Empire Days

August 2005


The chief architects of our national policy are now all proponents of empire. Who really benefits from having an empire?

In the course of human history there have been many empires. Some have lasted for a long time; others came and went in a generation or two. We like to talk about empires like tides: they come in and they go out. Historians often refer to empires as if they were some kind of natural event, like geologists talking about mountain ranges being built up and torn down. But that is a misleading perspective.

Empires don't just happen. They are made. They are made by people who see an opportunity to dominate and exploit people and circumstances, and run things, for a while, to their own advantage and profit. They are somewhat coincidental or accidental because a couple of other things have to line up for the empire to get going. You need to have a weak central government, to begin with, that can be taken over and used to facilitate the pursuit of profit. Once it has been co-opted, the central government rapidly gets larger and stronger. As it gets bigger and stronger, it gets less and less responsive to the will of the populace -- although it will frequently maintain that it is perfecting the nation for all the people -- and increasingly serves the imperial profiteers, even when their aims conflict with what is good for the general populace.

In this phase of its development, the empire frequently resorts to war to achieve dominance or control over other nations or economies. Some wars may be fought directly, while others are fought through proxies. Empires have always employed cooperative leaders of other countries who are convinced to serve the aims of the empire, often to the disservice of their own people.

People don't just lie down and accept subjugation, oppression, injustice, and the pillage of their potential prosperity for the enrichment of the overlords of an empire. They fight back. In some cases their fight is economically motivated and so there are roaming bands of outlaws. In others, there is a political motivation and a desire to replace the status quo with something that is better, so there are terrorists.

Eventually, the very forces that served the empire so well as it was rising conspire to tear it apart. When greed motivates a small cadre of the self proclaimed elite to dominate and enslave the populace for their own selfish ends, the empire can grow. When the populace takes on the same greed and self-interest, too many people demand too much profit at all levels of the empire and it rapidly becomes too expensive to maintain. The economic foundation of the empire fails and the people in power can no longer run things at a profit.

What about the claim that all this empire building is good for all the people? Certainly there were some, a lucky few, who did spectacularly well by empire. Most people saw more work, less pay, and more taxes. Taken as a whole, most modern historians consider empires to largely be a wash -- they don't confer any special benefit on the people. All the revenue they bring in gets used in the imperial administration: there's no peace dividend. All empires love to run huge deficits, which the ordinary people have to pay back eventually. There is no sound economic rationale behind empires for 90% of the people.

However, empires are also by nature anti-democratic: you can't exploit and oppress subject peoples elsewhere for your own profit and still honestly deliver on your promise of liberty and equality at home. It just doesn't work out that way. Sooner or later, those chickens come home to roost. Why shouldn't the people back home contribute to your profit, too? Little by little the ruling elite begins to prey upon their own people, just as they have been used to preying on the subject foreign people. There may be no long-term economic reason for or against an empire, but there is always a moral imperative against the oppression and slavery that an empire is built on.

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