Having, in the previous post, dismissed the ‘decline and fall’ theory in its popular modern setting of comparison with the British Empire: it would be nice to discuss genuine cases of comparative decline and fall in the modern world.
When Paul Kennedy released his “Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” more than 20 years ago, I had many complaints about his interpretations. Possibly the most significant one, was in his statement that the United States seemed on the way down, while the Soviet Union seemed to be pulling ahead. I remember writing a report for one of my lecturers, where I took issue with the concept of a centrally controlled command economy having the flexibility to succeed long-term. Some of the important issues I raised, included: restriction of competition; restriction of information; restriction of goals; and restriction of participation.
I do not believe there has ever been, or will ever be, a successful long-term state system, that puts excessive limits on free access to opportunity, information, horizons, or social mobility. The simplest example would be the Iron-Curtain States’ concept that all documents to be photocopied needed approval, a limitation on the most basic flows of information. There is simply no way that a command economy with rigidly hierarchical controls, can compete in the long term with more freely evolving political organisms.
So let us look at the modern West.
Western governments, particularly in Australia and Britain in the European Union, are working hard on developing their command economies. There is increasing the legislation to restrict the range of competition between industries as varied as education and media, resource management and biomedical development. There are increasing restrictions on free speech, particularly as relates to politically correct terminology, and politically incorrect challenges to the status quo such as disagreement with government shibboleths. There is increasing government management of the educational outcomes to certain socially approved stereotypes, which are practically destroyed variety in education such as technical trades. (One family I know, soon after the Dawkins revolution which forced the one size fits all education approach on tertiary learning, tried to make their son give up his goals becoming a plumber from nice safe accountancy course through a life position in the tax office. I could not understand what they had against their son being a millionaire before he was 30.) This restriction of personal choices is reflected in legislation relating to business goals, community investment and academic research.
Finally is the most worrying development of all, the restriction of participation in decision-making to the narrow political class that has developed with the modern democracies. (See another post about the negative effects of replacing a House of Lords with samples of all the best and brightest and most productive, with a “democratically elected” body of professional politicians chosen by the same small cliques and from the same small cliques.)
This is where Michael Grant’s discussion of the Fall of the Roman Empire makes far better sense to a modern student of history. His chapter on “the poor against the State” discusses the simultaneous growth of a “bread ticket” class that was largely parasitic, in comparison to the increasingly put upon and overtaxed productive class, which eventually lost all patients or enthusiasm for the State run against their interests.
If there is to be a ‘decline and fall’ of western civilization, it will follow the elegant Roman example of self mutilation from within, rather than pressure from without.
I know many people think that the problem will be Muslim or other radical groups fermenting disaster from within, but they are missing the point. The weakness of an economically advanced state comes not from dissent, which should be a productive and useful tool in a developing economy; nor is it from a feeling of dispossession, because immigrants can and will be integrated within a vibrant economy. No, the issue comes from state over-regulation that encourages dissent while discouraging integration.
A key failing of the Roman system was to grant everyone citizenship, which immediately devalued the concept to an almost meaningless state. (Particularly as it was accompanied by the impoverishment of the yeomen class into tenant farmers struggling to compete with slave labour). Citizenship became so insignificant that it stopped playing a stabilizing part in politics, and became instead a drain. Unlike the yeomen stake in citizenship achieved by willingness to fight for the state (and the inherent principle that only by putting the welfare of others ahead of your own should you be entitled to a say); the mass citizenship lacked any social cohesion beyond an ever-expanding desire for bread and circuses.
The chapter on “the middle class against the state” makes clear that a feeling of disenfranchisement amongst the productive private sector elements rapidly becomes a huge problem. So too does modern disenfranchising of such groups through an insistence on ever more ‘democratic’ selection of representatives. The ‘bread ticket’ movement is encouraged into constant expansion as government over-regulation increasingly limits the capacity of the economy to expand in new and inclusive ways, even as government regulations make ever more counter-productive attempts to foster ‘equality’ and ‘justice’ amongst groups that cannot be made artificially equal, and can only be handicapped from advancing by attempts to do so.
In Australia the Aboriginal community was well on its way to integration with the modern economy until ‘Nugget Coombs’ and the other ‘noble-savage’ fundamentalists tried to legislate their ‘uniqueness’. The result has been a criminal disaster for the vast majority of ‘natives’. (A lovely concept itself. I am reminded of the confusion caused by an American lady I know of who insists on being referred to as an ‘African-American’, simply because she was born in Africa. Naturally, she is considered to be a dangerous loonatic by the special interest groups who have a vested interest in racial politics, given that she is white. She has broken the cardinal rule of the real racists – those who gain benefit from racial distinctions – in making obvious that their position is racist! Or as Terry Pratchett explains in his Discworld series: the activists in the Dwarven community had trouble dealing with an adopted human’s claim to be a dwarf, because their policy that anti-dwarvism was ‘hieghtist’ caused issues with the main reason to disown a full size human…) Citizenship in Australia has had the concept of different values for different people re-imposed by well meaning idealism (a concept re-inforced by the ever increasing regulations that see immigrant doctors and lawyers working as taxi-drivers despite the crying need for their skills).
The chapter on “ the people against the bureaucrats” is even more telling. In France the real issue is not that the over-regulation of the labour market has kept black immigrants out of work. Instead the issue is that it has kept the vast majority of young people out of work. Admittedly the divide and conquor element of the ‘bread ticket’ manipulations that separate the blacks from the whites might prevent the traditional response of the French to economic turmoil – revolution. But only at the expense of the long term stability of the state as a political and economic entity. Citizenship is no longer a valuable thing if it leads to Roman results. It is hard to see western states prospering as the flexibility that was the hallmark of their economic development is undermined by literally thousands of new regulations and requirements every year.
So lets put that in the simplest possible terms. When you make equality before the law the goal, you get justice (if imperfect owing to factors the state cannot control things like individual ability). When you start legislating exceptions and qualifications to equality, you get injustice. Eventually a lot of people are going to notice, and stop being committed to the state. Indiferance makes states unstable. (In fact some would argue that if the people despise the state they have an obligation to rebel.)
Grant’s chapter on “the drop outs against society” is self explanatory (though well worth a read as our welfare system becomes more and more designed to vote buying in the middle class rather than genuinely helping those in need); but the really interesting chapter is called “the state against free belief”. The Roman example emphasizes the unhelpful effects of state based Christianity, but we are in no danger of such superstitious nonsense. At least not as long as our own religious manias are so much more creative at invoking pointless and meaningless bureaucratic chaos. Hurray for global warming… (Oh I’m sorry, now that the climate is several years into a cooling period we call that ‘climate change’ don’t we. See ‘doomed planet')
Perhaps it is inevitable that as a state gets more stable, it becomes over-organised to the detriment of its economic flexibility and health. Certainly that would explain why Ancient Empires all seemed to run out of steam, and why China became bogged down so easily after such a good start. Certainly one could argue that the ‘decline’ of the British Empire was far more related to internal weariness and the rise of democratic bread and circuses than to military defeat or economic collapse - starting with disinterest in the American revolution! (The fall in the British citizens standard of living in relation to the rest of the world probably has much more to do with a century of socialist experiments in government than the short term effects of a couple of world wars.)
Rome declined because it lost its way. As the various classes and interest groups got gradually squeezed out by the professional politicians (the Senate) fighting with the populist bread and circus policies of competing short term emperors,. The majority of the citizens lost importance in, and attachment to, the state. In the end the state was not something worth fighting for.
Modern western states face a decline in the useful contribution of various classes and interest groups who previously made up a thriving state. As the professional politicians pander increasingly to bread and circus populism for a mass that is being regulated into loss of interest in, and attachment to, the processes of government: the outcome cannot be good. It only remains to be seen if they can destroy the flexibility of the economies before causing the collapse of the political and social systems, or if the systems will come apart fast enough to allow the successor states to rebuild useful economies.
Or maybe I am being overly cynical?
I wonder how the successor states in the Roman world felt about their brave new experiments?