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Monday, May 23, 2005


in praise of empires

economist deepak lal has written a book literally "in praise of empires", echoing it would seem many of the sentiments of historian niall ferguson. foreign affairs summarizes:

In a breathtaking, quick survey of ancient and modern empire, Lal argues that empire has served as a governance mechanism for disparate peoples who otherwise would have been trapped in the conflicts and inefficiencies of anarchy. Echoing Niall Ferguson's Colossus, Lal also contends that the United States, following in the footsteps of the British, is the last surviving empire; its global rule has been mostly informal and indirect, but it has been crucial in the creation of an open world economy. The book's most interesting argument regards the dangers facing the U.S. order: Washington advances the interests of itself and the global order by spreading material values but endangers this order by spreading Western moral values. In other words, empire put in the service of capitalist modernization is sustainable, but empire used to spread Western beliefs generates backlash.
the boldface is mine, but it is the essential reading point for current-day americans. lal discussed this a bit -- again on book tv -- and made the clear distinction between empires of civil order and empires of grand enterprise. his view is that the former -- for which he takes the roman, chinese and early british empires as example -- are sustainable in no small part because they are vehicles of prosperity for all involved. says lal: "The order provided by empires... has been essential for the working of the benign processes of globalisation, which promote prosperity."

this economic view of empire is a perfectly valid one. free trade indeed does carry massive benefits for its participants, and can be used to justify "benevolent dictatorship". lal mentioned in his talk that civil and economic freedom are far different and separable from political freedom -- a point not well taken in america, but historically much justified.

but lal was quick to criticize american imperialism on two counts. first, american empire has never accepted in his view what the british did -- the profitability of complete laissez faire within the sphere of its power. instead, america has worked hard to limit trade to terms it considers favorable and regulate it deeply -- recently going so far as to abandon the wto for a bilateral spaghetti bowl. this is to defer or deny precisely that aspect of empire which makes it most worthwhile to its participants, an argument many a third world country would certainly understand.

secondly -- and more philosophically -- lal pointed out that american empire has been ideological and is increasingly so. the militant cause of freedom and anarchy has been disastrously but correctly perceived around the world as the assault on law, tradition, culture and civilization it is, provoking all manner of blowback (political and military, from allies and enemies) against the united states. this devotion to revolution at home and abroad puts american empire into an extremely dangerous and undesirable league, with destructive 20th c empires of enterprise like russia and germany. it forces the defenders of civility in the rest of the world to ally against it in self-interest for fear of chaos and the end of identity. this is the paramount point, in my estimation: the united states entertains self-destruction in the promotion not of simple order but of freedom.

but there is more that lal apparently does not consider. morality is often the first victim of conflict, and the sustained global policing and periodic wars that are the necessity of imperial stewardship even on small scales are an extremely deleterious influence on the universal social solidity of ethics upon which law relies. the decline of rome is largely the story of internal rot, promoted by the rejection of the selfless roman moral ethic embodied in cincinnatus for a decadent, relativist, inwardly-directed hellenic worldview embodied by carneades. this selfish, inward worldview has also been the adoption of western civilization in postmodernity -- from nietzsche, proust, stravinsky and diaghilev -- and its great militant bulwark is now america.

lal, as an economist, does not consider the possibility that this flight from civility and history into idealism, escape and the self might be in part a consequence of empire and war. but that is nonetheless part of the entire picture.

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