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David Weigel reads Are We Rome? and is surprised to learn that privatization will bring down the American empire.

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  • Fluffy||

    I've always thought that America bears very little resemblance to the imperial Rome of the 5th century, but A LOT of resemblance to Republican Rome before Sulla and Marius starting duking it out. More and more every day.

    We have two dominant elite groups that have realized that control of the courts is the key to control of the polity, and whose decades-long schemes to get control of the courts undermines the whole system; we have a vast system of allied states the citizenry of which has a huge stake in the outcome of our elections but no voice in those elections - and those allies are expected to bear a significant part of the costs of policies they can't politically impact; we have a portion of our political class devoting its time to finding ways to control policy in order to feather its own nest overseas, out in "the provinces", we have the beginnings of the creation of centers of armed force that are outside the traditional system and which are loyal to persons [or incorporated persons] and not to institutions; we have widespread cynicism about the traditional political culture; etc. etc. etc.

  • ||

    I see a lot of chicken little-ism about the Empire in Decline and all that. We should be perfectly happy that the empire declines along the axes it is likely to decline - military might and perhaps monopolar economic dominance.

    I don't see any serious threat to our set of institutions that would precipiate a 'fall', though. I just can't generate more than a shrug.

  • ||

    It's what I call The Roman Empire Game: take whatever you don't like about modern society (porn, Wal-Mart, football players break-dancing in the end zone after a touchdown), find some vague parallel in Gibbon's book, and conclude, "We're going the way of the Roman Empire."

    Speaking of the "perils" of privatization, I recently came across an article alleging serious abuses in the private prison system. Could the folks at Reason address this particular issue?

  • ||

    While I haven't read the book, I feel safe in assuming that the point about FEMA is that it is an organization that did in fact privitize many of its functions and then when put to the test generally they did not perform well.

  • thoreau||

    I don't see any serious threat to our set of institutions that would precipiate a 'fall', though.

    Well, the tradition of habeas corpus is close to ending. Admittedly that's not necessarily an "institution", but it has been something that our institutions have taken for granted for centuries, and that the institutions that they're based on took for granted for centuries before that.

  • ||

    Murphy went on the Colbert Report to be interviewed. At the end, Colbert asked him, "If America and Rome went to war, who would win?" and was absolutely flabbergasted when Murphy replied, without missing a beat,

    "Rome. They'd do whatever it took."

    I've never seen Stephen Colbert as (genuinely, not hamming it up in character) so taken aback. He didn't have a comeback, he didn't have an in-character shtick, nothing. He just said, "Wha-wha-huh?" for a moment, then got the cue from his director and did his roll-out to the commercials.

    So I gotta respect Murphy.

  • When in America, do...||

    Rome would not have had trouble in Iraq that they couldn't have handled.

    Rome didn't do away with slavery.

    Caligula would now be living in San Francisco.

    It seems to be a good read.

  • Seer||

    I read the book and I rather enjoyed it. I think that while I was a bit put off by the privatization spiel, it was made up for by his pointing out some of the other ugly similarities between Rome and America.

    It also forced me to remember that while privatization is preferable to government beureaucracy, that privatization is still a major form of market interference and that eliminating a government program is preferable to privatizing it.

    Whether privatization reduces civic virtue is another thing, but I'm inclined to think that the corporatism that privatization begets is rather un-American.

  • ||

    People tend to forget that Rome as a great power existed in at least four distinct phases prior to the fall of the west. I would agree with fluffy that if there is a comparison to be made, it is with the later Republic and its transition to the principate, and not with the late Empire (ie, we face a dangerous internal transformation - albeit one pushed by external factors - rather than an outright 'decline and fall'.)

  • ||

    Rome fell because it wrecked its economy with excessive regulation.

    First, they designed their tax code to go after the middle class, particularly the upper middle class while exempting the senatorial class. These taxes fell heaviest on the provinces.

    Secondly, they devalued the currency through currency debasement: the quantity of silver in a denarius went down massively over the course of the empire.

    Thirdly, as these policies caused unwanted economic shifts, they attempted via price controls and draconian laws to "freeze" the economy. By the end of the imperial period, families found themselves locked into hereditary professions or or plots of land. Yes, feudalism was put in place by the Romans in a desperate and ill-though response to an empire-wide Depression.

    If you look at the U.S. government, you can see many of the same mistakes being made. We had FDR who tried to "Freeze" the U.S. economy, which prolonged the Great Depression by a decade. Every generation the U.S. government seems to impose price controls on one thing or another. Our tax code is designed to preserve the wealth of the upper classes while looting the middle class, and the Federal Reserve does an absolute bang up job of currency debasement (admittedly our empire is funded indirectly rather than directly by currency debasement).

    The U.S. government does not make the mistakes to the same extent though. For one thing, economics is better understood now. The Romans had no Milton Friedman or Ludwig von Mises to provide sound economic advice. There was no tradition of free market economics that acted to limit the depredations of government officials.

    In the end though, we are marching down the same road. People focus too much on drunken orgies and hedonistic practices. That had little to do with the collapse of Rome. Rather it was a tradition of building an empire and looting the productive classes in favor of the political elite that did them in. It will also, thank God, some day do in the monster known as the United States government. The only question is how much we peons are going to be screwed before that blessed day arrives.

  • David Weigel||

    If I didn't make it clear in the article, the book actually is worth a read. Murphy's solutions might be off, but he's a giddy, enjoyable historian.

  • ||

    tarran:

    You couldn't be more wrong. Rome fell because of the lack of quality leaders and because they let the situation in the middle east get out of control.

  • ktc2||

    Rome wouldn't have a problem in Iraq. They would make damn sure the Iraqis feared Rome more than anything else.

    You know kill one Roman, 20 Iraqis executed each and every time.

    That kind of thing. We wont do that. Without that type of horrid brutality hostile empire/occupation is unsustainable.

  • ktc2||

    No, btw, I'm not recommending we adopt those tactics.

  • ||

    It also forced me to remember that while privatization is preferable to government beureaucracy

    Really? Why?

  • Grotius||

    The Romans, despite some rather significant efforts, never subjugated the Germans nor the Parthians.

  • ||

    My favorite comment on Roman tactics for occupation came from the Cartoon History of the Universe (which is great, BTW).

    Decimate: "How many languages even HAVE a word for 'kill every tenth person'!"

  • ||

    Tarran,
    You seem to be talking about this wrong-minded piece of legislation. It's exactly the kind of thing that the Late Roman Empire version of Reason would have railed about had it been around (or maybe there was one?)

  • ||

    Decimate: "How many languages even HAVE a word for 'kill every tenth person'!"

    Lets see...

    English, French, Italian, German, Spanish Portuguese...probably more

  • Grotius||

    Ramon Rozas III,

    That sort of rather random violence and killing was pretty common throughout the ancient world. Consider what the Athenians did to the people of Melos (for example).

  • Grotius||

    joshua corning,

    Personally I've always loved the Carthagenian penchant for bumping off unsuccessful commanders. The Klingons resemble them in that way.

  • ||

    Lets see...

    English, French, Italian, German, Spanish Portuguese...probably more


    Wow.

    You really got him there.

  • ||

    You really got him there.

    =P

    Shut up joe...you know you thought it was funny

  • Seer||

    It also forced me to remember that while privatization is preferable to government beureaucracy

    Really? Why?


    Efficiency, that's about it.

  • ||

    He lost me at "I doubt I'm the only person ..."

  • ||

    Shuttin' up, boss!

  • ||

    Maybe I'm just shortsighted. Or maybe I'm blinded by sheer patriotism (or nationalism or tribalism or something-ism). But I don't see the United States going the way of Rome.

    There are major qualitative differences between the US republic and the early Roman republic. Ditto for the way the international system was in Roman times versus today.

    Consider how dramatically the US has changed in its brief (compared to Rome) history. And yet, the structure and institutions of government largely remained intact. That indicates to me that the system in the US is flexible enough to respond to demands for change, without having to have a general sack Washington.

    Also there a great deal of international, trade, and institutions such as the UN. This increased interaction between countries spans the globe. So we're not likely to have any external military force try to annex parts of the territorial US. And no nomadic tribes are going to travel from parts unknown, set up camp just outside our borders, and start stirring up trouble. I see it as more likely that the US, as well as other countries, will gradually cede more authority to the UN or some such IGO.

    I'm sure its more complicated than that and history is not my thing. Thats just my interpretation though.

  • ||

    Lets see...

    English, French, Italian, German, Spanish Portuguese...probably more



    which all got it from Latin

    Although those tactics would result in increased insurgency and probably did in Roman times. More effective in those days was taking hostages. They were taken to Rome and apparently treated so well that they became more Roman than the Romans. Maybe they should have done that with all those "enemy combatants" they sent to Gitmo.

  • ||

    @Joe Corning - yeah, what he said!

    Grotius - your right that the Roman strategy was not new (even better than what happened at Melos is the Athenian justification of it, as recorded by Thucydides). I think, though, that the Romans mastered it in many ways. Treat those who surrender well, but annihilate those that continue to fight.

    Contrast and compare with the Mongols!

  • ||

    By George, Fluffy's got it; and Cullen Murphy doesn't really have a clue. We're pretty much
    in the Jugurthine War now; read your Sullust. However no one's volunteered for Marius; Mattis or Patreus maybe likely candidates. After that the Romans faced the Cimbri; Mithridates,(it was the latter conflict that triggered the Social War between Marius & Sulla, the Pathans,the pirates referenced by Harris, among others well you get the idea. Now the whole argument about tribes is weakened by the likes of Al Queda; barbarians inside the gates.

  • Edward||

    Rome didn't have the one thing that we do have: RON PAUL!

  • Akira MacKenzie||

    Yeah... yeah... economic ruin, immigrants who don't speakie English, moral decay, no respect for authority, dogs and cats living together...

    YAWN.... I've heard this "America is going the way of Rome" shit dozens of times before. Maybe back in my conservative-Republican-living-during-the- Clinton-administration phase (age 17-24) I lived in dread that these were the last days of USA. These days, I'm not loosing sleep over it.

  • Seer||

    People should try reading the actual book. Murphy never draws a total parallel between Rome and America. As he writes in his epilogue, America and Rome are different in thousands of specific ways, but we share some of their worse and more dangerous traits. He never tries to say that we are in the exact same position as Rome at whatever point in time.

  • robc||

    I've heard this "America is going the way of Rome" shit dozens of times before.

    It took the Roman Empire over 500 years to collapse. Im guessing you will get to hear it a few 100 more times, if you live long enough to see it happen.

    Even if its true, I figure we got a good 300 years left.

  • ||

    Okay, I'll be the pedant here. ALL of the Capitol is named for a Roman antecedant: the Capitol is named for the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill in Rome, also known as the Temple of Capitoline Jupiter. (Yeah, I know there's little difference. That's a big thing with Romans, though.) The Senate is one of the branches of the legislature. /pedantic rant.

    That said, anything that increases interest in Roman history is a good thing, and many props to everyone who mentioned Marius, Sulla, the Jugurthine War, etc.

  • LarryA||

    You couldn't be more wrong. Rome fell because of the lack of quality leaders and because they let the situation in the middle east get out of control.

    I doubt Rome ever lacked quality leaders. What it did lack during the late Imperial period, and we're seeing the beginnings of it in the U.S., were institutionalized methods for putting quality leaders in positions of power. As for the situation in the middle east, I believe that was a symptom, not a cause.

    "Yes, it takes some imagination to see how corrosive privatized government will prove to be many decades down the road," Murphy argues.

    It's a good argument. Taking "privatization" as the process whereby a government service is farmed out to a private company, you end up with the worst of both worlds. You still have government authority to force the school solution, all of the bureaucracy and regulation continue, and you have the additional cost of a private company trying to make a profit in a monopoly atmosphere.

    Of course if you mean "privatization" as the government getting out of a business and letting the market take over, that's a different ballgame.

    That sort of rather random violence and killing was pretty common throughout the ancient world. Consider what the Athenians did to the people of Melos (for example).

    Historically people who practice decimation (as in killing one out of ten) usually justify it as the "merciful" or "reasonable" alternative to genocide. See Troy. Or Hitler.

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