Economically, politically, and socially, the United States seems to be headed down a path that’s not only inconsistent with the founding principles of the country but accelerating quickly toward boundless decay. There are good reasons for looking to Rome rather than any other civilization when trying to see where the U.S. is headed. But it’s not just the U.S.—it’s Western civilization that’s in decline.
BY DOUG CASEY FOR INTERNATIONAL MAN
VIDEO BY MARK MALONEY FOR GOLDSILVER
I’m an aficionado of ancient history. I thought it might be worthwhile to discuss what happened to Rome and based on that, what’s likely to happen to the U.S. Spoiler alert: There are some similarities between the U.S. and Rome.
But before continuing, please seat yourself comfortably. This article will necessarily cover exactly those things you’re never supposed to talk about—religion and politics—and do what you’re never supposed to do, namely, bad-mouth the military.
There are good reasons for looking to Rome rather than any other civilization when trying to see where the U.S. is headed. Everyone knows Rome declined, but few people understand why. And, I think, even fewer realize that the U.S. is now well along the same path for pretty much the same reasons, which I’ll explore shortly.
Rome reached its peak of military power around the year 107 when Trajan completed the conquest of Dacia (the territory of modern Romania). With Dacia, the empire peaked in size, but I’d argue it was already past its peak by almost every other measure.
The U.S. reached its peak relative to the world, and in some ways its absolute peak, as early as the 1950s. In 1950 this country produced 50% of the world’s GNP and 80% of its vehicles. Now it’s about 21% of the world’s GNP and 5% of its vehicles. It owned two-thirds of the world’s gold reserves; now it holds one-fourth. It was, by a huge margin, the world’s biggest creditor, whereas now it’s the biggest debtor by a huge margin. The income of the average American was by far the highest in the world; today it ranks about eighth, and it’s slipping.
But it’s not just the U.S.—it’s Western civilization that’s in decline. In 1910 Europe controlled almost the whole world—politically, financially, and militarily. Now it’s becoming a Disneyland with real buildings and a petting zoo for the Chinese. It’s even further down the slippery slope than the U.S.
Like America, Rome was founded by refugees—from Troy, at least in myth. Like America, it was ruled by kings in its early history. Later, Romans became self-governing, with several Assemblies and a Senate. Later still, power devolved to the executive, which was likely not an accident.
U.S. founders modeled the country on Rome, all the way down to the architecture of government buildings, the use of the eagle as the national bird, the use of Latin mottos, and the unfortunate use of the fasces—the axe surrounded by rods—as a symbol of state power. Publius, the pseudonymous author of The Federalist Papers, took his name from one of Rome’s first consuls. As it was in Rome, military prowess is at the center of the national identity of the U.S. When you adopt a model in earnest, you grow to resemble it.
A considerable cottage industry has developed comparing ancient and modern times since Edward Gibbon published The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1776—the same year as Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and the U.S. Declaration of Independence were written. I’m a big fan of all three, but D&F is not only a great history, but it’s also very elegant and readable literature. And it’s actually a laugh riot; Gibbon had a subtle wit.
There have been huge advances in our understanding of Rome since Gibbon’s time, driven by archeological discoveries. There were many things he just didn’t know, because he was as much a philologist as a historian, and he based his writing on what the ancients said about themselves.
There was no real science of archeology when Gibbon wrote; little had been done even to correlate the surviving ancient texts with what was on the surviving monuments—even the well-known monuments—and on the coins. Not to mention scientists digging around in the provinces for what was left of Roman villas, battle sites, and that sort of thing. So Gibbon, like most historians, was to a degree a collector of hearsay.
And how could he know whom to believe among the ancient sources? It’s as though William F. Buckley, Gore Vidal, H. L. Mencken, Norman Mailer, and George Carlin all wrote about the same event, and you were left to figure out whose story was true. That would make it tough to tell what really happened just a few years ago… forget about ancient history. That’s why the study of history is so tendentious; so much of it is “he said/she said.”
In any event, perhaps you don’t want a lecture on ancient history. You’d probably be more entertained by some guesses about what’s likely to happen to the U.S. I’ve got some.
Let me start by saying that I’m not sure the collapse of Rome wasn’t a good thing. There were many positive aspects to Rome—as there are to most civilizations. But there was much else to Rome of which I disapprove, such as its anti-commercialism, its militarism, and, post-Caesar, its centralized and increasingly totalitarian government. In that light, it’s worth considering whether the collapse of the U.S. might not be a good thing.
So why did Rome fall? In 1985, a German named Demandt assembled 210 reasons. I find some of them silly—like racial degeneration, homosexuality, and excessive freedom. Most are redundant. Some are just common sense—like bankruptcy, loss of moral fiber, and corruption.
Gibbon’s list is much shorter. Although it’s pretty hard to summarize his six fat volumes in a single sentence, he attributed the fall of Rome to just two causes, one internal and one external: Christianity and barbarian invasions, respectively. I think Gibbon was essentially right about both. Because of the sensibilities of his era, however, he probed at early Christianity (i.e., from its founding to the mid-4th century) very gently; I’ve decided to deal with it less delicately. Hopefully, neither my analysis of religion nor of barbarian invasions (then and now) will disturb too many readers.
In any event, while accepting Gibbon’s basic ideas on Christians and barbarians, I decided to break down the reasons for Rome’s decline further, into 10 categories: political, legal, social, demographic, ecological, military, psychological, intellectual, religious, and economic—all of which I’ll touch on. And, as a bonus, toward the end of this article, I’ll give you another, completely unrelated, and extremely important reason for the collapse of both Rome and the U.S.
You don’t have to agree with my interpretation, but let’s see what lessons are on offer from the history of Rome, from its semi-mythical founding by Romulus and Remus in 753 BCE (a story that conflicts with Virgil’s tale of Aeneas and the refugee Trojans) to what’s conventionally designated as the end of the Western empire in 476 AD, when the child-emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed by Odoacer (a Germanic general who was in charge of what passed for the Roman army—which by then was staffed almost entirely with Germanic mercenaries who had no loyalty to the idea of Rome). It looks a lot like the American experience over the last couple of hundred years. First conquest and expansion, then global dominance, and then slippage into decline.
It’s somewhat misleading, however, to talk about a simple fall of Rome, and much more accurate to talk about its gradual transformation, with episodes of what paleontologists describe as “punctuated disequilibrium.” There were many falls.
Republican Rome fell in 31 BCE with the accession of Augustus and the start of what’s called the Principate. It almost disintegrated in the 50 years of the mid-3rd century, a time of constant civil war, the start of serious barbarian incursions, and the destruction of Rome’s silver currency, the denarius.
Rome as anything resembling a free society fell in the 290s and then changed radically again, with Diocletian and the Dominate period (more on this shortly). Maybe the end came in 378 when the Goths destroyed a Roman army at Adrianople and wholesale invasions began. Maybe we should call 410 the end when Alaric—a Goth who was actually a Roman general—conducted the first sacking of Rome.
It might be said the civilization didn’t really collapse until the late 600s when Islam conquered the Middle East and North Africa and cut off Mediterranean commerce. Maybe we should use 1453 when Constantinople and the Eastern Empire fell. Maybe the Empire is still alive today in the form of the Catholic Church—the Pope is the Pontifex Maximus wearing red slippers, as did Julius Caesar when he held that position.
One certain reflection in the distant mirror is that beginning with the Principate period, Rome underwent an accelerating trend toward absolutism, centralization, totalitarianism, and bureaucracy. I think we can argue America entered its Principate with the accession of Roosevelt in 1933; since then, the president has reigned supreme over the Congress, as Augustus did over the Senate. Pretenses fell off increasingly over time in Rome, just as they have in the U.S.
After the third century, with constant civil war and the destruction of the currency, the Principate (when the emperor, at least in theory, was just the first among equals) gave way to the Dominate period (from the word “dominus,” or lord, referring to a master of slaves), when the emperor became an absolute monarch. This happened with the ascension of Diocletian in 284 and then, after another civil war, Constantine in 306. From that point forward, the emperor no longer even pretended to be the first among equals and was treated as an oriental potentate. The same trend is in motion in the U.S., but we’re still a ways from reaching its endpoint—although it has to be noted that the president is now protected by hundreds, even thousands, of bodyguards. Harry Truman was the last president who actually dared to go out and informally stroll about DC, like a common citizen, while in office.
In any event, just as the Senate, the consuls, and the tribunes with their vetoes became impotent anachronisms, so have U.S. institutions. Early on, starting with the fourth emperor, Claudius, in 41 AD, the Praetorians (who had been set up by Augustus) showed they could designate the emperor. And today in the U.S., that’s probably true of its praetorians—the NSA, CIA, and FBI, among others—and of course the military. We’ll see how the next hanging-chad presidential election dispute gets settled.
My guess is that the booboisie (the Romans called them the capite censi, or head count) will demand a strong leader as the Greater Depression evolves, the dollar is destroyed, and a serious war gets underway. You have to remember that war has always been the health of the state. The Roman emperors were expected, not least by their soldiers, to always be engaged in war. And it’s no accident that the so-called greatest U.S. presidents were war presidents—Lincoln, Wilson, and FDR. We can humorously add the self-proclaimed war president Baby Bush. Military heroes—like Washington, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, and Eisenhower—are always easy to elect. My guess is that a general will run for office in the next election when—we’ll be in a genuine crisis. The public will want a general partly because the military is now by far the most trusted institution of U.S. society. His likely election will be a mistake for numerous reasons, not least that the military is really just a heavily armed variant of the postal service.
It’s wise to keep Gibbon’s words about the military in mind: “Any order of men accustomed to violence and slavery make for very poor guardians of a civil constitution.”
One additional political parallel with the U.S.: up to Trajan in 100 AD, all the emperors were culturally Roman from old, noble families. After that, few were. The U.S. now has had its first Kenyan president—just kidding, of course.
Like the Romans, we’re supposedly ruled by laws, not by men. In Rome, the law started with the 12 Tablets in 451 BCE, with few dictates and simple enough to be inscribed on bronze for all to see. A separate body of common law developed from trials, held sometimes in the Forum, sometimes in the Senate.
When the law was short and simple, the saying “Ignorantia juris non excusat” (ignorance of the law is no excuse) made sense. But as the government and its legislation became more ponderous, the saying became increasingly ridiculous. Eventually, under Diocletian, law became completely arbitrary, with everything done by the emperor’s decrees—we call them Executive Orders today.
I’ve mentioned Diocletian several times already. It’s true that his draconian measures held the Empire together, but it was a matter of destroying Rome in order to save it. As in the U.S., in Rome statute and common law gradually devolved into a maze of bureaucratic rules.
The trend accelerated under Constantine, the first Christian emperor, because Christianity is a top-down religion, reflecting a hierarchy where rulers were seen as licensed by God. The old Roman religion never tried to capture men’s minds this way. Before Christianity, violating the emperor’s laws wasn’t seen as also violating God’s laws.
The devolution is similar in the U.S. You’ll recall that only three crimes are mentioned in the U.S. Constitution—treason, counterfeiting, and piracy. Now you can read Harvey Silverglate’s book, Three Felonies a Day, which argues that the average modern-day American, mostly unwittingly, is running his own personal crime wave—because federal law has criminalized over 5,000 different acts.
Rome became more and more corrupt as time went on, as has the U.S. Tacitus (56-117 AD) understood why: “The more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the nation.”
Along with political and legal problems come social problems. The Roman government began offering useless mouths free bread, and later circuses, in the late Republic, after the three Punic Wars (264-146 BCE). Bread and circuses were mostly limited to the capital itself. They were extremely destructive, of course, but were provided strictly for a practical reason: to keep the mob under control.
And it was a big mob. At its peak, Rome had about a million inhabitants, and at least 30% were on the dole. It’s worth noting that the dole lasted over 500 years and became part of the fabric of Roman life—ending only when wheat shipments from Egypt and North Africa were cut off by the Vandals at the beginning of the 5th century.
In the U.S., there now are more recipients of state benefits than there are workers. Programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and numerous other welfare programs absorb over 50% of the U.S. budget, and they’re going to grow rapidly for a while longer, although I predict they’ll come to an end or be radically reformed within the next 20 years. I recognize that’s a daring prediction, given the longevity of the dole in Rome.
The Empire appears to have suffered a demographic collapse late in the 2nd century, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, at least in part because of a plague that killed on the order of 10% of the population. Ancient plagues are poorly documented, perhaps because they were viewed as normal happenings. But there may be other, subtler reasons for the drop in population. Perhaps people weren’t just dying, they also weren’t reproducing, which is much more serious. The rising Christian religion was puritanical and encouraged celibacy. Especially among the Gnostic strains of early Christianity, celibacy was part of the formula for perfection and knowledge of God. But of course, if Christianity had been effective in encouraging celibacy, it would have died out.
The same thing is now happening throughout the developed world—especially in Europe and Japan, but also in the U.S. and China. After WW II, American women averaged 3.7 children. Now it’s 1.8; in parts of Europe, it’s 1.3. Part of that is due to urbanization and part to an understanding of birth control, but a growing part is that they just can’t afford it; it’s very expensive to have a kid today. And I believe another major element is a new religious movement, Greenism, which is analogous to early Christianity in many ways. It’s now considered antisocial to reproduce since having kids raises your carbon footprint.
The essential anti-rationality of early Christianity poisoned the intellectual atmosphere of the classical world. This is true of not just religions in general, but the desert religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in particular—each more extreme than its predecessor.
In late antiquity, there was a battle between the faith of the Fathers of the Church and the reason of the philosophers. Christianity halted the progress of reason, which had been growing in the Greco-Roman world since the days of the Ionian rationalists Anaximander, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, and others, right up to Aristotle, Archimedes, and Pliny. Knowledge of how the world worked was compounding, albeit slowly—then came to a stop with the triumph of superstition in the 4th century. And went into reverse during the Dark Ages, starting in the 6th century.
Christianity used to hold that anything that seems at odds with revealed truth or even with the extrapolations of revealed truth is anathema, the way much of Islam does today. The church drew generations of men away from intellectual and scientific pursuits and toward otherworldly pursuits—which didn’t help the Roman cause. It can be argued that, if not for Christianity, the ancient world might have made a leap to an industrial revolution. It’s impossible to make scientific progress if the reigning meme holds that if it’s not the word of a god, it’s not worth knowing.
For nearly 1,000 years, revealed beliefs displaced science and reason. This started to change only in the 13th century with Thomas Aquinas, an anomaly in that he cleverly integrated the rational thinking of the ancient philosophers—Aristotle in particular—into Catholicism. Aquinas was lucky he wasn’t condemned as a heretic instead of being turned into a saint. His thought had some unintended consequences, however, which led to the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, and today’s world. At least until Aquinas, Christianity slowed the ascent of man and the rise of rationalism and science by centuries, in addition to its complicity in the fall of Rome.
As the importance of science has grown, however, religion—or superstition, as Gibbon referred to it—has taken a back seat. Over the last 100, even the last 50 years, Christianity has fallen to the status of a back story for Santa Claus and quaint, albeit poetic, folk wisdom tales.
Wars made Rome. Wars expanded the country’s borders and brought it wealth, but they also sowed the seeds of its destruction, especially the three big wars against Carthage, 264-146 BCE.
Rome began as a republic of yeoman farmers, each with his own plot of land. You had to be a landowner to join the Roman army; it was a great honor, and it wouldn’t take the riffraff. When the Republic was threatened—and wars were constant and uninterrupted from the beginning—a legionary might be gone for five, ten, or more years. His wife and children back on the farm might have to borrow money to keep things going and then perhaps default, so soldiers’ farms would go back to bush or get taken over by creditors. And, if he survived the wars, an ex-legionary might be hard to keep down on the farm after years of looting, plundering, and enslaving the enemy. On top of that, tidal waves of slaves became available to work on freshly confiscated properties. So, like America, Rome became more urban and less agrarian. Like America, there were fewer family farmers but more industrial-scale latifundia.
War turned the whole Mediterranean into a Roman lake. With the Punic wars, Spain and North Africa became provinces. Pompey the Great (106-48 BCE) conquered the Near East. Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) conquered Gaul 20 years later. Then Augustus took Egypt.
The interesting thing is that in the early days, war was actually quite profitable. You conquered a place and stole all the gold, cattle, and other movable property, and enslaved the people. That was a lot of wealth you could bring home—and then you could milk the area for many years with taxes. But the wars helped destroy Rome’s social fabric by wiping out the country’s agrarian, and republican roots and by corrupting everyone with a constant influx of cheap slave labor and free imported food. War created longer, faraway borders that then needed to be defended. And in the end, hostile contact with “barbarians” actually wound up drawing them in as invaders.
Rome’s wars radically changed society, just as America’s have. It’s estimated that at times 80-90% of the population of the city of Rome was foreign-born. It sometimes seems that way in many U.S. cities. I always look at the bright side, however: after every foreign misadventure, the U.S. gets an influx of new restaurants with exotic cuisines.
The stream of new wealth to steal ended with the conquest of Dacia in 107. The advance in the east stopped with the Persians, a comparable military power. Across the Rhine and Danube, the Germans—living in swamps and forests with only tiny villages—were not worth conquering. To the south there was only the Sahara. At this point, there was nothing new to steal, but there were continuing costs of administration and border defense. It was inconvenient—and not perhaps just coincidental—that the barbarians started becoming really problematic just about when Christianity started becoming popular, in the 3rd century. Unlike today, in its early days, Christianity encouraged pacifism… not the best thing when you’re faced with barbarian invasions.
Remember, the army started out as a militia of citizen soldiers who provided their own arms. It eventually would accept anyone and morphed into a completely mercenary force staffed and led largely by foreigners. This is pretty much how the U.S. armed forces have evolved. For all the “Support Our Troops” propaganda, the U.S. armed forces are now more representative of the barrios, ghettos, and trailer parks than of the country as a whole. And they’re isolated from it, a class unto themselves, like the late Roman army.
Even though the Roman army was at its greatest size and cost in the Dominate period, it was increasingly a paper tiger. After its rout at the Battle of Adrianople in 378, the Western empire went into a death spiral. The U.S. armed forces may now be in an analogous posture, comparable to Soviet forces in the 1980s.
Although the U.S. has won many engagements and some “sport wars”, it hasn’t won a real war since 1945. The cost of its wars, however, has escalated hugely. My guess is that if it gets into another major war, it won’t win, even if the enemy’s body count is massive.
Recall Osama bin Laden’s plan to win by bankrupting the U.S. He was very astute. Most U.S. equipment is good only for fighting a replay of WW II—things like the $2 billion B-2 bomber, the $350 million F-22, and the $110 million V-22 Osprey are high-priced dinosaurs. The Army lost 5,000 helicopters in Vietnam. How many Blackhawks can the U.S. afford to lose in the next war at $25 million each? World War II cost the U.S. $288 billion, in 1940 dollars. The pointless adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan are guesstimated at $4 trillion, a roughly comparable amount in real terms.
In the future—unless it completely changes its foreign and military policies—the U.S. will likely be confronting scores of independent, nonstate actors, rather than other nation-states. We won’t really know who they are, but they’ll be very effective at attacking hugely expensive infrastructure at near-zero cost, by hacking computers. They won’t need a B-2 when a stolen Pakistani nuke can be delivered by freighter. They can take out a $5 million M-1 tank with an essentially zero-cost improvised incendiary device. While the U.S. bankrupts itself with defense contractors whose weapons have 20-year development times, enemies will use open-source warfare, entrepreneurially developing low-cost, unconventional weapons with off-the-shelf components.
This is actually analogous to what Rome confronted with invading nomads. Let me relate an anecdote offered by Priscus, a Roman ambassador to the court of Atilla in about 450 AD. While there he met a Greek who had joined the barbarians. This will give you a flavor of the story he tells Priscus. I’ve put some words in bold because they’re especially relevant to other aspects of our story.
After war the Scythians live in inactivity, enjoying what they have gained, harassed very little or not at all. The Romans, on the other hand, are very liable to perish in war, as they have to rest their hopes of safety on others, and are not allowed, on account of their tyrants, to use arms. And those who use them are injured by the cowardice of their generals, who cannot support the conduct of war. But the condition of the subjects in time of peace is far more grievous than the evils of war, for the exaction of the taxes is very severe, and unprincipled men inflict injuries on others, because the laws are practically not valid against all classes.
Wars destroyed Rome, just as they’ll destroy the U.S.
But what about the barbarian invasions that Gibbon perhaps correctly pointed out were the direct cause of Rome’s downfall? Do we have a present-day analog? The answer is at least a qualified “yes.” It’s true that the U.S. will bankrupt itself by fighting the ridiculous and chimerical “War on Terror,” maintaining hundreds of military bases and operations around the world and perhaps getting into a major war. But from a cultural point of view, it’s possible that the southern border will present an equally serious problem.
The U.S.-Mexican border is a classic borderland situation, no more stable and just as permeable as the Rhine-Danube dividing line was for the Romans. The problem now isn’t invading hordes, but a population that has no cultural allegiance to the idea of America. A surprising number of the Mexicans who cross over to the U.S. talk seriously about a Reconquista, in reference to the fact the Americans stole the land in question from people they presume to be their ancestors.
In many parts of the Southwest, the Mexicans form a majority and choose not to learn English—and they don’t need to, which is a new thing for immigrants to the U.S. Most are “illegal,” as you might say the Goths, the Vandals, and the Huns were in Rome’s final days. My guess is that in the near future, there will be a lot of young Hispanic males who actively resent paying half of what they make in income, Social Security, and Obamacare taxes in order to subsidize old white women in the Northeast. I wouldn’t be surprised to see parts of the Southwest turn into “no-go” zones for many government agencies over the next several decades.
Could the U.S. break up the way the Roman Empire did? Absolutely; the colors of the map on the wall aren’t part of the cosmic firmament. And it needn’t have anything to do with military conquest. Despite the presence of Walmarts, McDonald’s, and Chevrolet dealerships across a country whose roads are as impressive as the nearly 50,000 miles of highway laid down by the Romans, there’s evidence the country is disintegrating culturally. Although what is occurring in the Mexican borderland area is the most significant thing, there are growing cultural and political differences between the so-called “red” and “blue” states. Semi-serious secession movements are at work in northern Colorado, western Maryland, and western Kansas. This is a new phenomenon, at least since the War Between the States of 1861-65.
Now to gratify the Druids among you.
Soil exhaustion, deforestation, and pollution—which abetted plagues—were problems for Rome. As was lead poisoning, in that the metal was widely used for eating and drinking utensils and for cookware. None of these things could bring down the house, but neither did they improve the situation. They might be equated today with fast food, antibiotics in the food chain, and industrial pollutants. Is the U.S. agricultural base unstable because it relies on gigantic monocultures of bioengineered grains that in turn rely on heavy inputs of chemicals, pesticides, and mined fertilizers? It’s true that production per acre has gone up steeply because of these things, but that’s despite the general decrease in depth of topsoil, destruction of native worms and bacteria, and growing pesticide resistance of weeds.
Perhaps even more important, the aquifers needed for irrigation are being depleted. But these things have all been necessary to maintain the U.S. balance of trade, keep food prices down, and feed the expanding world population. It may turn out, however, to have been a bad trade-off.
I’m a technophile, but there are some reasons to believe we may have serious problems ahead. Global warming, incidentally, isn’t one of them. One of the reasons for the rise of Rome—and the contemporaneous Han in China—may be that the climate cyclically warmed considerably up to the 3rd century, then got much cooler. Which also correlates with the invasions by northern barbarians.
Economic issues were a major factor in the collapse of Rome, one that Gibbon hardly considered. It’s certainly a factor greatly underrated by historians generally, who usually have no understanding of economics at all. Inflation, taxation, and regulation made production increasingly difficult as the empire grew, just as in the U.S. Romans wanted to leave the country, much as many Americans do today.
I earlier gave you a quote from Priscus. Next is Salvian, circa 440:
But what else can these wretched people wish for, they who suffer the incessant and continuous destruction of public tax levies. To them there is always imminent a heavy and relentless proscription. They desert their homes, lest they be tortured in their very homes. They seek exile, lest they suffer torture. The enemy is more lenient to them than the tax collectors. This is proved by this very fact, that they flee to the enemy in order to avoid the full force of the heavy tax levy.
Therefore, in the districts taken over by the barbarians, there is one desire among all the Romans, that they should never again find it necessary to pass under Roman jurisdiction. In those regions, it is the one and general prayer of the Roman people that they be allowed to carry on the life they lead with the barbarians.
One of the most disturbing things about this statement is that it shows the tax collectors were most rapacious at a time when the Empire had almost ceased to exist. My belief is that economic factors were paramount in the decline of Rome, just as they are with the U.S. The state made production harder and more expensive, it limited economic mobility, and the state-engineered inflation made saving pointless.
This brings us to another obvious parallel: the currency. The similarities between the inflation in Rome versus the U.S. are striking and well-known. In the U.S., the currency was basically quite stable from the country’s founding until 1913, with the creation of the Federal Reserve. Since then, the currency has lost over 95% of its value, and the trend is accelerating. In the case of Rome, the denarius was stable until the Principate. Thereafter it lost value at an accelerating rate until reaching essentially zero by the middle of the 3rd century, coincidental with the Empire’s near collapse.
What’s actually more interesting is to compare the images on the coinage of Rome and the U.S. Until the victory of Julius Caesar in 46 BCE (a turning point in Rome’s history), the likeness of a politician never appeared on the coinage. All earlier coins were graced with a representation of an honored concept, a god, an athletic image, or the like. After Caesar, a coin’s obverse always showed the head of the emperor.
It’s been the same in the U.S. The first coin with the image of a president was the Lincoln penny in 1909, which replaced the Indian Head penny; the Jefferson nickel replaced the Buffalo nickel in 1938; the Roosevelt dime replaced the Mercury dime in 1946; the Washington quarter replaced the Liberty quarter in 1932; and the Franklin half-dollar replaced the Liberty half in 1948, which was in turn replaced by the Kennedy half in 1964. The deification of political figures is a disturbing trend the Romans would have recognized.
When Constantine installed Christianity as the state religion, conditions worsened for the economy, and not just because a class of priests now had to be supported by taxes. With its attitude of waiting for heaven and belief that this world is just a test, it encouraged Romans to hold material things in low regard and essentially despise money.
Today’s Christianity no longer does that, of course. But it’s being replaced by new secular religions that do.
Despite all our similarities with Rome, and even equipped with our understanding of why Rome collapsed, we can’t avoid Rome’s fate just by trying to avoid Rome’s mistakes. Yes, we have an analog of early Christianity chewing away at our civilization’s foundations. And yes, we have a virtual barbarian invasion to contend with. But there’s another factor, I think, that worked against the Romans and is working against us… one Gibbon didn’t consider.
We can’t evade the second law of thermodynamics, which holds that entropy conquers everything and that over time all systems degrade and wind down. And that the more complex a system becomes, the more energy it takes to maintain it. The larger and more complex, interconnected, and interdependent it becomes, the more prone it is to breakdown and catastrophic failure. That includes countries and civilizations.
The Romans reached their physical limits within the confines of their scientific, engineering, economic, and other areas of knowledge. And the moral values of their civilization, their founding philosophies, were washed away by a new religion. We may reach our technological limits. And our founding values are certainly being washed away.
Our scientific knowledge is still compounding rapidly—because more scientists and engineers are alive today than have lived in the previous history of mankind put together. That statement has been true for at least the last 200 years—and it’s been a gigantic advantage we’ve had over the Romans. But it may stop being true in the next few generations as the population levels off and then declines, as is happening in Japan, Europe, China, and most of the developed world. It’s compounded by the fact that U.S. universities aren’t graduating Ph.D.s in engineering, mathematics, and physics so much as in gender studies, sociology, English, and J.D.s in law. As it degrades, the U.S. will not only draw in fewer enterprising foreigners, it will export its more competent natives.
My solution to America’s decline and fall? The solution for declining civilizations is less command and control, less centralization, and less legal and regulatory complexity. And more entrepreneurship, free minds, and radically free markets. Unfortunately, although a few might agree with that, it’s not going to happen. Not even if most people agree.
Why? Because there are immense governmental institutions that exist, with many millions of employees—at least 20 million in the U.S. And many tens of millions more in their families and throughout the private sector that depend on them. And many tens of millions more rely directly on the state for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other direct payments. And millions more are associated with quasi-state institutions like NGOs, think tanks, law firms, lobbying groups, and the like. The parasitic mechanism of the state has become key to their survival. Even if many in their ranks see the dysfunction now planted in America, they’re hardly going to break their own well-filled rice bowls.
Every institution, like every living thing from an amoeba on up, has one thing in common: they all obey a prime directive—survive! They will try to do so at any cost to society at large. They intuitively know that, as a corollary, you either grow or die. So you’re not going to see any dysfunctional organization dissolve itself. It’ll keep trying to grow until it self-destructs or an outside force destroys it. Beyond a certain stage, any serious reform is impossible. In the case of the U.S., it’s now host to a completely inoperable cancer, as the government and its satellites grow faster than ever, while the productive economy contracts.
The second law of thermodynamics is a concept of physics, but it has applications in most areas of human action, including what’s been called “imperial overstretch”—the point where the resources gained from growing is less than the energy expended in the process. Rome ran up against imperial overstretch. So did Alexander, Napoleon, and Hitler. The Spanish, French, British, and Soviet empires all did as well. It’s a natural thing with all living organisms, to try to grow until they can’t grow any further until their energy expenditures exceed their inputs, and/or they’re too large and complex to be controllable, at which point they either rot from within or fall to external predators. It’s as though the Peter Principle applies to all of nature: everything rises to its level of incompetence, at which point it becomes vulnerable.
But does it really matter if the U.S. declines? It’s already morphed from America—which we all loved—into something else. And it’s morphing even more in the wrong direction, at an accelerating rate, as did Rome. The U.S. is declining in all the areas I’ve touched on. But it’s not unique; it’s following the course of all states and all things.
Rome was arrogant and thought it was unique, the center of the world, and eternal. Just like the U.S. Or China, for that matter.
Rome was corrupt; it departed from the values that made it great and so deserved to collapse. The U.S. is increasingly corrupt. That’s completely predictable, for exactly the reason Tacitus cited—a profusion of laws. In market-based systems, corruption is rare and occasional. But in large, complex, politically based systems, it’s not only commonplace, but it’s also salubrious because it allows workarounds. Corruption becomes like an oxygen tank to an emphysema victim—awkward but needed. Rulers, however, never attempt to cure the underlying disease by simplifying the complex systems they’ve built. Instead, they pass more laws, making the system ever more like a Rube Goldberg machine, with even more complexities and inefficiencies. That’s always counterproductive since compounded complexity makes the eventual collapse even worse. And harder to recover from. And more nearly inevitable.
So what’s your takeaway from all this, assuming you agree with my thinking? There are several possibilities to consider, based on what we know about Rome.
One is that you stay put as civilization declines around you and barbarians—of whatever kind—take over. That may be your only, or best, option—perhaps because of your age or financial circumstances or family obligations. If so, it nonetheless may be a mistake to stay in Detroit or Chicago, because there could be easy and much better alternatives. We have evidence that life in parts of the Roman Empire—parts of rural Portugal and Mauretania, for instance—actually improved even as things were collapsing in Italy, Britain, and Gaul, largely because the taxation and regulation infrastructures collapsed, but the roads, aqueducts, and cities stayed intact. So you might improve your own situation considerably just by moving down the road a bit.
A second possibility is that you consider what Priscus and Salvian said and get away from the storm’s epicenter by leaving the empire.
A third is more philosophical: you simply recognize that the rise and fall of societies have been going on since Day One. Don’t be too stressed by mega-events. Life isn’t just full of problems: it is problems. We’re looking at a giant crisis, but a crisis is a combination of both danger and opportunity. Look at the bright side while you try to dodge the negative effects. See it as an adventure, an education, and even free entertainment.
I hope seeing America reflected in the distant mirror of Ancient Rome helps to put things in perspective.