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What Empire Does to a Culture

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11/13/2006Roderick T. Long

[This talk was delivered on October 27, 2006, at "Imperialism: Enemy of Freedom," the Mises Institute Supporter's Summit. It is available in MP3 audio from Mises Media.]

Today I wish to consider a certain argument for empire that comes not from liberty's enemies but from its friends — though on this issue misguided friends, in my opinion. I shall call it the cosmopolitan argument for empire.

According to the cosmopolitan argument for empire, there is a tendency for empires to be more tolerant and pluralistic than the more local regimes they subsume, precisely because they draw on a wider variety of cultural traditions and values. James Madison makes essentially this argument in Federalist 10 when he writes:

The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. … The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.

It is from this perspective that the British Empire, for example, has been praised by some libertarians for combating oppressive practices such as human sacrifice and the caste system in its colonies. Isabel Paterson, for example, writes in God of the Machine:

As with Rome, the world accepted the British empire because it opened world channels of energy for commerce in general. … [O]n the whole England's invisible exports were law and free trade. Practically speaking, while England ruled the seas any man of any nation could go anywhere, taking his goods and money with him, in safety.1

And the Spencerian anarchist Wordsworth Donisthorpe likewise said that he supported the British Empire because where the Union Jack flew, free trade followed.2

Paterson sees virtue in the Roman Empire as well, arguing that the Carthaginian assault on Rome failed because Rome's subject allies, whom Hannibal had expected to "join the invader in throwing off the Roman yoke," remained loyal to Rome because of the benefits of Roman law.3  And referring to the incident when the apostle Paul escaped scourging by invoking his Roman citizenship, she writes: "The crux of the affair is that a poor street preacher, of the working class, under arrest, and with enemies in high places, had only to claim his civil rights as a Roman citizen and none could deny him."4

In the American case, centralized power has been seen as vital to the protection of minority rights, putting an end to slavery in the 19th century and to Jim Crow in the 20th; David Bernstein has argued that the much-maligned pro-freedom-of-contract Lochner court provided valuable protection in this area by striking down racist state laws restricting freedom of contract to the detriment of African-Americans. One can likewise point to variety of other areas, from censorship to reproductive freedom to gay rights, where a federal judiciary with apparently more tolerant cultural values has acted to protect individual freedom against state and local governments with less tolerant values. Anarchist legal theorist Randy Barnett has defended a theory of constitutional jurisprudence involving the federal imposition of libertarian standards on the states.

In this vein, libertarian blogger Lady Aster offers the following critique of decentralization:

I've long been skeptical about decentralisation; what I fear is that societies with premodern, traditional cultural values will impose their local prejudices ruthlessly without a check from a larger, more cosmopolitan society. I'm very glad for Lawrence vs. Texas, and terrified by South Dakota, and while I would support reduction or elimination of the state power I also believe state power is less destructive when it precisely isn't in the hands of local, traditional social authorities. Historically, tolerance has been a value nurtured by education, leisure, and urbanity and made politically necessary wherever a polity comprises a variety of constituent cultures. My experience leads me to believe that the rights of minorities, including immigrants (undocumented or otherwise) would not be better protected under decentralisation. … True, there are cases where the local society would pass better laws than the centralised state … But even so, my reading of history is that the general tendency is for cultural tolerance to flourish in urban centers. With this being the case, localism seems an idea with which I can have some anarchistic sympathy but which seems in practice a deadly threat to minorities, dissidents, and nonconformists of all types.5

While I sympathize with many of the concerns embodied in the cosmopolitan argument for empire, I believe the argument is mistaken. Let me explain why.

To begin with, we should be cautious in concluding that imperial centralization leads to a flourishing and cosmopolitan culture. Admittedly there are cases that might seem to support such a contention: the Roman and British Empires, France under the Bourbons, Austria-Hungary under the Habsburgs.

But the contrary cases are striking as well. Consider China, Greece, Germany, and Renaissance Italy in their respective cultural heydays. In each case the leading thinkers spent a great deal of time bemoaning the fact that their region was fragmented into many tiny states, and issued fervent calls for greater political unification; and in each case when the desired unification arrived the vigorous and dynamic cultural explosion largely fizzled out along with the competition that had arguably fueled it. In the Muslim world, too, the high point of cultural creativity and religious toleration occurred not under the Ottomans but under the rather less centralized Arab hegemonies that preceded Ottoman rule.

The protection offered by imperial centralism should also not be overestimated. The vision of the British Empire as a universal guarantor of free trade looks like a bad joke when one considers the mercantilist system of economic privilege that Britain upheld in India, for example. And in the United States the federal government presided happily over slavery for nearly a century before doing much about it, and then presided happily over the Jim Crow system for nearly another century before doing very much about that; moreover, the struggle against Jim Crow was initially waged at the grass-roots level by private citizens with relatively little federal support, and it was only after the civil rights movement had begun to take on steam that the federal government moved like the Owl of Minerva to position itself at the head of the movement.

While it's true that the federal government has been more tolerant than local jurisdictions on some issues, there are plenty of exceptions — firearms and marijuana being two obvious examples. And even when the central government is indeed a protector of more tolerant values, one problem with this sort of centralist solution is that it drives local reactionaries into nationwide politics, since reactionaries then see taking over the central government as the only available means to protect their values. And once reactionaries win at the national level, then they're in a position to impose their agenda on everybody. At least with decentralization there's somewhere to escape to.

Suppose Madison is right that a "rage … for any … improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it." All the same there are means in a centralized system whereby local oppressions can write themselves larger. Suppose Falwellville favors burning books by Darwin, while Mephistoville favors burning books by C.S. Lewis. In a centralized legislature, representatives or lobbyists from Falwellville may be willing to lend their support to burning books by C.S. Lewis in exchange for representatives or lobbyists from Mephistoville lending their support to burning books by Darwin.

Thus centralization provides a path whereby local tyrannies can gain more support nationwide than they otherwise would. And once local tyranny does succeed in establishing itself at the centralized level, one can no longer escape it simply by moving to another local district. A President Bush is much more dangerous than a Governor Bush, who in turn is much more dangerous than would be a Mayor Bush.

And it's worth remembering that what imperial central powers decide to impose on local jurisdictions, even when they are not unduly influenced by representatives of local oppression, is not always going to be a move in the direction of greater liberality; think of the Soviet treatment of Hungary in 1956 or of Czechoslovakia in 1968. And of course the same Paul who was protected by Roman law in the provinces was executed under Roman law in the capital. As Charles Johnson writes:

[U]rbanity at its best tends to help certain kinds of tolerance and pro-freedom thought flourish; but I think agrarianism at its best tends to help other kinds flourish. The best parts of the American Revolution (radical, anti-statist, directly democratic, anti-mercantilist, etc.), for example generally came out of the Massachusetts hinterland, for example, with most of the mercantilist jobbery and Law and Order conservatism coming out of the urban centers in Boston, New York, etc. What I'm inclined to say is that each form of life nurtures both its own characteristic virtues and its own characteristic vices. The agrarian tradition at its best cultivates populist skepticism towards self-appointed elites, individualist skepticism towards the arbitrary demands of others, an ethic of self-reliance, a willingness to live and let live in matters of private property, a skepticism of utopian central planning, etc. At its worst it tends to encourage parochialism, anti-intellectualism, hidebound traditionalism, "I got mine" indifference, conventional bigotry, a failure of skepticism towards traditional and supposedly "natural" authority, etc. Conversely the tradition of urbanity at its best tends to cultivate cross-cultural tolerance, respect for intellect and education, solidarity with others, intense skepticism towards traditional centers of authority, etc. But at its worst it has also cultivated predatory mercantilism, soul-killing mass politics (typically in the name of "democracy"), utopian central planning, imperial arrogance (both towards the Provinces and towards the underclass of the city itself), etc.6

Moreover, even when the central power's values are more liberal, the results of attempting to impose them may not be what one hopes. It's sometimes argued, for example, that the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan actually represented a liberalization — especially for women. I think there's some truth to this: the Soviets supported education, careers, and marital choice for women and didn't impose hijab.

On the other hand, the Soviet treatment of women in Afghanistan has its own horror stories; but even leaving that aside, the problem with imposing liberal values by means of military force is that it tends to associate liberal values in the minds of the population with invasion and oppression. One is unlikely to be won over to the cause of women's rights when those preaching on behalf of that cause have stolen your farm, shot your brother, and blown your children's hands off with a land mine; indeed the cause of women's rights is probably in the long run set farther back by such associations. Cultural reform is generally more effective, provoking less resistance and reaction, when accomplished by seduction and osmosis rather than at bayonet-point. I fear the United States has learned little from the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, since it seems bent on repeating it.

I don't mean to deny, of course, that the influence of centralised power upon local jurisdictions can sometimes have the effect of liberalising culture and protecting individual rights against local oppression. But I maintain that when empires do this, they do not do so qua empires, and so any points they earn in this respect should not be credited to empire as such. International trade and cultural exchange can have a liberalizing effect whether or not they are accompanied by military occupation; indeed, I've argued that military occupation hinders more than helps the process. If one drinks both medicine and poison, and the medicine has some good effect, one shouldn't give credit to the poison.

As for cases when centralized power genuinely protects rights by overriding local authority, the benefit it offers has nothing to do with centralization at all. What's significant in such cases is that the central power is offering legal services in competition with the local authority. And insofar as the benefit of central power lies in its role as a competitor to local authority, whatever merits it earns should go on the decentralization rather than the centralization side of the ledger — since if competition is good at the local level it's surely good at the large-scale level as well.

Centralized power may be one way to provide competition at the local level; but it's not the best way, since it does so by decreasing competition at the large-scale level. Instead, the cure for local tyranny is not less decentralization but more: if a smaller region secedes from a larger region and then practices oppression, the safest solution is not to reabsorb it into the larger region (with the risk of larger-scale oppression that brings) but to promote the secession of still smaller regions from it.

Critics of secession point to the Confederacy's practice of slavery and other political vices; but of course the Confederacy was itself a huge sprawling centralized empire. Even the member states of the Confederacy taken individually were the size of European countries. They simply didn't take decentralization far enough. The true defender of secession was Lysander Spooner, who defended not only the secession of Confederate states from the Union but also the secession of slaves, with their homesteaded plantation property, from the authority of their masters.

As Johnson points out, those concerned with the protection of cosmopolitan values have as much reason to favor decentralization as anybody else:

[O]ne kind of decentralist politics that you might endorse would be to advocate the secession of urban centers from the surrounding states and a decentralist order that's partly based on people forming a network of poleis around these urban centers. Certainly there are a number of cities (New York, San Francisco, Detroit, Austin, Atlanta …) where enough people are disgusted enough with their state governments that this kind of idea might have some real traction. After all, the power of suburban and exurban and rural counties to lord it over cities through majoritarian control of the state government is, or at least ought to be, just as much a concern for decentralists as the reverse.7

And Paterson inadvertently makes my point about empires not winning their points qua empires in the following passage:

There has never been a military empire, nor ever can be. It is impossible, in the nature of things. When Augustus became emperor, his first move toward consolidating the Roman dominion was to reduce the size of the army. Subsequently, when Rome included within its boundaries most of Europe, the near East, and North Africa, the task was performed with less than four hundred thousand soldiers, of whom half were auxiliaries, that is, regiments supplied by subject nations and officered by Romans. … [T]he Roman armies would have been pitifully inadequate to hold such a wide territory by pure force. … The ordinary man wished to live under Roman law. The victorious Legions were a result and not a cause.8

There are two things to say about this. First, the fact that Rome did not maintain its empire by force of arms alone is no proof that its rule was benign. As thinkers as diverse as Étienne de la La Boétie, David Hume, Mahatma Gandhi, Ayn Rand, and Murray Rothbard have pointed out, no government, no matter how tyrannical, maintains its power by force of arms alone. The ruled always greatly outnumber the rulers, and so government depends essentially on the acquiescence of the populace, an acquiescence it attempts to promote through patronage and propaganda.

But second, suppose that many of Rome's subjects really did accept Roman rule because they preferred its legal system to any known alternative (and I certainly grant that Roman law had many positive features). In that case, or to that extent, the Roman Empire was unnecessary. If Roman jurisprudence really was a superior product, it could have dominated the market without any need for legions, senators, consuls, emperors, praetorian guards, and all the rest of it. There was no need for a centralized administration at all.

Nor is empire of dubious value only for the subjugated. Citing not only the Roman case but also Egypt, Sparta, Japan, absolutist France, and the contemporary British Empire, Herbert Spencer documents a variety of ways in which the need to hold a subject people in bondage tends to result in restrictions on the freedom of the ruling group as well; "in proportion as liberty is diminished in the societies over which it rules," he says, "liberty is diminished within its own organization." Spencer draws the following analogy:

Here is a prisoner with hands tied and a cord round his neck… being led home by his savage conqueror, who intends to make him a slave. The one, you say, is captive and the other free? Are you quite sure the other is free? He holds one end of the cord, and unless he means to let his captive escape, he must continue to be fastened by keeping hold of the cord in such way that it cannot easily be detached. He must be himself tied to the captive while the captive is tied to him.9

The US Civil War, along with the period leading up to it, offers a useful illustration of Spencer's thesis. The Union was an imperial, expansionist power desperate to maintain its control over the South; but the South too was an imperial, expansionist power desperate to maintain its control over the slaves. In both cases, the need to maintain such control had a corrosive influence on both liberty and culture.

[T]o maintain the slave system, the South had to retreat from the libertarian principles of Jefferson and the revolution. Southern governments found it necessary to impose greater and greater restrictions on the civil and economic liberties of whites in order to keep blacks in subjection. Many states made it illegal for slaveowners to free their slaves; and there was soon no freedom of speech or press for whites who advocated abolition. In some cases, speaking against slavery was punishable by death.

Once secession finally came and the Confederacy was established, suppression of white freedoms grew even greater, as the central government, in the name of military necessity, extended its controls over every aspect of life. Internal passports were required for travel, traditional civil rights like habeas corpus were suspended, currency was devalued, and most sectors of the economy were nationalized. In their desperate quest to maintain their control over blacks, Southern whites found themselves compelled to establish an authoritarian political order that ended up claiming their own freedom as well. …

The North's drive to subjugate the South had an effect on the North analogous to the effect the South's drive to preserve slavery had on the South. More authority was centralized in Washington; civil liberties were routinely violated; income taxation and Federally administered conscription were introduced; and an ominous cult of national unity spread through the American consciousness. The result was a Federal government with vast new powers ….10

The decline in political culture on both sides is also notable. In the South, during the period leading up to the war, the prevailing ideology gradually shifts from the natural rights approach of Jefferson and Taylor, to the anti-natural-rights but still in crucial respects liberal Calhoun, to the hopelessly anti-rights, anti-liberal George Fitzhugh — each of these, not coincidentally, easier to reconcile with slavery than its predecessor. On the Northern side, as we pass from the Federalist and Whig parties to the Republican party, the commitment to mercantilist privilege remains unchanged, but the urbane Enlightenment outlook of Hamilton (whatever his faults) gives way to the fervent prohibitionism of paternalistic fanatics.

Today we face a similar dynamic, as the US government's attempt to contain the terrorist blowback resulting from its own foreign policy adventures is resulting in restrictions of freedom not only on America's alleged enemies overseas but also on American citizens, even those who support the government's policy. And yet such restrictions — from the War on Gels to the War on Habeas Corpus — are embraced, in the spirit of regarding any loss of freedom as justified if it aids, or is alleged to aid, the "War on Terror." The president is elevated in the public imagination to a godlike figure, thus enabling an increasing shift of power to the executive branch.

Movies like Black Hawk Down inflame popular passions against a vaguely conceived enemy, while television shows like 24 glorify the violation of ordinary rules of moral decency in the name of national security. The religion whose founder taught the love of one's enemies is pressed once more into the service of hate, and those who claim to follow a religious leader who was tortured to death by the state are now insouciantly defending torture. The populace is so gripped by a delusive imagination that one can substitute one enemy for another, Iraq for al-Qaeda, without their batting an eye, as the government propaganda ministers in Orwell's 1984 substituted Eastasia for Eurasia in mid-speech. This, needless to say, is not the sort of centralization that proponents of the cosmopolitan argument for empire are seeking. But it seems to be what we're getting.

Over a hundred years ago, Spencer described the political and cultural effects of centralization and imperialism — its tendency to foster what he called "regimentation," "re-barbarization," and the "militant" mode of society — and I can do no better than to quote him at length:

[L]et us note how, along with the nominal extension of constitutional freedom, there has been going on actual diminution of it. There is first the fact that the legislative functions of Parliament have been decreasing while the Ministry has been usurping them. Important measures are not now brought forward and carried by private members, but appeal is made to the government to take them up: the making of laws is gradually lapsing into the hands of the executive. And then within the executive itself the tendency is towards placing power in fewer hands. … In like manner by taking for government-purposes more and more of the time which was once available for private members; by the cutting down of debates by the closure; and now by requiring the vote for an entire department to be passed en bloc, without criticism of details; we are shown that while extension of the franchise has been seeming to increase the liberties of citizens, their liberties have been decreased by restricting the spheres of action of their representatives. All these are stages in that concentration of power which is the concomitant of Imperialism. …

The quality of a passion is in great measure the same whatever the object exciting it. Fear aroused by a mad dog is at the core like the fear produced by the raised weapon of an assassin; and the hate felt for a disgusting animal is of the same nature as the hate felt for a man very much disliked. Especially when the objects which excite the passions are imaginary, is there likely to be little difference between the state of mind produced. The cultivation of animosity towards one imaginary object, strengthening the sentiment of animosity at large, makes it easier to arouse animosity towards another imaginary object. …

I make these remarks à propos of the Salvation Army. The word is significant — Army; as are the names for the ranks, from the so-called "General," descending through brigadiers, colonels, majors, down to local sub-officers, all wearing uniforms. This system is like in idea and in sentiment to that of an actual army. Then what are the feelings appealed to? The "Official gazette of the Salvation Army" is entitled The War Cry; and the motto conspicuous on the title-page is "Blood and Fire." Doubtless it will be said that it is towards the principle of evil, personal or impersonal — towards "the devil and all his works" — that the destructive sentiments are invoked by this title and this motto. So it will be said that in a hymn, conspicuous in the number of the paper I have in hand, the like animus is displayed by the expressions which I cull from the first thirty lines: — "Made us warriors for ever, Sent us in the field to fight … We shall win with fire and blood … Stand to your arms, the foe is nigh, The powers of hell surround … The day of battle is at hand! Go forth to glorious war." These and others like them are stimuli to the fighting propensities, and the excitements of song joined with the martial processions and instrumental music cannot fail to raise high those slumbering passions which are ready to burst out even in the intercourse of ordinary life. Such appeals as there may be to the gentler sentiments which the creed inculcates, are practically lost amid these loud-voiced invocations. Out of mixed and contradictory exhortations the people who listen respond to those which are most congruous with their own natures and are little affected by the rest; so that under the nominal forms of the religion of amity there are daily exercised the feelings appropriate to the religion of enmity. And then, as before suggested, these destructive passions directed towards "the enemy," as the principle of evil is called, are easily directed towards an enemy otherwise conceived. If for wicked spirits are substituted wicked men, these are regarded with the same feelings; and when calumnies sown broadcast make it appear that certain people are wicked men, the anger and hate which have been perpetually fostered are vented upon them. …

This diffusion of military ideas, military sentiments, military organization, military discipline, has been going on everywhere. … Thus on every side we see the ideas and feelings and institutions appropriate to peaceful life, replaced by those appropriate to fighting life. The continual increases of the army, the formation of permanent camps, the institution of public military contests and military exhibitions, have conduced to this result. … Perpetual excitements of the destructive passions … have made battle and blood and fire familiar, and under the guise of fighting against evil have thrust into the background the gentler emotions ….

System, regulation, uniformity, compulsion — these words are being made familiar in discussions on social questions. Everywhere has arisen an unquestioned assumption that all things should be arranged after a definite plan. … Though we have not reached a state like that boasted of by a French minister who said — "Now all the children in France are saying the same lesson," yet if we compare our present state with our state before board-schools were set up, we see a movement towards a like ideal. We have a "Code" to which managers and teachers must conform; and we have inspectors who see that the conceptions of the central authority are carried out. …

So long as the passion for mastery overrides all others the slavery that goes along with Imperialism will be tolerated. Among men who do not pride themselves on the possession of purely human traits, but on the possession of traits which they have in common with brutes, and in whose mouths "bull-dog courage" is equivalent to manhood — among people who take their point of honour from the prize-ring, in which the combatant submits to pain, injury, and risk of death, in the determination to prove himself "the better man," no deterrent considerations like the above will have any weight. So long as they continue to conquer other peoples and to hold them in subjection, they will readily merge their personal liberties in the power of the State, and hereafter as heretofore accept the slavery that goes along with Imperialism.11

Spencer's message remains all too appropriate to our present era, and it suggests — as a glance at the present occupant of the White House should likewise suggest — that imperial ambitions and the centralization of power are no recipe for the triumph of urbane, cosmopolitan values over small-minded reactionary oppression.

Once again, the cure for local tyranny is not less decentralization but more. First, break up empires into states, states into counties, counties into wards, wards into townships, townships into neighborhoods, and so on down to the level of the sovereign individual. Second, decouple jurisdiction and legal association from geography; if I live in Mississippi but prefer Massachusetts law, or vice versa, I should be free to sign up with the system I prefer without having to physically relocate. Maximize competition, and we thereby minimize the opportunities for oppression.

The truest security for liberal, cosmopolitan values lies not in empire but in secession and anarchy.

  • 1. Isabel Paterson, God of the Machine (New Brunswick NJ: Transaction, 1993), p. 121.
  • 2. See Wordworth Donisthorpe, Individualism: A System of Politics (London: Macmillan, 1889)and Down the Stream of Civilization (London: G. Newnes, 1898).
  • 3. Paterson, pp. 9–10.
  • 4. Ibid., p. 25.
  • 5. "two notes on conservatism and cosmopolitanism," Lady Aster's Blog.
  • 6. Charles Johnson, comment on "The Conservative Mind," March 27, 2006.
  • 7. Ibid.
  • 8. Paterson, p. 31.
  • 9. Herbert Spencer, Facts and Comments (New York: D. Appleton, 1902), ch. 24; also online.
  • 10. Roderick T. Long, "The Nature of Law, Part IV: The Basis of Natural Law," Formulations 4, no. 2 (Winter 1997); also online.
  • 11. Spencer, chs. 24–26.

Contact Roderick T. Long

Roderick T. Long is a senior fellow of the Mises Institute and a professor of philosophy at Auburn University. He runs the Molinari Institute and Molinari Society. His website is Praxeology.net.