Guest Post: How Empires Fall

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Charles Hugh-Smith of OfTwoMinds blog,

The imperial tree falls not because the challenges are too great but because the core of the tree has been weakened by the gradual loss of surplus, purpose, institutional effectiveness, intellectual vigor and productive investment.

Comparing the American Empire with the Roman Empire in its terminal decline is a popular intellectual parlor game. The comparison is inexact on a number of fronts, starting with the nature of empire: Rome ruled a territorial empire, while the U.S. is a hegemony that doesn't need to hold territory (other than key overseas military bases); its dominance is based on the global projection of hard and soft power, diplomacy, finance and the monetary regime of the reserve currency.

Despite the apparent difference, the two empires share the key characteristic of all enduring empires: they extract the cost of maintaining the empire from client states and/or allies.

The mechanisms differ, but the results are the same: the empire's cost is distributed to those who benefit from its secure trade routes.

Two of the key characteristics of an empire in terminal decline are complacency and intellectual sclerosis, what I have termed a failure of imagination.

Michael Grant described these causes of decline in his excellent account The Fall of the Roman Empire, a short book I have been recommending since 2009:

There was no room at all, in these ways of thinking, for the novel, apocalyptic situation which had now arisen, a situation which needed solutions as radical as itself. (The Status Quo) attitude is a complacent acceptance of things as they are, without a single new idea.

This acceptance was accompanied by greatly excessive optimism about the present and future. Even when the end was only sixty years away, and the Empire was already crumbling fast, Rutilius continued to address the spirit of Rome with the same supreme assurance.

This blind adherence to the ideas of the past ranks high among the principal causes of the downfall of Rome. If you were sufficiently lulled by these traditional fictions, there was no call to take any practical first-aid measures at all.

In other words, if our idea of intellectual rigor and honesty is Paul Krugman dancing around the Neo-Keynesian Cargo Cult campfire waving dead chickens and mumbling nonsensical claims of grand success, we are well and truly doomed.

The chapter titles of the book give a precis of the other causes Grant identifies:

The Gulfs Between the Classes

The Credibility Gap

The Partnerships That Failed

The Groups That Opted Out

The Undermining of Effort

I recently read a lengthier book by Adrian Goldsworthy titled How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower.

In Goldsworthy's view, a key driver of decline was the constant political struggle for power drained resources away from protecting the Imperial borders from barbarian incursions and addressing the long-term problems facing the Empire.

Such conflicts for the Imperial throne often led to outright civil war, with factions of the Roman army meeting on the field of battle.

In other words, Rome didn't fall so much as erode away, its many strengths squandered on in-fighting, mismanagement and personal aggrandizement/corruption.

More telling for the present is Goldsworthy's identification of expansive, sclerotic bureaucracies that lost sight of their purpose. The top leadership abandoned the pursuit of the common good for personal gain, wealth and power. This rot at the top soon spread down the chain of command to infect and corrupt the entire institutional culture.

As the empire shrank and lost tax revenues, the Imperial bureaucracies continued growing, much as parasites attach themselves to a weakened host.

Individual contributions and institutional success are both difficult to measure in large bureaucracies, and it is tempting to define success by easily achieved metrics that reflect positively on individual contributions and the institutional management.

As the organization loses focus on its original purpose, the core purpose of the institution is given lip service but is replaced with facsimiles of managerial effectiveness, bureaucratic infighting over resources and the targeting of easily gamed metrics as substitutes for actual success.

People who have no skin in the game behave quite differently from those who face consequences. This disconnection of risk from consequence is called moral hazard.

Bureaucracies tend to institutionalize moral hazard: those managing the institution’s departments rarely suffer any personal consequence when the institution fails to perform its function. Funds are placed at risk, but the individuals making the bets with the institution’s money suffer no losses should their policies result in failure.

By breaking the institutional purpose into small pieces whose success is measured by easily gamed targets, the institution can be failing its primary function even as every department reports continued success in meeting its goals. Repeated failure and loss of focus erode the institution even as those in charge advance up the administrative ladder.

In the final years of the Empire, in the 5th century A.D., this institutional failure led to the absurdity of detailed descriptions of army units being distributed within the Imperial bureaucracy, while the actual units themselves--the troops, the officers and the equipment--had ceased to exist. In some cases, it appears bureaucrats and officers collected pay for supplying and commanding completely phantom legions.

The disconnect between the failure to fulfill the institution’s original function and the leadership’s rise feeds cynicism in the institution’s employees and erodes their purpose and initiative. Soon the institutional culture is one of self-aggrandizement, gaming of departmental targets, protection of budgets and a collapse of the work ethic to the minimum level needed to avoid dismissal. Personal responsibility for institutional failure is lost.

Does this describe the vast state fiefdoms and state-protected cartels of America's military-industrial complex, sickcare and the education industry? I think the answer is self-evident: yes. While there are still hard-working, competent people within these sprawling empires of moral hazard, these few are not enough to wring long-term success from negligence, friction and incompetence. All they can do is stave off implosion for a time.

There are many other causes for Rome's decline, including epidemics of plague, military over-reach, chronic deficits, debasement of the currency, a parasitic Elite that was immune to what was left of the rule of law, weak leadership, and rising dependence on the Central State for bread and circuses.

America is not Rome, just as the immensely successful Tang Empire in China (700-900 A.D.) was neither Rome nor America. These dissimilarities should not blind us to the underlying dynamics in the decline and fall of all great powers, which can be summarized as the slow erosion of shared purpose, surplus and the productive investment of that surplus.

When a storm arises--a conflict with neighboring powers, an outbreak of plague, a disastrous drought--the imperial tree falls, not because the challenge was too great but because the core of the tree had been weakened by the gradual loss of surplus, purpose, institutional effectiveness, intellectual vigor and productive investment.

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mantrid's picture



uhm... did I miss something?!

New England Patriot's picture

The bottom line is that when a person or group of people stop doing what is right, just, moral, and efficient, they are no more immune to the ill effects than someone who is denying the law of gravity.


Somewhere along the way, we've changed. Why expect the same result with different inputs?

cifo's picture

Unfortunately, the empire can last more than I can be solvent.

kralizec's picture

Lead bitchez!

(The "Game Changer") ;)

Ahmeexnal's picture

The Fall of the Roman Empire began with The Collectivization of the Roman Empire.

Manthong's picture

The fish rots from the head down.

But at least a fish has never posted a fraudulent layered graphics file birth document.

Bastiat's picture

Amazing.  That's what I expected to see from an area blanketed with surveillance cameras.

Transformer's picture

Politics don't matter that much.  When pspychopaths move into positions of authority throughout the culture, destruction begins.

This is so blatantly obvious, I just don't know why it is not discussed more.  Psychopaths don't feel much of anythnig.  One of the things most of them do feel is the ego rush from winning.  They usually do not care about the future and often do not respond to pain or the threat of it as normal people do.

Psychopaths do not even seem to care about the future of their children.  They consume and destroy everything in their quest to win.  Until society comes up with a way to deal with this 1-2% of the population, we are doomed to civilization cycles, like the one we are ending up now.

margaris's picture

Either that, or we stop imagining that those people have authority over us.



Anarchism is the future, because as long as we have rulers (or a throne) we will have sociopaths fighting to get on that throne.

So, the throne is the problem, and not so much sociopathy (which can be looked at as some kind of sickness)

... you can't irradicate "sickness"... that's like a "war on terror" or a "war on violence"... very pointless and disastrous.

Lohn Jocke's picture

You should buy my American origin rice. It has much less lead than the Viet and Chinese varieties.

sgt_doom's picture

The major overall problems with this blog post is that it makes too many assumptions and presumes far too much.

One of the best short summaries of some economic underlying causes was explained in Prof. Tainter's short paper:

(Well worth reading!)

Empires are overextended as the economic elites mean to extract every last cent of worth form them, from the people, etc., it is by design, not circumstance nor happenstance.

History does explain things, but first one must distinguish between history, and Wall Street-financed propaganda (Gillian Tett's "Fool's Gold" Sebastian Mallaby's "More Money Than God" and many many other such tracts of nonsense and drivel).

massornament's picture

I don't think this blog post is too far off Tainter's work. His book, The Collapse of Complex Societies (which is excellent), is more about how diminishing marginal returns can be applied to a complex system like an empire. It simply becomes too costly to keep the ever increasing complexity of the system going. And it is not just the elites that try to maximize their position but all classes... the 'dole' originally refered to the 'corn dole' (free flour/bread) provided to Roman citizens. Military overstretch, political corruption, falling tax revenues, debt, currency debasement, and increased costs to run increasingly complex systems... Tainter's work isn't really ideological in the normal sense of that term.

MikeMcGspot's picture

Tainters excellent collapse book also cites improvement in bone density of average Romans post collapse, here he speculates there were general nutritional improvements as people were no longer working themselves to the bone to keep the complex society/system going.

Perhaps there could be significant improvement in health for many post collapse US empire,

Kirk2NCC1701's picture

"Unfortunately, the empire can last more than I can be solvent."

I'm hoping on outlasting the American Empire, but not the USA.  A subtle but important difference.

zerozulu's picture

Homosexuality is another sign of falling empires. It shows degradation of moral social values.

Meat Hammer's picture

I down-arrowed you because I don't care where someone sticks his wee-wee, but I do think libs may abort and buttfuck each other into extinction.

margaris's picture

The real degradation is that people will get very strong feelings about gay marriage etc... but will not give a damn that their children are fighting and dying in unjust wars, and that banksters are looting the country.

Maybe it's a hidden psychological effect on the subconscious:

Everybody talks about the gays, because you subconsciously know you are literally being fucked in the ass by your government, the banks etc... so no wonder you concern yourself with anal sex.

Dull Care's picture

I agree with you and the gentleman who made his observation. There is no way the promotion of alternative lifestyles can be healthy for a society. I find it very strange that anyone could reach a different conclusion.

On the other hand you are very correct as well. It's hilarious to watch Americans get wrapped up in an albeit terrible terrorist attack yet fail to see how the U.S. Military does these things far more frequently on a much grander scale.

Americans are simply frogs in a kettle that are getting boiled very slowly and it won't be long before they're toast.

N57Mike's picture

Yes Patriot, thank you, its very simple...., why is "don't lie, don't steal, don't covet neighbors wife or possessions" a problem, ... Why can't this be tacked up on all wall?

Lack of, and lost spiritually, this Nation is.

tallen's picture

If people think the drop in gold was bad, wait until the stock market crashes again.

TeamDepends's picture

Yep, they didn't see that comin'.

ParkAveFlasher's picture

I don't know about you guys, but I cursed how broke I was when gold was at $1700.

Now I'm itching to free up cash.

resurger's picture

I hope there wont be any circus breakers when that happens

DaddyO's picture

"It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen?"


SpiceMustFlow's picture

OT but where is a fucking ZH commentary on reinhart and rogoff fiasco?! Making me read ducking salon?!

salsabob's picture

R&R has gotten a lot of love here in the past (e.g. 5/7/12) as part of the echo chamber here.  Let's see how long their fiasco will be ignored.

SpiceMustFlow's picture

I'm dreading the attention krugman's bitch ass is going to get from this. He probably had a dozen orgasms when the news broke. I just want to hear the ZH explanation and take, the other sites are killing me

jjsilver's picture


"When  plunder  becomes  a  way  of  life  for  a group  of  men living  together  in  society,  they  create  for  themselves in  the  course  of  time,  a  legal  system  that authorizes  it  and  a  moral  code  that  glorifies  it."
Frederick  Bastiat,  1850


Nothing can destroy a government more quickly than its failure to observe its own laws, or worse, its disregard of the charter of its own existence.
MAPP v. OHIO, 367 U.S. 643 (1961) Supreme Court

LawsofPhysics's picture

Indeed.  We are entering a period where the following quote rings true as well. - ""The great questions of the the day will not be resolved by speeches and majority decisions ... but by iron and blood"   Hedge accordingly.

centerline's picture

Same as it ever was.  When money fails, the weapons come out.

Bicycle Repairman's picture

Violence, not gold, is at the top of the value pyramid.

ParkAveFlasher's picture

I disagree.  Sex to impregnate beats all comers as king of the evolutionary hill.

Kirk2NCC1701's picture

Same as it ever was.  When men's character, sanity or decency fail, and primal forces take over, then money also fails.  And the weapons come out.

duo's picture

so what was Rome's version of Obamacare?

mantrid's picture

they say elite Romans didn't wash

rp1's picture

Why are world markets crashing?  Don't Vote For Gold!  Understand this for a bright future 

LawsofPhysics's picture

with 7+ billion people all competing for a better quality of life.  Resource scarcity is going to shove that paper so far up your ass you are going to wish you never put it out there.  Moreover, the moral hazard has not been addressed and fraud remains the status quo. I suggest you hedge accordingly.

hannah's picture

here we go again...THERE ISNT A RESOURCE SCARCITY....THERE IS A SCARCITY OF PHYSICAL CASH TO BUY THE RESOURCES. without credit the whole ball of wax is melting like the wicked witch...

LawsofPhysics's picture

Money credits can be created with the push of a fucking button moron.  Just ask Bernanke, resources cannot.  Please, you're not even trying.

hannah's picture

bernanke gives YOU money...fuck you stupid idiot. you dont have access to the printing press..YOU dont have unlimited physical fiat. if you want more resource than you have money , you are shit out of luck.

LawsofPhysics's picture

Wrong again.  Every year we thin out some timber on our property whenever we want and use those resources in a number of ways.  Troll harder loser.

hannah's picture

law are truely an idiot. everyone in the world that needs resources has 'timber' they can sell...? the world is out of cash. no credit. they are fucked and with your iq, so are you.

sgt_doom's picture

People will mark you down as mindless libertarians must obsessively follow their cult leaders.....

LawsofPhysics's picture

Troll.  Scared troll at that.

rsnoble's picture

Is that NYC getting ready to go over the waterfall? Quick, someone cut the cord!