" and expects instant gratification.

Professor John Danford describes this incipient malady and its warning signs in the Preface to his Roots of Freedom: "A free society requires order," he says, "and order depends on restraint: yet it seems that the only kind of restraint compatible with genuine freedom is self-restraint.  Thus a free society cannot long exist if its citizens do not consider self-restraint a virtue.  And the twentieth century has given us ample reason for concern about this most difficult requirement. ...The hedonism of individual pleasure-seeking, the sense that there is no limit to what is permitted in the name of individual fulfillment or 'actualization', the disappearance of any sense of obligations—these are early warnings of a free society's decay."

One of the greatest tragedies in modern history isn’t slavery but the breakdown of the family, an indicator of a declining civilization.  Anyone with the ability to reason knows that the optimum environment to properly civilize a child, which takes tremendous sacrifice and effort, is a two-parent family.  Now that the stigma of illegitimacy has all but disappeared, out-of-wedlock pregnancy is no longer considered shameful, and children are not cautioned about its damaging consequences.  Fatherless boys are twice as likely to end up in jail even when race and income are held constant, and seventy percent of all prison and reform school inmates come from fatherless homes.  Regardless of income or race, there is a strong correlation between the number of single-parent families in a community and the crime rate.

Meantime, government welfare programs penalize the productive members of society to coddle the indolent and irresponsible, while gay/lesbian activists demonstrate for marital rights that make a mockery of the traditional family and the sanctity of marriage.  Fraught with internal dissent, natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina give a whole new meaning to the term 'damage control', not to mention the problem of securing our borders under an edict of 'political correctness' or protecting our population from a pandemic that has been declared inevitable by the World Health Organization.  And how many additional troops could we muster if a new war were to break out in Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, or China?

Historian Paul Kennedy, who views America as a latter-day 'empire', foresaw that its resources were being extended beyond its means as far back as 1987.  He coined the term "imperial overstretch" to describe this reckless profligacy:

"Although the United States is at present still in a class of its own economically and perhaps even militarily, it cannot avoid confronting the two great tests which challenge the longevity of every major power that occupies the ‘number one’ position in world affairs: whether, in the military/strategical realm, it can preserve a reasonable balance between the nation’s perceived defense requirements and the means that it possesses to maintain those commitments; and whether, as an intimately related point, it can preserve the technological and economic bases of its power from relative erosion in the face of ever-shifting patterns of global production. This test of American abilities will be the greater because it, like imperial Spain around 1600 or the British Empire around 1900, is the inheritor of a vast array of strategical commitments which had been made decades earlier, when the nation’s political, economic, and military capacity to influence world events seemed so much more assured. In consequence, the United States now runs the risk, so familiar to historians of the rise and fall of previous Great Powers, of what might roughly be called ‘imperial overstretch’:  that is to say, decision makers in Washington must face the awkward and enduring fact that the sum total of the United States’ global interests and obligations is nowadays far larger than the country’s power to defend them all simultaneously."

In a November 2005 USAToday  cover story, David Walker, the nation's Comptroller General, was quoted as saying, "The United States can be likened to Rome before the fall of the empire.  Its financial condition is 'worse than advertised'.   It has a 'broken business model'.   It faces deficits in its budgets, its balance of payments, its savings  ----------    and its leadership."   The Levy Institute estimates that the U.S. will owe foreigners $8 trillion dollars by 2008, which amounts to 60% of our Gross Domestic Product.  Six out of every 10 dollars earned by Americans will go to pay off a loan in China, Japan, South Korea or the rest of Asia.  That's the kind of mortgage nobody can afford, least of all this nation's taxpayers and their children.

Clearly, the signs are evident, as they were in Rome in the years after about 200 AD.  The bell is tolling for Western Civilization, but there is still time to correct the situation----------   --again, provided that the signs are heeded in time and that people are willing to accept the drastic measures that will be required to remedy the problem and eradicate its causes.  But because, unfortunately, these are two very unlikely probabilities, an evaluation of the current threats besetting this nation must be the highest priority of its leaders.

To anyone with even a smattering of history it is obvious that empires sooner or later become vulnerable to attack from outside, typically by nomads, people who do not enjoy the material fruits of civilization.  But empires are not vulnerable at the height of their military and economic power; they only become vulnerable when in pursuit of instant gratification they gradually lose the will to defend that which they have earned, to fight for what they have built ...when they no longer have the moral resolve to risk life and limb for what they hold dear, including such intangibles as morals and values ...when anything and everything that was once important and valued to earlier generations is offered up for safety and security and the continued pursuit of instant gratification.

Butler Shafler has characterized this value change as a 'golden goose' complex:

"The health of any system ----------   be it an individual or a society  ----------   depends upon the production of those values necessary for that system’s survival.  The production and distribution of goods and services, technology, the sciences, medicine, the arts, and agriculture, are just a few of the more prominent examples of the values upon which Western societies have depended.

"If we misfocus our attention, we may erroneously conclude that our material well-being is dependent upon the creation of the 'things' that we consume in our efforts to sustain ourselves. In so doing, we tend to ignore the underlying conditions that make the production of such values possible.  We come to value, and depend upon, the goose that lays the golden egg, rather than upon the processes by which creative individuals might produce more geese, or more efficient means of generating gold."

When the playthings of technology become more important than acquiring the skills to produce them, an industrial empire soon finds itself outsourcing product design and fabrication to foreigners who have the necessary skills.  This is the modern equivalent of empires procuring mercenaries to fight their battles.  The outsourcing nation then loses its technological leadership and becomes a society of consumers increasingly dependent on foreign investment to support their economy.  No nation can long survive a rising budget deficit measured in trillions of dollars.  No empire by sheer hubris can effectively engage in resolving international conflicts when it is indebted to its enemies.  At such times an external threat is likely to be assisted by dissenters----------   -the 'barbarians' within----------   -who do their own bit to ensure the empire's final collapse.  This needn't be willful treason; more typically it is the consequence of narrow-minded thinking by citizens who out of pure selfishness demand liberal policies that contain the seeds of their own destruction.  In this respect it is interesting to see what were the main pre-occupations of past empires that contributed to their eventual weakness and collapse.

History has shown that among all powerful peoples, when the creation of real wealth and true economic power is neglected, when the belief that the status quo is pre-ordained and will last forever, when what happens today becomes more important than what will be the situation tomorrow and next year, when enjoying life becomes more important than preserving values such as individual freedom, honesty, fairness and integrity, when the electors cast their votes for celebrity and charisma rather than envisioned leadership, when those in power find that they have to deceive and defraud the man on the street in order to protect their own personal wealth and power----------  -when all that happens, the peak has been passed and the end is not far off.

In his book, Why Civilizations Self-Destruct, Elmer Pendell surveyed historians' theories and concluded that a civilization arises when natural selection produces a people of above-average intelligence.  As the founders conquer natural culling forces, those who would have been removed from the population due to their lesser abilities survive and produce more children than the more intelligent founders.  Francis Galton, Charles Darwin's cousin and author of Hereditary Genius, first noted that 'men of eminence' have fewer children than the average.  Eventually the average intelligence level falls below that of the original population.

Dr. Pendell suggests another factor in the collapse of civilizations ----------    the gradual adulteration of ethnically homogeneous founding populations through losses in wars and, in ancient times, the taking of slaves.  Tenny Frank, in his book History of Rome, wrote: "The original peoples were wasted in wars and scattered in migrations and colonization and their places were filled chiefly with Eastern Slaves."  The modern analogue of slavery is immigration.  When an empire nation opens its borders to immigrants of diverse cultures and backgrounds, it stands to lose or gain, depending on the talents and working skills of its new citizens and their willingness to assimilate.  Lacking these attributes, the 'melting pot' simile falters, allowing a disenfranchised class to emerge that not only must be sustained by the state but that represents a potential source of dissent within its ranks.   

Like the Romans of the 3rd and 4th Centuries, Americans tend to scoff at the implication that their decline is already in place.  Surely the U.S. and the West in general are at their historic peak of economic and military power, and still rising.  More people enjoy more wealth than ever before.  Disease is being eradicated.  Technology is ascendant and promises more advantageous change than we have seen in the previous 2,000 years.  Is the world not bound to become a better place with governments that are so caring about the lives and wealth of their citizens?

But consider carefully what is happening to the values of the society around you.  Then take a close look at the fears and aspirations of the rest of the world.  Observe how the 'nomads' out there are viewing Western Civilization----------  -with envy and desire for its material riches, or with disgust and fear for the threats it poses to their life style.  Keep in mind that the nature of the world we used to know has changed substantially from what we had known before September 11, 2001.  Yes, there really are 'barbarians' on the outside, just waiting for the 'barbarians within' to do all the necessary damage before they decide to strike.

To borrow again from Sir Winston's wise counsel at a previous time of global crisis, what happened on that day was not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.  It marks the end of the belief that what goes on in the hinterland of the world ----------  -in poor and backward countries with no economy to speak of and with no military power and with very little of what is elsewhere accepted as the essential basics of modern civilization---------    can be disregarded by all those large industrial nations who regularly get together at the summit meetings of the world in order to decide its future.

The refrain we hear most often is: "It can't happen here ----------  America is different."  But the reality is that civilized nations are not immortal; they are born and die just as individuals do.  Although their longevity may exceed the average person's lifespan, we cannot escape history.  And history teaches us that empires also die.



*Portions of this essay were adapted from Steven Kreis's The History Guide; The Rise and Fall of Civilizations (Part III) by J. M. Miller, D. Joubert and M. Butler; Kerby Anderson's Decline of a Nation; and the La Shawn Barber blogger site.  Special acknowledgment is extended to Dr. William S. Morrow for his historical insight and ideological support.