Friday, February 22, 2013

Why Do Societies Give Up

I received this from a friend and wanted to pass it on---johnnyb

Why Do Societies Give Up?

By Victor Davis Hanson


Why do once-successful societies ossify and decline?
Hundreds of reasons have been adduced for the fall of Rome and the end of the Old Regime in 18th-century France. Reasons run from inflation and excessive spending to resource depletion and enemy invasion, as historians attempt to understand the sudden collapse of the Mycenaeans, the Aztecs and, apparently, the modern Greeks. In literature from Catullus to Edward Gibbon, wealth and leisure -- and who gets the most of both -- more often than poverty and exhaustion implode civilization.
One recurring theme seems consistent in Athenian literature on the eve of the city's takeover by Macedon: social squabbling over slicing up a shrinking pie. Athenian speeches from that era make frequent reference to lawsuits over property and inheritance, evading taxes, and fudging eligibility for the dole. After the end of the Roman Republic, reactionary Latin literature -- from the likes of Juvenal, Petronius, Suetonius, Tacitus -- pointed to "bread and circuses," as well as excessive wealth, corruption and top-heavy government.
For Gibbon and later French scholars, "Byzantine" became a pejorative description of a top-heavy Greek bureaucracy that could not tax enough vanishing producers to sustain a growing number of bureaucrats. In antiquity, inflating the currency by turning out cheap bronze coins was often the favored way to pay off public debts, while the law became fluid to address popular demands rather than to protect time-honored justice.
After the end of World War II, most of today's powerhouses were either in ruins or still preindustrial -- China, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Russia and Taiwan. Only the United States and Great Britain had sophisticated economies that survived the destruction of the war. Both were poised to resupply a devastated world with new ships, cars, machinery and communications.
In comparison to Frankfurt, the factories of 1945 Liverpool had survived mostly intact. Yet Britain missed out on the postwar German economic miracles, in part because after the deprivations of the war, the war-weary British turned to class warfare and nationalized their main industries, which soon became uncompetitive.
The gradual decline of a society is often a self-induced process of trying to meet ever-expanding appetites, rather than a physical inability to produce past levels of food and fuel, or to maintain adequate defense. Americans have never had safer workplaces or more sophisticated medical care -- and never have so many been on disability.
King Xerxes' huge Persian force of 250,000 sailors and soldiers could not defeat a rather poor Greece in 480-479 B.C. Yet a century and a half later, a much smaller invading force from the north under Philip II of Macedon overwhelmed the far more prosperous Greek descendants of the victors of Salamis.
For hundreds of years, the outmanned legions of the tiny and poor Roman Republic survived foreign invasions. Yet centuries later, tribal Goths, Visigoths, Vandals and Huns overran the huge Mediterranean-wide Roman Empire.
Given our unsustainable national debt -- nearly $17 trillion and climbing -- America is said to be in decline, although we face no devastating plague, nuclear holocaust, or shortage of oil or food.
Americans have never led such affluent material lives -- at least as measured by access to cell phones, big-screen TVs, cheap jet travel and fast food. Obesity rather than malnutrition is the greater threat to national health. Flash mobs go after electronics stores, not food markets. Americans spend more money on Botox, face lifts and tummy tucks than on the age-old scourges of polio, small pox and malaria.
If Martians looked at the small box houses, one-car families and primitive consumer goods of the 1950s, they would have thought the postwar United States, despite a balanced budget in 1956, was impoverished. In comparison, an indebted contemporary America would seem to aliens flush with cash, as consumers jostle for each new update to their iPhones.
By any historical marker, the future of Americans has never been brighter. The United States has it all: undreamed new finds of natural gas and oil, the world's pre-eminent food production, continual technological wizardly, strong demographic growth, a superb military and constitutional stability.
Yet we don't talk confidently about capitalizing and expanding on our natural and inherited wealth. Instead, Americans bicker over entitlement spoils as the nation continues to pile up trillion-dollar-plus deficits. Enforced equality rather than liberty is the new national creed. The medicine of cutting back on government goodies seems far worse than the disease of borrowing trillions from the unborn to pay for them.
In August 1945, Hiroshima was in shambles, while Detroit was among the most innovative and wealthiest cities in the world. Contemporary Hiroshima now resembles a prosperous Detroit of 1945; parts of Detroit look like they were bombed decades ago.
History has shown that a government's redistribution of shrinking wealth, in preference to a private sector's creation of new sources of it, can prove more destructive than even the most deadly enemy.


  1. All of the above. Also another sign with Rome was the abandonment of the Latifundia, especially the smaller ones as the laws and complexity rose. Rome did everything they could to move as many people out of the countryside and into the cities which consisted of mostly just Rome itself.

    The better to control the people when they are all together. I see the current political class doing the same thing here.

  2. I have become less and less impressed with Hanson over time. He will shoehorn just about any bit of history toward making a current political point.

    Pioneer, the emphasis on the Latfundia as a dominant force with the Roman economy was pushed by the Marxists who liked to make it part of their own development thesis.

    In either case, it is often forgotten that the wealthies portion of the Roman Empire did not collapse until 1453 with the fall of Constantinople. Theories of collapse should take into account why one fell, and the other did not. A comparison between the two parts of the Empire would indicate that an overlong border, combined with continued political unrest at the very top were the deciding factors.

  3. Russ - As late as 2001 Hollister was pushing Latifundi decline as an indicator and I never really interpreted the texts I was assigned by my profs that Hollister wrote as being communist leaning. The de-population of the countryside for various reasons is a significant issue in several ways.

    In effect, if I remember right, the Eastern Empire collapse as well as the West but they had different issues to deal with and Egypt helped the East through and was relatively protected geographically. At any rate The Eastern Empire changed so much in effect was no longer what it had been. Perhaps not a collapse but not a continuation either.

    1. Thanks for the comments. Interesting topics.

  4. Of course the East Empire changed over time, but a lot of the differences were already present. Nobody at the time thought of them as other than Romans until late on - if even then.

    I am not sure which Hollister you are speaking of, the only one I can think of his C Warren Hollister. He wrote some on the change from Rome into the Middle Ages, but he is a Medieval specialist, and a Western Europe-British one in particular. The marxists aren't always idiots, they can come up with an attractive theory occassionally. They liked the theory (I gather) because it showed a social progression in working types. But I think the Latifundi issue is more an issue of trying to look to much backwards through our eyes, and thus creating as much of a reality as revealing one.

    I happen to lean toward the depopulation issue as well. But I think some of it was the same problem societies have today with their declining birth rates. The social structure worked against people wanting to have children. Some didn't want children because they couldn't afford them, others because they didn't want them. The Romans had huge issues with male-female imbalance due to selective infanticide. That the relatively wealthy urban centers were also deadly desease vectors didn't help either.

    The Eastern Empire had problems at the same time. Geography to some degree rescued them. But the very fact that they did not fall means that the external factors are being underestimated. The Eastern Empire also came very close to taking back the entire Western Empire. If they had not had issues with the Persians (Selucids) that probably would have been able to. One reason they likely didn't, is that after the Goths and Co. trashed the place, there wasn't as much to be gained by it. The money was in the East.

    All of which is a long winded way of saying that Hanson is bordering on the edge of "hack" territory. He gives the appearance of being more interested in the polemics of today than the actual history of the past. I think there is some interesting and important issues to be learned from the Romans, but it is going to take more heavy than he (or Tainter for that matter) have done on the subject.