have already mentioned the usefulness of Marxist works
which, unawares, carry on laissez faire liberal
political-exploitation theory. Leaving the Marxists
aside, other good works appear, now and then, despite
our general expectations about the "social sciences."
One such useful work is The
Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph A. Tainter,1
who seeks to account theoretically for the collapse
of large and complex societies. He casts aside, as moralistic,
mystical, and metaphorical, the work of Spengler, Toynbee,
and Kroeber in favor of macro-structural explanations.
He sees collapse as "a rapid, significant loss of an
established level of sociopolitical complexity" as with
the Western Roman Empire, the Western Chou, the Olmecs,
the Mayans, the Hittites, Minoan Crete, and the Mycenean
city-states. A large state undergoing collapse may break
down into the original units "states, ethnic
groups, villages" out of which it was made.
(So it does take a village, after all.) Staking
out a middle ground between "conflict" and
"integration" (functionalist) theories of
government, he writes that "bad government is a
normal cost of government." (See pp. 4, 38, 72.)
this view, societies are "problem-solving organizations"
whose "sociopolitical systems require energy."
Growing "investment" by rulers in "complexity"
brings on higher costs per person and eventually reaches
"a point of declining marginal returns" (p.
93). This might be true, broadly, but it leaves out
the strong possibility that, while some human institutions
do solve problems, states might be causing most
of the problems they supposedly solve. The phenomenon
under discussion, collapse, might bear witness to that.
Conflating civil society and state would thus block
HEART: THERE’S SOMETHING CONCRETE HERE
Tainter gathers much useful material on important cases
of collapse, including evidence for his proposition
about declining marginal returns. Everything from cocoa
and wheat to dairy farming and individual caloric consumption
is implicated. The net is cast a bit wide, but (as one
might have foreseen) the most striking graphs and statistics
deal with activities belonging to the state or heavily
penetrated by the state. Thus he notes the shocking
decline in the rate at which Americans patent useful
inventions, somewhat grudgingly citing Fritz Machlup's
attribution of the decline to U.S. government takeover
of most Research and Development (p. 100) – a point
made by a number of writers for the period under discussion.2
looks at rising costs of British naval bureaucracy,
1914-1967 and concedes that C. Northcotte Parkinson
had a point (pp. 106-107). "As surprising [!] as it
may seem," Tainter says, "there has been a precipitous
decline in returns to American education" (p. 102).
Indeed, the graph for state expenditures on education
(1940-1960) is almost the reverse of that for (a declining)
"development of professional expertise" in the US (p.
106). (The spending rise is slightly steeper.) My personal
favorite is the graph showing declining returns (in
terms of costs) to US health care, 1955-1982 (p. 103).
This line plunges! And what an interesting choice
of years, especially in relation to growing federal
"help" in that industry.
CANCER-LIKE GROWTH OF BUREAUCRACY
returns is a useful concept unless one runs off the
road with it by making no distinction between states
and markets. Of course returns don’t increase
forever. What is important is the different way states
and markets handle that reality. To put it simply, an
over-expanded private firm will try bringing costs in
line with income; states will try commanding
increases in their income, while decreasing their alleged
services. Or, as Guido Hülsmann writes, states attempt
annexation of new territory to obtain revenues to offset
their bankruptcy.3 So
war, one might say, is built into the state system and
not the mean old market.
sketches the growth and specialization of bureaucracies.
As bureaucratic solutions pile up, the picture resembles
the "locked-in-ness" described by Forrest McDonald’s
in which institutional decisions (mainly governmental)
leave society with no solutions and no way out. Problems
accumulate, forcing the state into greater outlays to
sustain its legitimacy, maintain order, and guard frontiers
its institutions ossify, the state "invests"
more and more in its complex order, an order whose returns
– to the general public are in decline. The state
robs both current productive capacity and savings allocated
to future output, crippling the economy, just when the
its felt need for income is rapidly growing. With "marginal
returns" to society sinking, "complexity"
(=large state) is no longer a boon to the many. Devolution
of power to localities looks better and better.
writes: "As marginal returns deteriorate, tax rates
rise with less and less return to the local level. Irrigation
systems go untended, bridges and roads are not kept
up, and the frontier is not adequately defended"
(p. 121). Faced with growing numbers of would-be dropouts,
"the hierarchy [has] to allocate still more of
a shrinking resource base to legitimization and/or control"
(p. 121). Some of this will sound familiar.
ROMAN ‘MODE OF PREDATION’
the collapses which he describes, Tainter’s discussion
of the Western Roman Empire is the most interesting,
perhaps because it is the best-documented (pp. 127-52).
The Roman Empire was initially successful because stolen
goods from each conquest financed the next one. The
broad logistical limits of the process were reached
by the time of Augustus. Thereafter, territorial changes
were minimal. Without further loot (a sort of primitive
accumulation of statist capital), Roman rulers had to
defend vast territories out of current revenues drawn
from a contracting economy. In general, the Roman state
crippled and ruined the developed east (Greece, Egypt)
so as to hold onto the less productive west. Making
citizens of all free men in the Empire (212 AD), in
order to tax them, acknowledged the decline.
with rising costs and declining revenues, emperors debased
the coinage while trying desperately to extract taxes
out of a demoralized people. But by the third century,
taxes were eating up citizens’ capital and savings.
In the following two centuries, further imperial inroads
brought about "a drop in actual output"
(p. 150). Later emperors, from Diocletian onwards, undermined
society’s capacity to pay at all. Some of these things,
too, will sound familiar.
loomed, but collapse had definite advantages, as shown
by its aftermath. The Germanic kings who replaced the
empire in the west were better at defending their (smaller)
territories against invaders and could do so more cheaply
than the overextended empire. In North Africa, the Vandals
(victims of a bad press) lowered taxes and economic
well-being grew, until Justinian brought back Roman
rule and, with it, imperial taxes (p. 151). "Investment"
in this lower level of political "complexity"
paid for itself, so to speak, by being less costly (pp.
88-89). Collapse is not all bad: a disaster for the
state apparatus may not be one for people as a whole.
Devolution of power to smaller geographical units is
"a rational, economizing process that may well
benefit much of the population"(p. 198).
this in the American idiom, the government got too damned
big and reaped its just reward. A certain clarity could
be gained by integrating Tainter’s line of inquiry with
insights from classical liberal exploitation theory
and Austrian economics. For that sort of analysis, one
must turn to the late Murray N. Rothbard, who sought
to create a unified "science" of liberty
a synthesis of classical liberalism, Austrian economics,
critical sociology of states, revisionist history, and
other elements. Rothbard saw that states achieve unchallenged
control over civil society by seizing "command
posts" over society by regulating communications,
monopolizing the issuing of money, controlling education,
and asserting a monopoly of providing defense, security,
politics as essentially plunder, Rothbard would
not have been surprised to hear that Rome’s western
successor states were cheaper that is, got by
on less plunder than the empire. Nor would he have taken
seriously the idea that decentralization precluded high
levels of economic development. As he (among others)
emphasized, it was precisely the absence of European
political unity or the converse, pluralism within
one civilization – that permitted liberty, the market
economy, and industrialization to emerge. It is from
Rothbardian and related premises that we can best come
to grips with such matters as imperial over-extension
and bureaucratic hypertrophy. (I put off discussing
Rothbard’s views in detail, until I can devote an entire
column to them.)
OF ‘LIBERAL’ IMPERIALISM
may ask, with justice, What is the relevance of Roman
precedent and big theories about collapse? What, indeed.
argue among themselves whether the Roman empire answers
to the "Asiatic mode of production" or a "tributary
mode of production"[!]. Certainly, it rested on
agriculture and was hardly an advanced market economy.
As Michael Mann notes, most of the long-distance trade
within the empire was precisely the result of forcible
unification of territories and amounted to moving goods
around to supply the Roman army and pay for its "protective"
services.6 The Roman economy
answered to politics, not the mode of production (surprise,
surprise). In such matters we should follow a suggestion
of Rothbard’s and work out the logic of "hostile
action" (war and politics), including an economic,
of the means of predation or coercion.
Founding Fathers, as republican theorists, dwelled on
political questions, of course, and took the decay (or
rise) of the Roman republic into empire very seriously
as a cautionary tale. If there are structural limits
to political action over time and space, as there appear
to be, we would be advised to follow their lead. On
the other hand, empires differ from one another and
it pays us to understand how. Attacking relatively free
Britain, Thomas Paine wrote, "the portion of liberty
enjoyed in England, is just enough to enslave a country
by, more productively than by despotism; and… as the
real object of all despotisms is revenue, a government
so formed obtains more than it could do either by direct
despotism, or in a full state of freedom, and is, therefore,
on the ground of interest, opposed to both."7
is very familiar, indeed. Here we have the Law and the
Prophets, as far as mercantilism and empire go. Hans-Hermann
Hoppe makes the same point, that relatively liberal
societies, by permitting economic activities which generate
greater overall wealth, have a much higher potential
"rake-off" at hand, and therefore, can establish
armies, navies, and weapons of mass destruction far
beyond the means of hopelessly backward despotisms,
however big.8 The British
and American empires come to mind, along with the Americans’
late rival, the Soviet Union.
AIR AND INFLATION, TOO
luck, the American empire has discovered seemingly unlimited
resources of rhetorical imposture and, perhaps more
importantly, has an ability to inflate its own – and
therefore the world’s – money supply in ways the British
empire, committed to a hard-money standard (only partly
overcome by the Bank of England) could not. This is
truly a formidable command post and a source of short-run
income that turns the Mexican state oil monopoly green
with envy. Inflation, Mises
says somewhere, is the bulwark of militarism. It allows
a state a free hand in spending without running into
short-run political opposition. In the longer run, it
can end in severe economic depression.
this suggests that liberal empires may have more staying
power, in some ways, than their clunky agrarian predecessors,
which did in fact look a lot like an Asiatic mode of
predation. Above all, the "liberal" empire
stands athwart that "full state of freedom"
mentioned by Paine. One might wish it to go away.
I advocating collapse? Am I anticipating collapse? Not
really. Arnold Toynbee points out that periods of collapse
can be hard to live through. When the dust settles,
you get epic poetry written by people with a very foggy
notion of what really went on. With our luck, we wouldn’t
even get a good epic.
this is a federal republic. The term "United
States" is plural grammatically as well as by original
intention. There is no mystery whither to devolve power,
if the political will existed to do so. Nor, in the
present stage of international economic life, is there
any reason to anticipate a reversion to subsistence
economics, if the loosely federated micro-states of
one hypothetical future have sense enough to trade with
the outside world.
A. Tainter, The
Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1988).
See, for example, Charles E. Nathanson, "The
Militarization of the American Economy" in David
Horowitz, ed., Corporations
and the Cold War (New York: Monthly Review
Press, 1969), pp. 205-235.
Jorg Guido Hülsmann, "Political
Unification: A Generalized Progression Theorem,"
of Libertarian Studies, 13(1997), pp. 81-96.
Forrest McDonald, The
Phaeton Ride (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday
& Co., 1974).
Rothbard, Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature
(Washington: Libertarian Review Press, 1974), ch.
3, "Anatomy of the State," pp. 34-53.
Michael Mann, "States, Ancient and Modern,"
Européennes de Sociologie, 18(1977), pp. 262-297.
Thomas Paine, "The Rights of Man" in Richard
Emery Roberts, ed., Selected Writings of Thomas
Paine (New York: Everybody’s Vacation Publishing
Co., 1945), p. 282.
Hans-Hermann Hoppe, "Banking, Nation-States and
International Politics," Review
of Austrian Economics, 4 (1990), esp, pp.
contribution of $20 or more gets you a copy of Justin
Raimondo's Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against
U.S. Intervention in the Balkans, a 60-page booklet
packed with the kind of intellectual ammunition you
need to fight the lies being put out by this administration
and its allies in Congress. Send contributions to
520 S. Murphy Avenue, #202
Sunnyvale, CA 94086
Contribute Via our Secure Server
Credit Card Donation Form