The Collapse Is Not the End, But a Beginning

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It is passing
strange. Several months ago, it was not possible to obtain an obscure
academic text originally published in 1988 from the New
York Public Library
without a wait of several weeks. That the
citizens of the city that in the late 1990s called itself the "capital
of the world
" should in late 2007 be so interested in Joseph
Tainter's The
Collapse Of Complex Societies
that a borrower couldn't even
extend the loan on a book by a week indicated that there was an
undercurrent of understanding: civilization, in its broad sense
and the narrower one of living in cities, was imperiled and hanging
in the balance.

Tainter sought
to analyze the process of societal collapse years before Jared Diamond
arrived at the territory, and wanted to do so in an anthropological
sense. So he sought a common element in the collapse of three advanced
civilizations, with a large urban population supported by an agricultural
hinterland (the same sort of urban model that Jane Jacobs earlier
used in Cities
and the Wealth of Nations
). The common key, he decided,
was excess centralization, and he examined it in each of the societies.

Most LRC readers
will not be familiar with his two North American examples, including
the
Chacoan people
near the four corners region in the US' Southwest.
Tainter's first example, however, is the most familiar example,
decried by Gibbon and those who still believe in the
myth of the Renaissance
: the collapse of the Roman Empire in
the West.

Before examining
the long period of collapse, Tainter first spells out his thesis:
that a society will centralize and urbanize to the extent that the
marginal profits from centralization outweigh the marginal costs.
He does not cover in detail the Roman conquests in the East, but
these regions were certainly profitable for the Romans to conquer,
as seen at the very least by their economic viability in supporting
the Byzantine Empire for 1000 years after Rome fell.

Tainter does
talk somewhat about the wealth of Egypt, but the main part of his
tale begins with Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul. While you
might expect that the Celtic region was not wealthy enough
to
pay for the troops required to conquer it, Tainter lists the quantity
of gold that Caesar "earned" from his conquest, and shows
that it exceeded the costs of the legions, even outside the calculus
of the modern state where political gains at the expense of the
people still remain justified in the minds of the "public servants."

In addition
to conquering Gaul, Caesar also built
a bridge across the Rhine into Germany
, where he marched his
troops around the countryside in a show of strength, to prevent
German raids into Gaul. He did not, however, attempt conquest. An
obvious reason could be the warlike and impecunious nature of the
German tribes at the time. Tainter does discuss the conquest of
Britain by Claudius, and how that conquest did not pay for its immediate
cost in gold and tribute (although Claudius did do better than Nero,
who famously went to war against Neptune, and returned with tribute
from the god in the form of seashells that he poured out for the
Senate). Rome did turn a profit from sacking Jerusalem around 70AD
and stripping the second temple of its gold, riches, and religious
objects, an event celebrated on the
arch of Titus
(Roman Jews preferred not to walk under the arch,
with the exception of the founding of the state of Israel, when
a
Jewish delegation walked through the arch in the opposite direction

from the original Roman triumphal march). Later Roman conquests
were not profit-making opportunities, and the conquest
of the Parthians
by Trajan was the last major expansion of the
empire, and one of the first provinces to be freed from Rome's control.

Britain and
Gaul were not highly industrialized, and so not a continuing source
of tribute in an amount sufficient to pay for the troops required
to be stationed in them after conquest. Indeed, Rome soon began
to invest in infrastructure to build Roman cities in the conquered
provinces. The most spectacular example extant is probably the Pont
du Gard
, part of an aqueduct that brought water to the Roman
colony of Nemausus (modern Nimes), whose construction costs could
certainly not have been borne by local taxation. It was so well
constructed, however, that modern automobile traffic can still drive
across it, and it is possible to walk through the aqueduct atop
it. (Amusingly, a walk across the aqueduct at the top of the bridge
brings one face-to-face with a sign written only in English that
reads "Please do not push on the stones"; remember that
the next time you complain about the French not liking Americans.)

And here Tainter's
analysis applies. Roman military officers, and the Senate that backed
them, can perhaps best be faulted for having a "high
time preference
," Austrian-school-speak for a short-term
mentality. The short-term profits from conquests would not cover
the long-term costs of occupation and "nation-building."
Once Rome ran out of sufficiently wealthy neighbors where conquest
would pay for itself, the long-term costs of garrisoning troops
in regions that were tax consumers began to weigh on the empire.
The wealthy East did eventually break away and continue, as it was
able to fund a large, centralized bureaucracy from the economic
proceeds of the region. In the West, population declined in the
countryside as farms were abandoned and become unprofitable due
to onerous taxation, this population decline coming before the collapse.
When the empire was no longer able to control its borders due to
lack of funding for troops (and diminished population of citizens),
it hired German mercenaries paid with land. Eventually, with nothing
gained from central control and no order supplied therefrom, the
Romans suffered a "crisis
of legitimacy of the state
," and the last emperor was retired
by Gothic tribes.

That New Yorkers
knew enough to seek out this thesis indicates that they understand
the many historical parallels. Indeed, Washington, the Imperial
Capital, has continued to centralize control of the USA since the
War for Southern Secession from 1861 to 1865, and has turned a profit
from it. High tariffs after that war allowed the state to enrich
itself and its cronies, with no threat of free-trading ports in
an independent South. The income tax and Federal Reserve Act of
1913 allowed the Federal Government to extend its dominion over
the states and their citizens' wallets, able to extract tribute
from them invisibly by stealing the value of the paper dollars in
their pockets. World-War-Two-era investments in atomic weapons and
the military destruction and exhaustion of all other major powers
allowed the US government to extend tribute to the rest of the world
through a unique institution: the fiat paper dollar, ex nihilo,
sent overseas for goods, and backed by a threat of nuclear immolation
by the only state to use those weapons.

With this tribute,
the centralized state garrisoned
troops all across the globe
and built great works in areas where
no "profit" could be turned. In place of the great aqueducts
of France, the new state built dams and the Tennessee Valley Authority.
The American Pont du Gard can be found spanning the New
River Gorge
in West Virginia, a spectacular feat of engineering
that no local population could have paid for. The empire continued
to drain its tax producers in the East to support its tax consuming
states, with New
York suffering the largest deficit
between Federal taxes and
"benefits." As in Rome, the
rural agricultural provinces depopulated
as the cities swelled.

No city has
suffered more from this process than New York City itself, as its
wealth has been drained off to feed the ambitions of political masters.
But the New Rome might have reached the limits of its centralization
bonanza, as the recent bailout bill rejection indicates that the
people are no longer willing to be denuded through inflation to
support imperial projects; this happens while the Chinese and other
overseas investors practically forced the nationalization of Fannie
Mae and Freddie Mac in exchange for not ending the game of forced
tribute through paper dollars. If the margin has been crossed on
the profitability of centralized control, collapse of the central
state might be onrushing.

Here Tainter
offers a last ray of hope. The standard of living of citizens in
the new Gothic kingdoms actually ROSE after the collapse, as the
burdens of supporting the central state disappeared and the citizens'
taxes went to support local rulers who did provide some protection
in return for their exactions. Indeed, it was only after Justinian's
wars to reconquer Italy that widespread capital destruction caused
a significant economic decline, a decline not to be reversed for
over 1000 years.

Endeavors like
the Free State Project
(and measures like the Massachusetts income tax repeal, very
close to passage
and needing
some funding
to counteract state-loving media) now take on a
new urgency. A libertarian alternative to the centralized state
will offer beleaguered citizens a route to escaping the burdens
of unprofitable empire, and hasten its collapse, which need not
be the end of civilization and cities, but its and their rebirth.

October
3, 2008

Thomas M.
Schmidt [send him mail],
a native of Brooklyn, looks forward to the day when Gotham, freed
of imperial burdens and enemies, can rise to heights exceeding its
former summits.

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