The very idea of empire was created in ancient Rome …
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).
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.