The Break-Up of Empires

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