Imperialism, it is what rulerships do

By Lorenzo

I came across (via) this very silly statement:

The very idea of empire was created in ancient Rome …

That would be news to the Persians, the Chaldeans, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Hittites, the Egyptians, the House of Ur, the Gutians, the Akkadians, the … And that is just the Middle East.

When revenue was based on control of farmers and trade, then imperialism was what all rulerships did to the limits of territory they could control and which generated a positive return. It was about optimising expropriation, both intensively (pdf) and extensively.  What else would one have expected?  It is not possible to understand the history of farming-and-trade rulerships until one understands what a natural feature of rulership imperialism was.

Of course, creating a serious empire was not easy. You had to have the organisational and military power to seize and hold significant territory. So, what you could do, what those around you could do, what the geography was, all mattered. But, within those constraints, imperialism came naturally to farming-and-trade rulerships.

May the best predator win
As river-valley rulerships arose, there tended to be a fairly Darwinian “survival of the fittest” process of expansion and elimination until one rulership dominated a river valley. It was a bit like putting a whole lot of yabbies in a fish tank and leaving them; the stronger predators eat the weaker until you are left with one uber-yabbie or, in this case, uber-rulership. (The post-Roman British Isles displayed a not dissimilar pattern, until the English Crown ruled the lot.) The process could take a long time (from the start of the Kingdom of Wessex to the union of the British Isles under one monarch, about a thousand years, although English absorption of Wales and domination of Ireland predated the full unification by centuries).

As organisational capacities improved, this domination of a river valley could expand until you dominated several river valleys or, in the case of the Roman Empire, an entire sea, their Mare Nostrum (“Our Sea”). Empires tended to be river-and-coasts-based because rivers and coasts were where the fertile land was and water transport was a lot cheaper and quicker than land transport–the rough estimate is that water transport was about 15 times cheaper than land transport, so travelling 100km by land was the equivalent of travelling about 1500km by water. Hence, rivers and coasts were where the farming and the trade that rulers expropriated to fund their rulerships were and where control could be maintained.

It is not surprising that the largest (and longest surviving) Empire of the above series was the one that was spectacularly good at road building. But it was still based on a sea.

The exceptions to this coast-and-rivers pattern were the horse-archer empires of Central Eurasia. But they were based on flat plains and lots of horses. Cavalry could easily go 40km in a day, so you could send a cavalry force 1000km in 25 days and couriers much quicker. They also had the Silk Road trade system to manage and exploit.

Problems of empire
All such empires ran into what modern economics calls principal-agent problems, the difficulty of maintaining stable internal control, and organisational advantage problems–those you interacted with learnt from you. So, maintaining internal coherence and external effectiveness was a difficult balancing act.

Ibn Khaldun famously set out the pattern for the rise and fall of farming-and-trade rulerships. First, a group bound by common feeling seizes power. Then the ruler separates himself from the original group to entrench his own power. The regime slowly decays as group solidarity fades and corruption (the ruler’s agents enriching themselves in ways that undermine the ruler’s expropriation) erodes social resilience and regime power. Until the regime finally collapses.

Lest one think this a relic from the past, let’s match the most recent Eurasian empire to rise and fall (the Soviet Empire) against the pattern: a group bound by common feeling seizes power (Lenin 1917-1924). The ruler separates himself from the original group to entrench his own power (Stalin 1924-1953). The regime slowly decays as group solidarity fades and corruption erodes social resilience and regime power (Khruschev to Chernenko 1953-1985). Until the regime finally collapses (Gorbachev 1985-1991).

It also depended on if other rulerships could block such a process: the policy of the British state from the Glorious Revolution to the fall of the Soviet Empire was to block any rulership doing in Europe what it had done in the British Isles. (Support of the EU is a radical departure from this centuries-old policy; we shall see if it is a persistent one.) While joining NATO was a manifestation of this policy (NATO originally being defined as a having the aim of keeping the Americans in, the Germans down and the Russians out) blocking Hitler’s attempt at European domination was a re-run of its role in blocking Napoleon’s bid for the same. Even so, the long run history of Europe was the process of consolidation of rulerships, culminating in the Italian and German wars of unification in the 1850s and 1860s.

But Empires both rise and decline. The dissolution of the Habsburg, Romanov and Ottoman Empires created a lot of new states. The collapse of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union even more.

To look at European imperialism qua imperialism as some violation of the patterns of history is to misunderstand profoundly. Historian Niall Ferguson is quite correct when he says the least distinctive thing about Western civilisation was territorial imperialism. Imperialism is simply what rulerships did, to the extent they could.

Doing it because you could
But there was something distinctive about European imperialism outside Europe.  How little military effort the European states put into it. In previous empires, building the Empire was the central activity of the rulership’s military forces. That was not true of a single one of the European Empires from 1500 onwards.  The main military effort of all the European empires remained in Europe, facing off against each other. Indeed, much of the time the main military threat out in the colonies were the forces of other European states.

At first, that was because the maritime advantage had come to so profoundly lie with the Europeans, who were overwhelmingly running maritime empires. Later, it was because the organisational and technological advantage had spread to European land forces. Occasional defeats still occurred, but they were normally temporary and reversed. European empires conquered most of the globe, not because it was so hard, but because it was so (comparatively) easy.  It could mostly be done out of the military small change, plus organising local forces; applying European organisation and technology to equip locally-recruited troops, the grandest expression of which was the British Indian Army.

The maritime empires had been profitable (the sugar islands hugely so).  The expanded territorial empires (especially in Africa), not so much.

A fading romance
Thanks to Hitler’s Imperial ambition, imperialism also lost much of its mystique. The would-be Nazi Empire failed its wars of conquest. But the experience of those wars undermined the romance and presumptions of Empire in Western Europe, though not so immediately that the French, Dutch and British states did not fight wars in the next decade-and-a-half to hold onto bits of their Empires. Though, in the case of the Malayan Emergency, it became about what sort of rule would replace British rule.

But as the generation whose political views were shaped by the war experience grew up imperialism lost its romance and became simply wicked. To that generation, and those that followed them, imperialism was being conquered, being bombed, terror, rationing, hunger. The mystique of the partisans meant armed resistance to foreign rule became heroic. It also meant that the previous notion that if you were not in a uniform when you fought, you could be shot out of hand, stopped being a functioning part of international law. A rule which–albeit very convenient for imperial forces–also aimed at protecting civilians and whose falling into rapid desuetude has been very convenient for jihadis but much more dangerous for surrounding civilians (which is all to the good as far as the jihadis are concerned).

New spaces to conquer
But Western states, as they retreated from colonising other lands, increasingly colonised their own societies. If they could not be territorially imperial externally, they could be socially imperial internally.

Until the growth of the modern welfare state, commercial states such as the Serene Republic of Venice, the Dutch Republic and post-1688 England tended to be high-tax countries because their deliberate assemblies (the Great Council, the Estates-General, Parliament) enabled the negotiation of higher levels of taxation in return for a higher level of public goods, which significantly lowered the costs and risks of revenue collection, allowing more of it.

External imperialism cost money, cost lives and generated limited benefits back home. Welfarism cost money (far more than overseas imperialism ever had) but aimed to save lives and generated lots of benefits (in the sense of transfers and services) back home. Welfarism was a much more effective way of expanding the ambit of the state than imperialism had ever been. It was way of generating a far higher level of revenue trade-offs than the commercial states had managed.

And the trade-offs do clearly expand up to that limit (with periodic overshoots). If the welfare state is about “doing good” then its ambit is infinite, for there is always more good to do. You don’t get the level of welfare state you “need”, you get the level that is politically sustainable. This varies from country-to-country depending on history, social divisions, institutional factors and so forth. It can also vary within a federation–California has a rather different trade-off than Texas. (Actually, one can reasonably argue California has overshot.)

This is even clearer when one considers the way so much government expenditure is assessed in terms of intentions and resources, not actual effects. It is also much easier to get support for programs whose benefits are general than one which benefits specific group; the more so, the more costly the program is. Being clearly redistributive is much less of a seller than folk pretend.

Welfare states run into debt problems because pushing costs onto future taxpayers makes for a higher level of trade-off. (Actually, running into debt problems is a recurring feature of rulership; spend now pay later has a general appeal: by 1815 the UK had a huge national debt [pdf], 200-250% of GDP where taxes were 10-12% of GDP–the witticism was that half of the debt had been acquired pushing the Bourbons off the throne of France and the other half putting them back.)

The tendency of rulerships to expand their expropriation up to the limit of what they can get away with has not gone away, it has just evolved.

17 Comments

  1. JC
    Posted July 10, 2012 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

    If the welfare state requires lots of money to operate, isn’t someone eventually going to wise up that perhaps a solution is to begin taking territory again and raising a tax on the new subjects?

  2. Patrick
    Posted July 11, 2012 at 5:08 am | Permalink

    More importantly, what do you think of the book that was being reviewed?

  3. Posted July 11, 2012 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    [email protected] The return on trade and capital is so much greater than the return on mere territory, not so much. Hitler, with his lebensraum goal, was retrograde in more than one sense.

    But if you want a great series of books predicated on just such an idea, try David Weber‘s Honor Harrington books.

    [email protected] Haven’t read it, alas. So many books, so little time.

  4. JC
    Posted July 11, 2012 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Yes I’ve read people’s idea that slavery in the US would have gone by the way side with the advent of industrialization.

    David Friedman ran a post discussing a similar topic and what would likely have happened if there was no civil war. David thinks that the mass production we saw of the Henry Ford type would have eminently suited the slavery system as the work needing to be done on a production line was repetitive and didn’t require a great deal of expertise. He thinks that if the south had hung on it could have participated in modern 20 C industrialization with slavery forming an integral part of the workforce. Interesting thought.

    So I’m guessing this comes back to arguing that the rates of return may not be as bad as thought.

  5. Posted July 11, 2012 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    If you are going to argue that the welfare state, because of the extra taxation, is a form of imperialism, increasing over time, then that seems a little selective – the degree of interference in the lives of many internal subjects by the political system is long. Slavery and the feudal system, for example, or “press-ganging” later on ….

    Still … it’s a complex issue, and an interesting post.

    As to the opening statement of that blurb on Amazon … who the hell wrote this? Author? Publisher? Doesn’t exactly inspire any trust in the book or anything one reads on Amazon.

    Of course, the truest words on the EU and the UK involvement were spoken by Sir Humphrey … which I’d paraphrase as being inside the tent pissing in.

    As to the last statement of the post:

    The tendency of rulerships to expand their expropriation up to the limit of what they can get away with has not gone away, it has just evolved.

    Oh … yes … has anything changed? This is where the ruling 1% are /starting/ to piss off their subjects – the 1% being like the warring houses of feudal times with parliamentarians the new priesthood.

  6. JC
    Posted July 11, 2012 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    If you are going to argue that the welfare state, because of the extra taxation, is a form of imperialism, increasing over time, then that seems a little selective

    Ya think? The average debt level in the EZ and the US is approaching 100% of GDP and cuts to welfare despite all the rubbish spoken about in the media has been close to zero.

    If you don’t want to cut the level of welfare the money has to come from somewhere, Dave. And no, eating the rich wouldn’t even cover the appetizers let alone the main meal and dessert.

  7. Posted July 11, 2012 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    [email protected] I agree with David Friedman, who I presume was building on the analysis of Robert Fogel that Southern slavery was efficient (and, indeed, thanks to technology, becoming more not less so). Which helps explain why the South fought so hard to keep it (and, indeed, had been seeking to extend the territory it could be used in).

    [email protected] The question of interfering subject’s lives is related but different (in that protecting expropriation was a common, but not universal, reason for such). I take expropriation for granted in the above (as you don’t have rulership without expropriation), I am just interested in which direction it expands.

    And there is one big difference between welfarism and imperialism–the political feedbacks. The subjects of Imperialism generally do not get to vote on the decisions of the Imperial state (famously a sticking point with the American colonists after they stopped needing Imperial protection and started getting worried–Somersett’s case–or irritated–the Proclamation of 1763–by Imperial decisions).

    The 1% are hardly “ruling” therefore. Not least because, in the US, they pay a such a high proportion of the taxes.

  8. Posted July 11, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] – those figures on taxation – interesting looking over time, taxes at the top – in the short timeline you point to, no consistency with the long-term trend:

    http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/08/taxes-at-the-top/
    “Tax rates for the super-elite, the top .01%, have fallen in half since Mitt Romney’s father ran for president; or to put it differently, after tax income for this group has doubled due to policy alone. And bear in mind that the US economy flourished just fine under those 60-70 tax rates …”

  9. kvd
    Posted July 11, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    “Rulerships” is a clunky word. “Ruler” is singular. You are implying that all imperial activity was/is the result of just one individual’s ambitions? The U.S. doesn’t fit that pattern – surely – and I’ve seen their ‘ascendency’ described as ‘imperial’. Also, they have an eagle 😉

    Anyway, that’s an interesting new thought for me.

  10. JC
    Posted July 11, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Dave

    When tax rates were much high in the US, there were also huge loopholes bigger than the heads at the top of the bay. So you had high rates and a humungous number of ways to dodge the rates and bring down the theft. Reagan closed most (nearly all) deductions and lowered the rates. this was hugely efficient.

    Reason magazine presented a chart recently, perhaps last year that US Federal tax take has hung around 19% since for ever and it covered all levels of rates.

    If you need it let me know and I’ll look it up, but the US income tax take has basically always hung around there. If the deductions aren’t available, people will work marginally less.

    That appears to be the most you can squeeze that orange.

    There was a great saying by an old French finance minister.

    “The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing”

    Jean Baptiste Colbert

    Also keep in mind that small business in the US files tax as individuals and not as corporations, so raising personal tax hits small business. Individuals file under sub S corps.

  11. Posted July 11, 2012 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Krugman is talking about rates of tax (how much you are taxed per taxable dollar). The data I linked to tells us something much more interesting; how much taxes are paid by various groups, the tax take from those groups. If you cut rates, but close loopholes, the notional tax rates can go down yet the tax take go up. So, we simply cannot tell from Krugman’s figures was the tax take from the various groups was.

    [email protected] Rulerships can continue beyond an individual ruler, that is my point. What I am trying to avoid is ‘state’, because that implies a level of institutional autonomy that may well not exist.

  12. Posted July 11, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Then there is the interaction between taxation and growth. In Sweden, the tax share of GDP has gone down, but government spending per capita has gone up. Not from increased borrowing, but from increased GDP growth.

    On JC’s point, the US federal revenue share of GDP has been relatively stable at about 18% of GDP in the post-war period, it is spending that jumps around.

    So, 18-19% is where the federal expropriation trade-off hovers around in the US. Attempts to “drag it up” by increased spending don’t seem to work.

  13. Posted July 11, 2012 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    On the issue of growth, Reagan and Clinton are the stand-outs in per capita GDP growth in the US since 1973.

    But, in Latin America, being run by the Castros is not a good look.

  14. Posted July 11, 2012 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    OT: Lorenzo, can you send me a usable paypal email address? I can’t pay you otherwise!

    [Apologies for this intrusion of blog admin stuff; as you were…]

  15. Jordan Bassior
    Posted July 16, 2012 at 2:03 am | Permalink

    But as the generation whose political views were shaped by the war experience grew up imperialism lost its romance and became simply wicked. To that generation, and those that followed them, imperialism was being conquered, being bombed, terror, rationing, hunger. The mystique of the partisans meant armed resistance to foreign rule became heroic.

    The deepest damage that Hitler did to Europe, far deeper than even the material damage or the loss of life, was the manner in which it embedded the simplistic assumption “Empire/Occupation = Bad, Rebels/Resistance = Good.” It appears to be very deeply embedded, because the meme has survived repeated failure in reality-testing. Most of the anti-colonial regimes in Africa and the pro-Communist regimes in East Asia turned out to be nightmarish dystopias, yet this hasn’t had as much effect on the negative image of empires and the positive image of rebellions as one might imagine.

    My explanation for this is that it comes from the attitude “Only [x] Is Real,” where “x” stands for one’s own nation. Thus, for instance, no amount of suffering by Africans under postcolonial regimes can make up in an evidentiary sense for the suffering the French suffered under the Nazi occupiers, in French eyes, and so on.

    It also meant that the previous notion that if you were not in a uniform when you fought, you could be shot out of hand, stopped being a functioning part of international law. A rule which–albeit very convenient for imperial forces–also aimed at protecting civilians and whose falling into rapid desuetude has been very convenient for jihadis but much more dangerous for surrounding civilians (which is all to the good as far as the jihadis are concerned).

    Indeed, the changes to the Geneva Convention, never-ratified by but still followed by the United States, were more or less designed to make it harder to put down insurgencies, and were strongly supported by tranzis who imagined the insurgents as heroic Resistance against evil Nazi-like Invaders. Since Only the West Is Real, and these sorts of wars overwhelmingly occur in non-Western countries, the horrible sufering this causes the civilian populations in the Third World means little compared to the feeling of satisfaction it gives the chattering classes in the West.

  16. Posted July 16, 2012 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Actually, I think the loss of life and physical destruction was worse. What you are pointing to is a cultural by-product of that.

  17. Jordan Bassior
    Posted July 16, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Actually, I think the loss of life and physical destruction was worse. What you are pointing to is a cultural by-product of that

    You have a point — and one I feel somewhat personally, as that “loss of life” included two-thirds of the branches of the Bassior family at the time. I guess what I was getting to is that the way in which Hitler poisoned the very CONCEPT of imperialism from the POV of Europeans has made Europe culturally suicidal and afraid of even the most benign forms of expansion: he [not] only murdered people who were alive in his day, but he also murdered the FUTURE of a major branch of Western Civlization.

One Trackback

  1. By Skepticlawyer » Debt and boom on July 19, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    […] non-patrimonial or totalitarian polities; i.e. for societies with any free element). Welfarism is the domestic aggrandisement of the expropriating state as imperialism is its external aggrandisement. […]

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