As today is July Fourth I thought I'd write a few words about one of the most popular topics of discussion around the fall of the Roman Empire: the question of whether or not the United States is headed in the same direction.
First, let me say, that to ask the question assumes a good deal of hubris on our part. Rome existed as a powerful political force in the world for 1,000 years, and for much of that time, it was unrivaled in power or influence. The United States, on the other hand, only became a powerful presence on the world stage after the Spanish-American War in 1898, making its tenure as an imperial power only 120 years old; and for much of that time it had to share the stage with powerful imperial rivals like Great Britain or the Soviet Union.
Still, people are fond of drawing comparisons, so let's see what parallels we can draw.
It strikes me, in studying the Fall of the Roman Empire, that a sense of entitlement among the public was a crippling defect that undermined the state. In the late Roman Empire, as in the United States today, people resented paying taxes. They did so grudgingly, or, if they were wealthy enough, they avoided paying taxes altogether.
Because the Roman public was literate and informed, they could form their own opinions about how their money was being spent, and they often arrived at the conclusion that their government was reckless and corrupt in the handling of their funds. This naturally led to the conclusion that had the government been more competent and less corrupt, the public's tax burden would be less. So the upshot was: The government is stealing our money and wasting it, so we feel no obligation to support the government. What's more, we want all the benefits that come with being citizens of the Empire, but we refuse to pay a penny more, because we've already paid enough. Sound familiar?
And, just like being a citizen of the United States, being a citizen of the Roman Empire, came with a lot of juicy perks, things that were widely regarded as entitlements, like good roads, access to clean water, a reliable constabulary, and an administrative state that kept everything running smoothly. Oh, and let's not forget, the biggest drain on the imperial coffers both then and now: a state of the art military that was second to none.
Yet, interestingly, the Roman public in the Late Empire had the same attitude toward military service that many Americans do today, namely, that it was somebody else's problem. Wealthy Romans, like wealthy Americans, avoided sending their sons off to fight in wars. Instead, they looked to the lower classes to provide the cannon fodder while they profited from the sale of arms.
And as the Roman middle-class grew, fewer and fewer citizens were willing to be the dupes in this deadly game. So the Roman military started looking outside the country to fill its ranks, recruiting immigrants, only the Romans didn't call them immigrants; they called them barbarians. Before long, the Roman army was heavily Germanized, a state of affairs that didn't make the average Roman citizen feel terribly comfortable because so many of the people tasked with defending them were, in effect, the same people they were fighting.
The upshot was: Romans didn't want to make sacrifices to defend their own country. Romans distrusted the government and tried to avoid paying taxes. Yet Romans demanded the juicy entitlements that would accrue naturally to responsible citizens willing to pay their taxes and defend their country. The outcome of this was not hard to foresee.
The government went into deep debt. The cost of its military was unsustainable. The barbarians enlisted in its armies were looked down upon and underpaid, and so when forces from outside the empire began to press on it, the government lacked the manpower and resources to hold them at bay. The Roman Empire began to come apart at the seams.
Am I saying this is what will happen to America? Not necessarily. The United States has one big advantage that the Roman Empire didn't have, namely, the example of the Roman Empire as a warning. Perhaps we will look and learn. The benefits of a great society come with a cost. The impulse to avoid paying them doesn't make us righteous or clever. It makes us vulnerable to collapse.