The normal course of empire

On the historical power of culture

Gibbon famously attributed the decline and fall of the Roman empire to the erosion of civic virtue among the citizenry. As the empire aged, Romans lost interest in making sacrifices for the sake of the state and opted instead to indulge in their own private passions, paving the way for their destruction at the hands of “barbarians”, many of which had previously defended the empire as mercenaries. I never much cared for this explanation of Rome’s fall, for a few reasons. It seemed a little mushy to me as an explanation for something so world historical, for one. I also didn’t care for the deployment of the theory by the modern moral crusaders who warned that America would follow Rome if it became willing to tolerate divorce, homosexuality, and the like (though Gibbon blamed Christianity for contributing to the decline of traditional Roman virtue).

Today, the civic virtue story hardly seems necessary. Roman decline was overdetermined. It was hastened along, as Kyle Harper writes in The Fate of Rome, by recurring pandemics and climate change. And it was a wonder, really, that Rome lasted as long as it did. As Walter Scheidel explains in Escape from Rome, Europe was for a variety of reasons an inhospitable place for continental empire, which is why empires comparable in size and power to Rome never appeared before its arrival or after its decline—a stark contrast with other world regions where empire was a recurring feature of history. Moreover, empires fall. That’s what they do, apart from the rare and fortunate few which survived long enough to mature into a modern nation state.

But just because empires generally fall, and just because the last centuries of the western empire piled stress upon stress on Roman society, doesn’t mean that we don’t need the civic virtue story or that it played no role in the fall. A thousand-year empire is going to have to survive some intense shocks over the course of its life, and Rome certainly did. Why did it weather those and not others? And maybe the fact that empires generally fall isn’t a reason to doubt that the erosion of virtue contributed to Rome’s decline, but rather a clue that “eroding civic virtue” is a more generalized weakness of long-lived empires which helps account for the fact that they fall, one way or another.

So let’s entertain the idea for a moment. For an empire, “falling” means the loss of the critical state capacities needed to maintain territorial integrity and provide basic public services. When those capacities fail, the empire either fractures into polities which are capable of maintaining a functional state or is carved up by external agents who either take over the job in exchange for tribute or just sack and plunder. The state capacities needed to prevent falling depend on two things: functional institutions (like armies, tax-collection systems, administrative bureaucracies, and similar) and a public which sees the work of these institutions as legitimate enough to justify their cooperation (perhaps reluctant and incomplete but sufficient to sustain the empire). 

These might seem like easy enough things to build and maintain, but they aren’t. Each is rife with collective action problems. As a taxpayer, for instance, it is clearly good for you if marauding foreign armies aren’t rampaging across your land, burning your fields and murdering your field hands. It’s good for you to have well maintained roads and ports, dense and prosperous urban markets, and trade routes unthreatened by bandits and pirates. It’s also good for you to keep your tax burden as low as possible. If one landowner manages through whatever scheme to pay almost nothing in tax, but most of the other folks with tax burdens pay an adequate amount, then the individual tax-dodger gets the benefit of the public goods provided by the state while paying almost nothing of the cost. If everyone tries to do the same thing, though, then the state can no longer provide valuable public goods and everyone ends up massively worse off. 

Or suppose you’re a bureaucrat. In that case, it’s clearly to your advantage to work for a large, powerful, effective state which commands lots of resources. Your work, in that case, is more impactful, more secure, and quite probably more lucrative. Of course, it would also be nice to be able to use one’s position of power to do a bit of personal enrichment on the side. One corrupt official in a generally well-functioning bureaucracy can have his kickbacks and still enjoy the benefits associated with working in a well-funded government job. But if everyone in the bureaucracy is corrupt then everyone loses: because others get their chunks of the bribe money too, because a less effective bureaucracy contributes to a less productive state which generates less money to be paid out over and under the table, and because in the worst case the state falls and there is no longer any cushy bureaucratic job.

Economics gives us ways to think about how to address these problems. Monitoring is one solution, but is in itself quite costly (and in a sufficiently corrupt system the monitors themselves become compromised). Structuring tax systems and bureaucracies so that the incentives of those on the business end of administrative measures are aligned with the emperor (or some imagined social planner keen on maximizing social welfare) is another. Economics doesn’t spend all that much time discussing the import of culture in these scenarios, but in practice that is how societies, in the past and today, manage many of these sorts of collective-action problems. Instead of relying solely on an expensive (and potentially compromizable) force of monitors who keep an eye on the public and/or those working for the state, a polity could cultivate certain cultural rules which serve to align everyone’s incentives. A sense of honor among soldiers might encourage those soldiers to fight harder, obey their commanders, and resist the temptation to defect to other forces which pose a threat to the state. A sense of civic duty might help motivate taxpayers to pay what they owe, or bureaucrats to do their jobs with integrity. Moral and ethical codes across society might discourage people from choosing to give in to self-interest when the interest of the individual and that of the collective are in conflict. 

How does culture accomplish this? As people we’re constantly watching and assessing each other, trying to work out what others are thinking and what they might do next. This constant surveillance helps us to form mutual behavioral expectations which facilitate social cooperation in various contexts. So for example: when you begin a new job at a new employer, you consciously and unconsciously observe your new colleagues and divine from their behavior lessons about which actions generate which reactions. Internalizing these lessons and adjusting your own actions in light of them is an important part of doing one’s job effectively within that new company. In other words, firms have particular cultures, and those cultures guide workers’ actions and become an essential part of the production of whatever it is the firm produces. 

If you spend enough time at that company and thrive within it, then your association with that company begins to become a defining part of your identity, and the particularities of the culture shape how you think about yourself, and how you narrate the story of your professional life and personal development. That’s a powerful thing. The connection with your identity means that you become personally invested in the culture and actively work to sustain it. You respond positively to actions that are consistent with that culture and negatively to actions which flout it. In so doing, you perpetuate it.

Though it need not, culture often includes behavioral rules which nudge a member of that culture to disregard self-interest on behalf of some larger principle. Maybe it attaches status to those who make particular sacrifices: by being openly self-critical or working long hours, for instance. Or maybe it imposes social costs on those who try to get ahead by flouting rules (by poaching a colleague’s client, perhaps). Whatever the specifics of the culture, its effect is to push its members to internalize a broader set of interests—to take into account the welfare of others and the collective and not simply oneself—and to turn every member of the culture into monitors and enforcers of its rules. Individuals do this willingly, because the culture’s rules have been fused into their own sense of identity. At some level, we all understand this. Any social group has unwritten rules which influence its members’ behavior and thus shape the group’s collective activity.  

What does that mean in the context of empire? Well, suppose you have an environment in which many states are competing against each other: perhaps militarily or perhaps not, but in some way pitted against each other in a struggle for scarce resources. Competition will be affected by all sorts of things: initial advantages, patterns of alliances, pure chance. But it will also depend on how effectively each state makes use of its own resources. A polity which is able to cultivate a high degree of collective sacrifice at low cost, which can rely on a cooperatively minded and highly motivated population, will enjoy significant advantages over its rivals. Competition between states will therefore tend to favor societies in which strong cultures encourage actions which advance the greater good. That won’t always be the critical factor. A society which discovers a powerful new technology could best its competitors however strong their internal cultures (but might struggle to translate victories into lasting dominance). But other things equal, culture will matter, and the largest states will tend to be those whose cultures most effectively harness a society’s collective potential.

Culture isn’t static, though. As the competitive pressure on a state changes, the cultural rules that helped support the empire’s growth are likely to evolve. An ethos of self-sacrifice or restraint in the name of the common good isn’t necessarily the most appealing, and as a population comes to feel ever more secure younger generations might dismiss traditional ways of doing things as staid and silly. Cultural entrepreneurs might mount sophisticated criticisms of established ways of doing things, and concoct alternative stories of national greatness which prioritize the pursuit of self-interest or the superiority of a mode of thinking which is deeply sceptical of the old cultural norms. It doesn’t matter if everyone in the empire is persuaded or not. If some people feel they have been given permission to do a bit more looking out for themselves and a bit less worrying about what’s expected of them as upstanding members of society, that may well be enough to start to work on the cultural equilibrium. Remember that what sustains a cultural norm is public respect for that norm: people doing what the norm says they should, and others responding to actions with the laudatory or critical reaction the norm demands. If a few people start dodging taxes, then dodging taxes seems less taboo. If enough people dodge taxes, then those still paying come to feel like suckers. The norm flips.

It’s not hard to see how flipping the norm could severely affect an empire’s fortunes. Take the tax example. The erosion of a do-your-duty rule raises the cost to collect taxes. There is no attractive response to this development. More spending on enforcement might reduce evasion, but the expense of the effort nonetheless means the state gets less than it used to. Higher rates might just annoy people and encourage more evasion. Reduced services have the same effect. Stagnant pay for soldiers and bureaucrats might lead to lower morale, worse performance and more corruption. State capacities erode, and over time the empire becomes ever more vulnerable to shocks.

Can’t people just see what’s happening, recognize the danger and respond? Some will. They might become prominent cultural critics, who campaign for a revival of a public-minded spirit. But their task is a nearly impossible one. The evolution of norms takes place slowly, often generationally, which means that it is difficult for people to see that the present is much different from the past. Anyway, there are always some stories of bad behavior from long ago, so how can anyone know that norms have changed on the whole and the effectiveness of the state with them? At any rate, many people will look skeptically on calls to abandon behavior that benefits them. Powerful people might work aggressively to discredit or persecute the critics. And even those who accept the critique may feel that there is little to be gained from changing how they behave, given that everyone else is doing something different. It would take some very extraordinary circumstances to flip the equilibrium back. And so the empire rises, and then the empire falls.

Perhaps this reads like a defense of cultural conservatism more broadly. It isn’t. Cultural evolution may in some cases doom a state, but in others it may be necessary to enable a society to adapt in the face of changes around them. It is to say, rather, that cultural change matters. Norms matter. People don’t simply behave according to their own self-interest: not by a long shot. And the rules according to which people behave have significant aggregate effects. So it is essential to think about what the prevailing norms are, what effects they tend to have, and how events or policy changes or shifts in elite behavior (even those which may seem utterly unrelated) influence patterns of respect for prevailing norms. Maybe a norm is an active impediment to progress, and those working for a better world need to think more about culture and less about technocratic policy tweaks. Or maybe a norm that seems like an unimportant relic is actually a critical piece of the machinery keeping the state functioning. Maybe it’s more complicated than that, and traducing one norm has unintended side effects on others. 

But not thinking about norms, or not taking them seriously as factors shaping both or day-to-day experience and events in the grand historical scheme of things? That does seem like the sort of thing which might expose a proud society—perhaps even a great empire—to the risk of tragic failure.