An Empire Self-Destructs

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by Jeff Thomas, International Man:

Empires are built through the creation or acquisition of wealth. The Roman Empire came about through the productivity of its people and its subsequent acquisition of wealth from those that it invaded. The Spanish Empire began with productivity and expanded through the use of its large armada of ships, looting the New World of its gold. The British Empire began through localized productivity and grew through its creation of colonies worldwide—colonies that it exploited, bringing the wealth back to England to make it the wealthiest country in the world.

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In the Victorian Age, we Brits were proud to say, “There will always be an England,” and “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” So, where did we go wrong? Why are we no longer the world’s foremost empire? Why have we lost not only the majority of our colonies, but also the majority of our wealth?

Well, first, let’s take a peek back at the other aforementioned empires and see how they fared. Rome was arguably the greatest empire the world has ever seen. Industrious Romans organized large armies that went to other parts of the world, subjugating them and seizing the wealth that they had built up over generations. And as long as there were further conquerable lands just over the next hill, this approach was very effective. However, once Rome faced diminishing returns on new lands to conquer, it became evident that those lands it had conquered had to be maintained and defended, even though there was little further wealth that could be confiscated.

The conquered lands needed costly militaries and bureaucracies in place to keep them subjugated but were no longer paying for themselves. The “colonies” were running at a loss. Meanwhile, Rome itself had become very spoiled. Its politicians kept promising more in the way of “bread and circuses” to the voters, in order to maintain their political office. So, the coffers were being drained by both the colonies and at home. Finally, in a bid to keep from losing their power, Roman leaders entered into highly expensive wars. This was the final economic crippler and the empire self-destructed.

Spain was a highly productive nation that attacked its neighbours successfully and built up its wealth, then became far wealthier when it sailed west, raiding the Americas of the silver and gold that they had spent hundreds of years accumulating. The sudden addition of this wealth allowed the Spanish kings to be lavish to the people and, as in Rome, the Spanish became very spoiled indeed. But once the gold and silver that was coming out of the New World was down to a trickle, the funding for maintaining the empire began to dry up. Worse, old enemies from Europe were knocking at the door, hoping to even old scores. In a bid to retain the empire, the king entered into extensive warfare in Europe, rapidly draining the royal purse and, like Rome, the Spanish Empire self-destructed.

In the Victorian era, the British Empire was unmatched in the world. It entered the industrial revolution and was highly productive. In addition, it was pulling wealth from its colonies in the form of mining, farming and industry. But, like other countries in Europe, it dove into World War I quickly and, since warfare always diminishes productivity at home whilst it demands major expense abroad, the British Empire was knocked down to one knee by the end of the war.

Then, in 1939, the game was afoot again and Britain was drawn into a second world war. By the end of the war, it could still be said that there would always be an England, but its wealth had been drained off and, one by one, its colonies jumped ship. The days of empire were gone.

Into the breach stepped the US. At the beginning of World War I, the US took no part in the fighting, but, as it had experienced its own industrial revolution, it supplied goods, food, and armaments to Britain and her allies. Because the pound and other European currencies could not be trusted not to inflate, payment was made in gold and silver. So the US was expanding its productivity into a guaranteed market, selling at top dollar, using the profits to create larger, more efficient factories, and getting paid in gold.

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