Cost-benefit analysis of freedom

I made the mistake today of reading another article by Niall Ferguson and I am still seething. This was another of his articles on the theory of empire (, which starts off by making the interesting point that most recent empires have lasted for far shorter periods than ancient and early modern ones (although Ferguson’s suggestion of the Holy Roman Empire as lasting from 800-1806 is pretty meaningless, and he omits some short-lived ancient empires, such as the Athenian and Macedonian empires) He then asks why recent empires have proved so short-lived.

One part of his answer is that more recent empires have aspired to more centralised control of the conquered territories and by their ruthlessness in reshaping their conquered territories encouraged resistance. Instead of exploring this, he then goes on to the dubious argument that empires emerge largely for economic reasons and adds: ‘But why fight wars? Again, the answer must be economic’. The idea that emperors from Augustus to Charlemagne decided whether or not to expand their territories based on whether they could do better than by ‘free exchange with independent peoples or with another empire’ is simply ludicrous.

Ferguson then goes onto the ‘Life of Brian’ argument:

At the same time, however, an empire may provide “public goods”—that is, benefits of imperial rule that flow not only to the rulers but also to the ruled and, indeed, to third parties. These can include peace in the sense of a Pax Romana, increased trade or investment, improved justice or governance, better education (which may or may not be associated with religious conversion), or improved material conditions.

He then concludes (as only a purblind economic historian can):

An empire, then, will come into existence and endure so long as the benefits of exerting power over foreign peoples exceed the costs of doing so in the eyes of the imperialists; and so long as the benefits of accepting dominance by a foreign people exceed the costs of resistance in the eyes of the subjects.

Empire today, it is true, is both unstated and unwanted. But history suggests that the calculus of power could swing back in its favor tomorrow.

The implication is clear: empire, if it’s the right kind of empire, is OK. Now, I don’t want to argue that all empires were equally bad, or deny that there have been positive aspects to some empires. But I find it extremely doubtful that there are going to be any more peoples eager to receive ‘the benefits of accepting dominance by a foreign people’. (And the ‘costs of resistance’ are weasel words for risking being killed: even the oh so benevolent British empire carried out the Amritsar massacre). Ferguson in his discussion of why empires now disappear so quickly doesn’t mention the obvious point: that foreign rule is incompatible with the aspirations to democracy now widespread in the world. It’s arguable that a Gallic peasant didn’t do too much worse under a Roman emperor than a native ruler (he still got exploited by some high-up, and in most cases he probably couldn’t dream of any different situation). But once theories of universal human rights (or even of no taxation without representation) develop, empires are on ideologically shaky ground. In particular, democracy for imperial subjects is almost a contradiction in terms: the British introduced it only in colonies where the ‘natives’ had largely been wiped out (such as Canada and Australia). (It is also possible where relatively small colonies send representatives to a single imperial parliament and can thus be outvoted – see e.g. pre-1922 Ireland and some of the French West Indies).

Such resistance to foreign rule is likely to have little to do with a careful calculation of the benefits (economic or otherwise) of empire as against independence. And even where there are such calculations they are rarely favourable to imperial rule, however ‘good’ the empire. There was no queue of countries I know of begging to be admitted to the British Empire, for example, (though Mozambique has asked to join the Commonwealth). Meanwhile, subjects who had ‘benefited’ from a Western education and sometimes elite status were often among the leaders of resistance to empires (from Jose Rizal to Gandhi and Jomo Kenyatta). The ‘calculus of power’ may well mean further attempts to create empires in the future, but they are likely to find ever more stubborn resistance.


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