The Break-Up of Empires

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I
have just finished reading Jacques Barzun’s new book, From
Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life — 1500
to the Present
. The book may not be a tour de force, but
when an author is 93 years old, an 800-page book is surely a tour
de something.

The
book is a comprehensive and highly personal romp through the history
of the West from the late Renaissance to 1999. It is beautifully
written, which is to say that Barzun wrote it. And how many contemporary
books do you read where the author cites things he wrote in the
1930′s?

The
final chapter is the best in the book, “Demotic Life and Times.”
By “demotic,” he means “of the people.” In this chapter, he brings
seven decades of insights to bear on our era. Here is his major
conclusion:

The strongest tendency of the later 20C [20th century] was Separatism.
It affected all forms of earlier unity. . . . At the outset, separatism
might have seemed a mood that would pass. But if one surveyed
the Occident and the world as well, one could see that the great
political creation of the West, the nation-state, was stricken
(p. 774).

The
rise of immigration has now begun to de-nationalize the West,
he thinks. By the late 20th century, “Europe was experiencing
again the grand confusion of peoples that had occurred in the
Late Roman Empire and tapered off in the Middle Ages” (p. 775).

He
continues: “That the nation-state was ceasing to be the desirable
form of political society was clear in spite of the growing number
of fragments that assumed the name — close to 200 by the
end of the 20C” (p. 775). Then he goes to the heart of the matter:
the inability of the nation-state to suppress violence.

The
main merit of the nation-state was that over its large territory
violence had been reduced; nobles first and citizens later were
subjected to one law uniformly recognized and applied. In the
last years of the era of nations, violence returned; crime was
endemic in the West. Assault in the home, the office, and on city
streets was commonplace and particularly vicious. . . . A baffling
fact was that the public schools were also a regular setting for
violent acts. Armed guards patrolled the corridors to keep the
peace among the pupils; teachers were assaulted to the point where
the danger became an expected risk of the profession. In a large
state, some 50,000 incidents could occur in one year” (pp. 776-77).

The
welfare state is now bankrupting itself. “The point at which good
intentions exceeded the power to fulfill them marked for the culture
the onset of decadence” (p. 779).

Where’s
the Beef?

Having
read the book, I have been thinking about which unique benefits
I receive from my citizenship in the United States that I could
not receive solely as a citizen in the state of, for example,
Arkansas, if the United States ever broke apart. Here is my list
so far:

1.
A very large free trade zone

I
can’t think of anything else.

In
1787, the state legislatures of a dozen colonies — Rhode
Island, as usual, excepted — sent delegates to Philadelphia
to hash out the issue of inter-state tariffs. Delegates of several
colonies were specifically instructed by their state legislatures
not to replace the Articles of Confederation; they were merely
revise them. Upon arriving in Philadelphia, the delegates immediately
closed the doors to the public, swore a lifetime oath of silence
regarding the proceedings, which every one of them kept, and went
to work on replacing the Articles.

We
got our free trade zone.

Get
a copy of the U.S. Constitution. Read it. See what the Constitution
authorizes the federal government to do that neither the free
market nor the State of Arkansas can do just as well or better.
(If Arkansas starts getting horsey, I can always move 40 minutes
away to Oklahoma or Missouri, or 90 minutes to Kansas.)

I
get the Department of Defense. These days, who are the national
enemies who threaten us with invasion? They do not have large
armies, China excepted, but China is not threatening an invasion.
However, they all have price-competitive biological warfare. One
American city — two at the most — wiped out by low-tech
anthrax would call a halt to The Great Satan’s economy.

What
is the cost of developing such a home-brew biological weapon?
According to Dr. Arthur Robinson, a biochemist, he could do it
for the price of hiring three graduate assistants for two years
and about $500,000 in equipment (retail) or $50,000 (used). (Actually,
his sons being who they are, they could do it as a family project,
the way they did the Robinson
Home School Curriculum
.)

What
is the Department of Defense going to do to protect me from terrorist
action by the aptly named Red
People’s Liberation Jihad Army Hoopty-Squat Dirtbag Guevarist
Fifth-of-Some-Month Movement
(Fred Reed’s ID)? Before the
attack, not much. After the attack, even less. As Reed puts it:

We
know how to get even with a country. We don’t know how to get
even with six congenitally furious goat-herds from an unsuccessful
culture with too much sand.

So,
the best way for me to avoid terrorist action is to stay in Arkansas:
no worthwhile targets.

Economists
tell us that we make our decisions in terms of expected costs
and expected benefits. Barzun says that the costs of the nation-state
are visibly becoming higher than the benefits. There are always
costs of change, and these must be factored in. The costs of opting
out are high, as the South learned, 1861-65. But the benefits
look increasingly large.

Major
social changes are preceded by shifts in language. Economist Walter
Williams a few years ago observed that the word “secession” is
not laughed at any more. There is a lesson there somewhere.

September
9, 2000

Gary North is the author of a ten-volume series, An Economic
Commentary on the Bible. The latest volume is Sacrifice and
Dominion: An Economic Commentary on Acts. The series can be downloaded
free of charge at www.freebooks.com.

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