One advantage of being an LRC writer is the educated and liberty-loving readership that will provide feedback on one’s musings. Indeed, Norwich on Byzantium has proven illuminating, even if (abridged) Norwich does not spend much time on the economy of Byzantium. Another suggestion to read Henri Pirenne was taken up tangentially, as it turns out that Jane Jacobs is Pirenne, digested. One seeks these sources in an effort to understand that period when the Catholic Church overcame an empire, when Islam rose to prominence, and when the modern city rose from the feudal society that surrounded it in the West. All three are addressed, without footnotes, by Catholic politician, travel writer, and historian, Hilaire Belloc.
Belloc credits the rise of Christianity to the widespread despair in the Roman empire, born of a slave-owning society that could conquer lands across thousands of miles and pile up untold riches but whose poets, applying Tennyson’s phrase, were gripped with "the doubtful doom of humankind." Belloc does not mention how the Christian communities, not possessed of this doom, grew organically through birth and conversion so that 300 years after their initiation they numbered a cohort almost as large as the pagan population; Christianity did not conquer the Roman Empire by the sword.
Of course that conquest faced a major challenge not 300 years after its full flush of success: the rise of Islam. His work on heresy finally revealed to one writer the mechanism by which Islam grew so quickly. Belloc considered Islam a heresy of Christian doctrine, removing certain elements like the divinity of Christ but retaining others like its universality. As incomplete Christian doctrine, it appealed to tribes outside of the Christian area who had not been proselytized by Christians, and its growth amongst those peoples he takes almost as a compliment to Christian doctrine.
Islam, however, did not merely convert non-Christians. It also sought widespread conquest of territories that were Christian for hundreds of years, including the African homeland of St. Augustine. Belloc lists four conditions that created the tinder that Islam was to set alight: there was widespread, heavy debt; taxes were very heavy; a large proportion of the people were slaves; and law and theology had become more complex than most people could follow. Adhering to new rulers could resolve the first three conditions, while the simplicity of Islamic law and theology addressed the fourth. Even so, Belloc notes that most people did not convert en masse to Islam, but preferred to remain Christian and pay a tax to their new conquerors. Their conquerors, he insists, were welcomed, as the tax they levied was lower than the burden of excessive taxation that had previously supported the distant emperor in Constantinople.
This explains the wealth of the Islamic state so shortly after conquest: it was not consumptive of existing wealth, but instead encouraged economic growth through the removal of excessive taxation from a population that had been long oppressed. Belloc later notes the tax that was required of Christians and Jews over the following centuries led to the eventual near-total abandonment of Christianity in its historic lands, and the erasure of all but a token few Greek- and Latin-derived names, like Tripoli.
Not far from Tripoli, Ibn Khaldun noticed the same process as the Islamic conquest occurring when he wrote in the 14th century:
"It should be known that at the beginning of a dynasty, taxation yields a large revenue from small assessments. At the end of the dynasty, taxation yields a small revenue from large assessments… Royal authority with its tyranny and sedentary culture that stimulates sophistication, make their appearance. The people of the dynasty then acquire qualities of character related to cleverness. Their customs and needs become more varied because of the prosperity and luxury in which they are immersed. As a result, the individual imposts and assessments upon the subjects, agricultural labourers, farmers, and all the other tax payers, increase. Eventually, the taxes will weigh heavily upon the subjects and overburden them. Heavy taxes become an obligation and tradition, because the increases took place gradually, and no one knows specifically who increased them or levied them."
Khaldun was concerned with the collapse of his own society as a result of injustice in taxation; Ronald Reagan famously quoted Khaldun’s observation on taxation in support of his own tax cuts. In this regard, Khaldun reflects writers like Gibbon, Tainter, and several LRC authors, who see in the collapse of Rome an allegory for the New Rome.
Belloc explained in the Servile State how having the state do more of daily activities would weaken the population. Indeed, we can see the effect obtain in the area of Social Security in the United States: because parents’ retirement income depends on the money extracted from everyone else’s children, not merely their own, there is a disincentive to have children or to invest wealth in them; Juurikkala covers this issue in greater detail. As a result, birthrates have dropped to near or below replacement levels in black, white and Asian American households.
Of course, not all groups are exhibiting low birth rates. The Amish, famously exempt from Social Security, demonstrate a rate north of 6 children per woman. Mormons also demonstrate higher birthrates, although that might drop with increasing wealth. Outside the US, Islamic birthrates remain high, but drop as literacy rates rise.
Meanwhile, the Federal Government arrogates to itself increasing wealth through taxation, borrowing and spending. All the debt piled up since the start of the current crisis will need to be paid through increased taxation on future generations, or the Rothbardian solution of repudiation. The great body of its taxpaying citizens will continue to suffer decrease as its wealth is diverted to DC. This reflects again the genius of Osama bin Laden, who understood both the history of Islam’s rise outlined above, and that the costs of the war on terror would bankrupt the US Government.
Conquest thus appears easy, without a shot being fired. With taxation high in the US to support the largest military budget in the world that Martin van Creveld demonstrated in 1990 to be obsolete, Islamic nations could draw off the most productive citizens simply by maintaining their opposition to income taxation, leading to economic and thence military collapse. Alternately, the decreased populations caused by oppressive states’ taxation can allow outside groups to simply walk in, unopposed, to practically homestead new territory in the best libertarian fashion. Through either route, when reflecting on the oppressions of the Federal State, recall that this, too, shall pass.