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