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Many moons ago, conservative thinker William F. Buckley Jr. wondered in an essay: “If you lived in a declining society, could you know it?”
Ancient people had an organic view of the rise and fall of civilizations, especially long-lived ones. A civilization had a birth, a development, and a death. At any moment, however, Death, in the form of natural disasters, invasions by foreigners, or internal factors, could wipe it out. The most analyzed disappearance of a civilization has of course been the Roman Empire. Since Edward Gibbon in the 18th century published The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, people have used the work in a comparative fashion, despite certain problems with Gibbon’s conclusions as to why Rome fell. (Part of the problem is his premise: he begins the work in the year 180 A.D. and concludes with the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Can anything take over 1,000 years to die away?)
America, age 234 (if you begin at 1776), is still fairly young from the viewpoint of History. So it might seem very premature to discuss any comparison with Rome’s final years. On the other hand, History provides no iron laws on a civilization’s longevity.
The Roman Empire was quite different from America. The purpose here, however, is to consider whether the similarities are disturbing enough to bring us sleepless nights. Taxation was ever-present, and ever-growing, with varying degrees of brutality. Illegal immigration in the North, mainly from Germanic tribes, was handled much like today. Officially banned, it was tolerated in the border areas, and barbarians eventually found their way into Roman life, and into the military. Foreign hostility from the Parthians in Persia caused constant problems in the East. Despite bans on its export, Roman military technology found its way into barbarian hands. And religious and ethnic controversies abounded.
Between c. 370 and 470 A.D. a series of disasters brought down the Western Empire. The barbarian invasions are the most famous cause, but accompanying them are assassinations and other political and economic failures. If you traveled throughout what was left of the Western Empire in the later 500’s, you would still see pockets of prosperity. You might even have found people who still believed that “Rome” was a factor in life, although in a quite different way from earlier days!
The latest histories using recent archeological discoveries on the last days of the Roman Empire have brought me some ideas for consideration. We have no “barbarian invasions” today in the same sense that the Romans suffered, but we have Leftist Barbarians – inside the gates – who want to destroy our society and reshape the rubble into a socialist utopia. Their effect may be similar to the Goths and Vandals. Their invasions caused a loss of territory and therefore of tax revenue needed for defense against…Germanic invaders! To make up for the loss, taxes were raised to new heights on those areas still prosperous. This caused a weakening of loyalty to the state, since barbarian chieftains might actually represent a respite from confiscatory taxation. Foreign policy became synonymous with “foreign aid” (i.e. bribes) to barbarian tribes, whose demands continuously increased of course. On top of this came the bribery of the urban lower classes, who expected a chronic entitlement of free “bread and circuses.” Coinage was debased (i.e. inflated) to offset the loss in taxes and to pay the bribes, with predictably disastrous results. The government in Constantinople tried several times to recapture the territory lost in the West, and at times recovered some of it, but at too great a cost to make anyone happy back East.
We have watched Leftist Barbarians creating ruins equivalent to a barbarian rampage. Today we watch Leftist taxation and welfare programs wrecking, or beginning to wreck, the American economy, even in locally prosperous areas. For every prosperous Silicon Valley, there is a San Joaquin Valley; for every Manhattan, a Buffalo; for every Miami, a New Orleans; for every Fargo, a Gary, Indiana. We watch American military technology being exported to potential and proven enemies. We watch our Leftist politicians sabotage our still loyal military. We watch our president pay off and even bow down to barbarous potentates. We watch our borders breached by illegal immigrants, and make short-term accommodations to sideline or even ignore the problem.
I have not mentioned one thing often asserted by Fundamentalist Christians as a reason for Rome’s collapse, and which they claim will bring down America and the West as well: widespread moral corruption. This may be as overstated as Gibbon’s claim that Christianity’s tendency toward pacifism helped to bring down Rome. Pacifism was not found among the victorious armies of Aetius in the 400’s. And while there was sordid corruption among some of the elite, the vast majority of people led decent lives like we do: the elite’s excesses in Martha’s Vineyard, Las Vegas, and Beverly Hills may distress us, but they are not representative of us.
Of course, the elites tend to be the rulers!
Germanic barbarians captured Rome in 410 A.D., an act which shocked everyone at the time, since Rome had survived up until then for 800 years without being taken by an enemy. A few years after this, a Gallo-Roman named Rutilius wrote a poem about a trip from Rome back home to Gaul (modern day France). In this poem he expresses great hope and energy about a Roman rebirth, that the disaster will awaken new spirit and allow Rome to become better than ever.
We know that his optimism was misplaced: Rome did not recover. Too much damage and too much internal incompetence overpowered the energy and best intentions of people like Rutilius and, later, Aetius, the general victorious over Attila. (Aetius was personally assassinated by the emperor, prompting a witness to write that he had just seen a man cut off his right hand with his left.)
And so what does this historical comparison mean for us? The Romans’ problems can be seen stretching back to the 2nd century and the reign of Marcus Aurelius (Gibbon’s starting point), meaning that 200 years were needed for the problems to infect society completely beyond the point of no return. That may seem to give us a good amount of time to prevent and solve today’s systemic problems. Keep in mind, however, that things moved much more slowly in ancient times. We can assume, therefore, that we do not have as much time as we would think or like. One can postulate a future historian showing how a declining 21st-century America’s problems go back to the abuses of Woodrow Wilson, the Income Tax Amendment, the abuses of Franklin Roosevelt, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, Nixon’s abuses, a population expecting ever more hand-outs, and now the bankrupting War On Business of Obama, a man cutting off his right hand with his left.
America, however, has some aspects lacking to the Romans: we have the example of the Romans to guide us through a self-examination of reform and renewal. We vote for our leaders. We have a growing population, not a shrinking one as in European socialist countries. And we have a loyal, competent military that is not mercenary or fickle. Somewhere in this military are 20-something and 30-something soldiers, experienced in the War On Terror, who will be deciding to enter leadership positions in government, and who will not (we assume and hope) be future Obama’s, but future Reagan’s or even Lincoln’s.
Historian Eugen Weber once opined that the saving grace for the survival and dominance of the Western Tradition consisted of curiosity and ambition. Given those qualities, let me return to William F. Buckley’s question and modify it: “If you lived in a declining society, could you know it, and then do something to reverse the decline?”
Our challenge is to answer this question as “Americanly” as possible!