Just How Rotten Was the British Empire?

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Across ye olde ponde, the ever-entertainin' Johann Hari is mixing it up with a couple of British historians who he says are apologists for the good old days when the sun never sat and all that. Contrary to the relatively sunny assessments of Niall Ferguson and Lawrence James, Hari (a Scot born to a welfare worker and a cook, as he notes in his bio) is having none of it, guvner:

We are still a nation locked in denial. If you point out basic facts about the British Empire–that the British deliberately adopted policies that caused as many as 29 million Indians to starve to death in the late nineteenth century, say–you smack into a wall of incomprehension and rage. The historian Niall Ferguson called me "Hari the horrible" for writing about this in my column last week. Another neo-imperialist historian, Lawrence James, accuses me in the Sunday Times of being a "twerp" who writes "twaddle". The Daily Mail says I should "check your facts"….

Lawrence James brags, "Unlike Stalin's Russia, the British empire was always an open society." If you implicitly think of only whites as people, then he is of course correct. People coloured like him or me could condemn anything they liked. But how "open" did the British Empire seem to a Mau Mau rebel being doused in paraffin and burned alive for trying to reclaim land stolen by the British? How "open" was it to an Irishman being tortured by the Black and Tans for advocating a free Ireland? How "open" was it to Indians who were jailed for trying to organise relief efforts in the middle of a famine? No wonder James jeers at "the carping of African and Asian historians focused on [the Empire's] imperfections". Odd, isn't it, how the natives seem so ungrateful?

More lapidary prose and withering personal-ish attacks in the service of historical accuracy here.

A while back, I talked with the economic historian David Levy about another ugly mark on the empire's history, the case of Jamaica Gov. John Eyre, who beat hundreds of blacks to death and received the support of "progressives" such as Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle, and John Ruskin. That's online here.

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  1. “Historical accuracy”? Nick, this is simply the mirror image of what the neo-imperialists do.

    The “British empire” is the simplistic phrase we apply to a phenomenon that spanned much of the planet and lasted for almost five centuries. Enthusiasts comb through that vast record and pick out what strikes us today as good and righteous. Villifiers comb through the same record and collect all that’s outrageous and evil.

    Neither approach produces anything like an accurate picture of history “wie es eigentlich gewessen” (with apologies to all Germans for mangling the language). What they produce is propaganda in the service of contemporary politics and ideology.

    A pox on both their houses.

  2. Sadly lots of folks don’t like to think about the darker chapters in their country’s history. Americans are certainly in that camp too. Trail of Tears anyone?

  3. So when a big country invades a smaller country for the purpose of exploiting the smaller country’s natural resources and subjugating its people, you’re saying that there’s a downside, from the subjugated people’s point of view? What a shocking and controversial proposition. My eyes grow wide with astonishment.

  4. It’s a wonder governments allow kids to be taught history.
    What they’re taught is either a lie, or not fit for consumption by minors.

  5. FWIW, I once asked my dad who was the best ruler of Egypt out of Mubarak, Nasser or Sadat. My dad, without missing a beat responded, “The British.”

  6. The study of history yields the truth that mankind can both evolve and devolve.

    It’s an all-too-common mistake to judge the actions of men centuries-dead by today’s standards of morality.

    I hear the Romans and Greeks were pretty ruthless too.
    And don’t even get me started on the Sumerians.

  7. Jen,
    England is littler than all the countries it conquered. I guess it is kind of impressive that a country that little could dominate all those countries so much larger than it.

    Now we should conquer England and make them drive on the right fucking side of the street.

  8. The hard truth is that invaders are sometimes preferable to the native rulers from before and even more often preferable to the native rulers that come after. The sad state of Burma is perhaps the best example of this – many a Burmese, who can remember, mist over at British rule in comparison to their own leaders who assumed rule after the whinging poms left.

  9. The hard truth is that invaders are sometimes preferable to the native rulers from before and even more often preferable to the native rulers that come after. The sad state of Burma is perhaps the best example of this – many a Burmese, who can remember, mist over at British rule in comparison to their own leaders who assumed rule after the whinging poms left.

    For that matter, even Ian Fucking Smith was a better, more benevolent ruler of the black inhabitants of what is now Zimbabwe than Robert Mugabe is. (I don’t know enough to compare him with the black rulers who governed before the British colonists arrived.)

  10. Sadly lots of folks don’t like to think about the darker chapters in their country’s history.

    Sadly, even more folks don’t like to think about the darker chapters in their country’s present, too.

  11. “Unlike Stalin’s Russia, the British empire was always an open society.”

    Right. 🙂

    Tell that to the poor sods protesting slavery in the colonies who were beaten, jailed, etc. by Pitt the Younger’s administration.

    And don’t even get me started on Peterloo. Or why women had to throw themselves under horses in order to get the message of universal suffrage heard.

  12. The hard truth is that invaders are sometimes preferable to the native rulers from before and even more often preferable to the native rulers that come after. The sad state of Burma is perhaps the best example of this – many a Burmese, who can remember, mist over at British rule in comparison to their own leaders who assumed rule after the whinging poms left.

  13. “But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

  14. The hard truth is that invaders are sometimes preferable to the native rulers from before and even more often preferable to the native rulers that come after. The sad state of Burma is perhaps the best example of this – many a Burmese, who can remember, mist over at British rule in comparison to their own leaders who assumed rule after the whinging poms left.
    Loss of liberty by invaders or by local tyrants looks equally bad to me

  15. Johann Hari is a fat bedwetter. He’s a miserable scottish turd-burglar and he can officially kiss my hairy swingers.

    The simple fact is, the Empire dominated. Occasionally, and regrettably, we had to give the natives a clip round the old ear ‘ole but it was nothing that they didn’t deserve.

    And what is all this talk about the British Empire? Poppycock. ‘Twas the English Empire. Toothless Irish simpletons had nothing to do with civilizing India. Marauding Scottish cretins with ginger nasal hair didn’t learn to cox the secrets of the perfect gin and tonic from Bombay. And the Welsh? Good lord, they’re more backward than the Canadians!

    Mark my words, the Empire will return! It will RETURN!!!

  16. Remember folks, we entered World War I to “make the world safe for democracy” by defending the British/French Empires (subjuect populations: billions around the globe) from the “evil” Kaiser and his German Empire (subject populations: thousands, mostly in Eastern Europe).

    Yes I’m still bitter after all these years – and considering how Iraq is today, fairly relevant.

  17. Hell upon earth it is. Read the revelations that’s going on in the papers about flogging on the training ships at Portsmouth. A fellow writes that calls himself Disgusted One: The crew of tars and officers and rear admirals drawn up in cocked hats and the parson with his protestant bible to witness punishment and a young lad brought out, howling for his ma, and they tie him down on the buttend of a gun. A rump and dozen was what that old ruffian sir John Beresford called it but the modern God’s Englishman calls it caning on the breech. That’s your glorious British navy that bosses the earth. The fellows that never will be slaves, with the only hereditary chamber on the face of God’s earth and their land in the hands of a dozen gamehogs and cottonball barons. That’s the great empire they boast about of drudges and whipped serfs.

  18. preach on Mark,

    How ever did a tiny, tiny country of bucktoothed people with misshapen heads dominate so much?

    I don’t think y’ll could do it again though. I mean not judging the performance of your forces as of lately.

  19. You guys are cracking me up (an archaic phrase to be sure, but I’m laughing) this morning.

    Putting aside any legitimate disagreement over historical accuracy, what is most bothersome is that the fingers always point the same direction.

    For example, the modern Hawaiian independence movement has reams of arguments as to why statehood is a fraud and the locals were hoodwinked by the capitalist sugar barons and the state department in a questionable ouster of the monarchy.

    They long for the glory days of an independent kingdom that was, in fact, created by Kemehameha by invasion and massive bloodshed to an extent far worse than anything perpetrated by the US.

    He gets a pass, actually he is celebrated for unifying the islands, and when people talk about independence for the islands they don’t mean giving Maui back to it’s people.

    Sheesh, that last wave nearly soaked the laptop. I’ve gotta move up the beach.

  20. kwais,

    They were good at exercising violence. As an island they were also protected from continental European powers.

  21. I have no doubt that some countries invaded by the British may have been better off than under their own leaders. But if you’re going to argue then that it’s okay for one soverign nation to invade another For Its Own Good, can’t you use that same argument in favor of things like anti-smoking and anti-drug and mandatory-seat-belt laws? They’re all for your own good. And a person who doesn’t smoke really is better off than one who does.

  22. …what is most bothersome is that the fingers always point the same direction.

    I don’t think so.

    Taking issue with claims like this (see below) doesn’t imply anything like that:

    “Unlike Stalin’s Russia, the British empire was always an open society.”

  23. The “open society” bit interests me, because it implicitly sets up this false dichotomy, like a society either is open or it isn’t, nothing in between. And that’s just never the case, because every society is “open” or not to some degree. The rhetorical trick a lot of people use is judging one side by its worst elements (the British and the Black & Tans) and the other side by its best elements (Indians trying to organize relief elements). Did the British Empire have a lot of unpleasant and hypocritical features? You bet. But ask yourself whether you think your lot would have been better as a typical subject of either the British Empire or Raj India or a hypothetical non-Raj India, or as the lowest of the low in any of those societies. The British, for all their faults, were semi-democratic; India, AFAIK, was not showing any signs of doing anything other than remaining repressively medieval. None of this excuses any of Britain’s wrongdoings, but it’s half-sighted to slam Britain for its wrongs and pretend that everyone else was just an innocent victim.

  24. None of this excuses any of Britain’s wrongdoings, but it’s half-sighted to slam Britain for its wrongs and pretend that everyone else was just an innocent victim.

    This is true, and if I were a widow in 19th-century India I’d be damned glad the British government was suppressing suttee. But at the same time I’m wary of justifying evil by pointing to the good that happened to come from it.

    Wasn’t there a thread here some time ago about a guy pointing to the fact that the black descendants of American slaves are better off than most black Africans, and therefore slavery wasn’t entirely a bad thing?

  25. For all the good the British did in the Indian subcontinent, they left behind a horrible legacy that has not been erased to this day – Indians actually believe cricket is a real sport! The horror.

  26. JD,

    …India, AFAIK, was not showing any signs of doing anything other than remaining repressively medieval.

    You are committing the same “sin” you accuse others of re: the British Empire. “India” was a fairly complex patch-work of societies at the time, some more and some less “enlightened.”

  27. I think people like to be reductionist when it comes to the issue of imperialism, and that’s why you end up with warring ideological camps over the issue.

    The first question I would ask is a Bastiat-like question:

    What future paths were lost by European empire-building in “India” and other locales?

  28. Also Hari says If you implicitly think of only whites as people, then he is of course correct. People coloured like him or me could condemn anything they liked. But how “open” did the British Empire seem to a Mau Mau rebel being doused in paraffin and burned alive for trying to reclaim land stolen by the British? How “open” was it to an Irishman being tortured by the Black and Tans for advocating a free Ireland?
    Am I missing something or is Hari saying Irishmen aren’t white?

  29. PL, that’s not exactly what I meant. I mean that in the 21st Century, pointing fingers at bad behavior and subjugation (imperialism) is reserved almost exclusively for Western societies. I was hoping to get that idea across with my Hawaiian Independence example. Maybe you still disagree.

    black descendants of American slaves are better off than most black Africans, and therefore slavery wasn’t entirely a bad thing

    Jennifer, I believe it may have been Edith Effron who once said something to that effect. I think she ended that comment with something like if my ancestors had not come to America as slaves I’d be picking bugs out of my hair with a life expectancy of 45. That’s a paraphrase and I don’t think she was excusing slavery.

  30. But if you’re going to argue then that it’s okay for one soverign nation to invade another For Its Own Good, can’t you use that same argument in favor of things like anti-smoking and anti-drug and mandatory-seat-belt laws? They’re all for your own good.

    I don’t think that analogy works. An individual has a natural right over his or her own person. The rulers of a country, by contrast, do not necessarily have a natural right to whatever power they happen to have over their subjects. This does not necessarily mean that imperialism is generally justified, but I would be hesitant to say that a country’s obligation to respect another country’s sovergnty is the same kind of thing as an individuals obligation to respect another individual’s sovergnty. I can think of at least some hypothetical examples in which denial of a country’s autonomy by outsiders would be justified and desirable.

    And a person who doesn’t smoke really is better off than one who does.

    Healthwise yes. But the non smoker might also enjoy him/herself less. It is not clear that smoking makes someone objectively worse off overall in all cases. (I touched on the difficulty of evaluating seemingly subjective benefits in one of the helmet threads)

  31. I’m wary of justifying evil by pointing to the good that happened to come from it.

    but, ms jennifer! it’s so much easier to justify indulging the darker whims of the nature of power if one simply claims to pursue virtue! how would we put dissent to the sword and still pretend to be bound for paradise if we didn’t accept that as first principle?

    lol — it seems to me that the justification of murder has almost always been something virtuous and almost always been completely wrong.

  32. is Hari saying Irishmen aren’t white?

    Where are our missing twenty millions of Irish should be here today instead of four, our lost tribes? And our potteries and textiles, the finest in the whole world! And our wool that was sold in Rome in the time of Juvenal and our flax and our damask from the looms of Antrim and our Limerick lace, our tanneries and our white flint glass down there by Ballybough and our Huguenot poplin that we have since Jacquard de Lyon and our woven silk and our Foxford tweeds and ivory raised point from the Carmelite convent in New Ross, nothing like it in the whole wide world! Where are the Greek merchants that came through the pillars of Hercules, the Gibraltar now grabbed by the foe of mankind, with gold and Tyrian purple to sell in Wexford at the fair of Carmen? Read Tacitus and Ptolemy, even Giraldus Cambrensis. Wine, peltries, Connemara marble, silver from Tipperary, second to none, our far-famed horses even today, the Irish hobbies, with king Philip of Spain offering to pay customs duties for the right to fish in our waters. What do the yellowjohns of Anglia owe us for our ruined trade and our ruined hearths? And the beds of the Barrow and Shannon they won’t deepen with millions of acres of marsh and bog to make us all die of consumption.

  33. I don’t think that analogy works. An individual has a natural right over his or her own person. The rulers of a country, by contrast, do not necessarily have a natural right to whatever power they happen to have over their subjects

    It was ordinary Indians, not just the ruling class, who suffered under the British. I read something about it being illegal for Indians living by the sea to get their salt there; no, they had to buy salt from the British and pay their proper taxes. The Brits did plenty of oppression against individual Indians; it wasn’t a metter of kicking out the rulers and everybody else was better off.

  34. Am I missing something or is Hari saying Irishmen aren’t white? – vanya

    na Sasanaigh used (?) to think so.

    Have you never seen those 19th century cartoon depictions of the Irishman as ape that ran in magazines such as Punch?

    That British kinglet who invited those Saxon mercenaries over from the mainland has a lot to answer for. Conquering your neighbors, and, when you run out of them, strange folk the world over, has been an English custom since before there were “Englishmen.”

    Kevin

  35. Jennifer

    You are probably right about your specific example. My point was not that the British always, or even usually, made things better or more just in their colonies. I was just pointing out an important difference between individual rights and nations’ rights which your post glossed over.

  36. “What future paths were lost by European empire-building in “India” and other locales?”

    I went to South America a few years ago; what I saw, looking at cathedrals in Quito, and Lima, and Cuzco, was a gargantuan theft of capital (intellectual capital, as well as more tangible forms). Talk about wasteful, misdirected energy.

    Where would South America be without the Spanish and Portugese? Who knows? Where would Argentina (a legitimate candidate for First World status in the Thirties) be without Juan Peron?

  37. I’m wary of justifying evil by pointing to the good that happened to come from it.

    there’s nothing moral in seeking temporal power on any scale, ms jennifer. there’s no exception clause for purposes of governance in the beatitudes. if you seek power, the ends to some extent or another justify the means and morality by necessity goes out the window.

    western civility in its long decline from a moral law has been tortured in seeking the resolution of the paradox of temporal power and christian morality. but there isn’t one — machiavelli wrote ‘the prince’ in an age in which the roman church had abandoned its spiritual charge for an earthly one because the old moral authority was so clearly perverse and irreconcilable with itself and a new morality was needed. being a good humanist, he revived the ancient imperial ethic. (had he been a good schoolman instead, he’d have posted 95 theses.)

    but machiavelli rightly never professed to be able to reconcile ancient civitas with the western conception of morality. yet is has become our political operating system — and we, without understanding the nature of the conflict, seek to force moral terms onto decidedly amoral acts.

    why? accept the two as the independent constructs of ethics that they are; that the state is run in accordance to the machiavellian system, being without a moral law of any kind; and that every thing the nietzschean secular state does or ever will do is necessarily evil in the christian sense. america is evil, just as britain was evil, just as the barberini popes were evil. temporal politics has never been anything else, in christian terms.

  38. Can somone name a country or empire that didn’t oppress or invade anyone? Just so we can compare what they did right to what the British empire did wrong.

  39. Can somone name a country or empire that didn’t oppress or invade anyone?

    The natural state of man appears to be small kin-groups of 40-50 individuals, maybe fewer. Creating any group larger than that- tribe, country, nation, empire – that enforces rules and exerts authority over its members requires some degree of oppression of individuals.

  40. No British in India = non-English Speaking Population = No Tech-Boom in Bangalore

    On the flip side:

    No British in India = No Pakistan = No AQ Khan

    Obvious Statement of the Day: The British Empire had both a positive and negative impact on its colonies.

    Join me for next week’s installment of Obvious Statement of the Day: Marriage – Sometimes It Works, Sometimes It Doesn’t.

  41. Just How Rotten Was the British Empire?

    British TEETH rotten.

  42. gaius,
    Long time no see. Welcome back! How’s the fam?

  43. “What future paths were lost by European empire-building in “India” and other locales?”

    Hard to say. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Deobandi movement were both reactions to colonialism. No al-Banna, Qutb, or Maududi might have produced a different outlook in some strains of Islam today.

    You could argue that history was marching in this direction anyway. But if the West hadn’t made a foray into these areas, maybe this movement would have petered out. Who knows ?

  44. No British in India = No Pakistan = No AQ Khan

    Huh? How does that follow? One of the principle achievements of the Raj was to unify the subcontinent from Bengal to Baluchistan. The partition which created Pakistan was an undoing of that achievement. If the West Punjab, Baluchistan, and the other Moslem territories around the Indus valley had remained out of the British Empire, they would have been just as capable of seeking nuclear weapons as the Iranians are now.

  45. america is evil, just as britain was evil, just as the barberini popes were evil. temporal politics has never been anything else, in christian terms.

    Comment by: gaius marius at June 22, 2006 02:46 PM

    —- —-

    And you can take your damnable Christian religion and its inverted morality and stick it where the sun don’t shine, too, bub!

  46. As far as I’m concerned, the British actions during the Bengal famine in WW-2 go beyond inexcusable to the nearly genocidal. It was as deliberate an act as the Great Leap Forward in China. In China, the culprit was Mao. In India, the culprit was Churchill, that great advocate of freedom and lover of poison gas. The British Viceroy and other British officials wanted to relieve the famine, and so did others. Churchill repeatedly refused to allow food imports. This great hero did not think the starvation of millions of Indians was an important issue.

    As far as I’m concerned any good that the British did in India (and there was lots) is at least partly offset by this massive failure. But then
    British rule in India began with a massive famine in Bengal too

  47. “Churchill repeatedly refused to allow food imports.”

    Sacrifices must be made, after all; as long as the family farmers were protected from unfair foreign competition.

  48. “Churchill repeatedly refused to allow food imports.”


    Sacrifices must be made, after all; as long as the family farmers were protected from unfair foreign competition.

    Churchill cared not one whit for Indian farmers. His motivation in not allowing food imports to the famine areas is unclear, other than the fact that he had a well documented hatred of Indians.

    Furthermore, there have been no famines in India since the British left (while there many in the years before) despite huge population growth. So much for the benefits of British Empire.

    For reference, read Amartya Sen’s (Novel prize winning economist) work.

  49. gaius, I was clicking on the old Stumbleupon button and ran across a site on Roman Virtues. Made me think about you. Are you raising your children in the Roman way? 🙂

  50. The British brought the court system to India. They also caused a lot of problems. You could probably make a good case either way for positive or negative impact of the British there. My point was that to rule out invasions dogmatically and a priori as a moral sin is naive; one must consider the particular circumstances. And it is blinkered thinking to just blithely dismiss the argument by saying, “well the native rulers were bad and the invaders were bad” so what’s the difference? Sometimes the differences are really stark, even if the better guys had their own problems. Hypothetically one should be able to imagine a state where the native rulers had taken away all liberties, where the economy was in the tank, and then invaders, who while their noses pointed upwards in a pose of racial superiority, provided a government much superior, and vastly improved the lives, liberties, and opportunities of the natives. Well, we don’t have to turn to theoretical constructs as we have some good real world examples. Burma, under the British, was one of the success stories of colonialism. Now it is one of the poorest, and least free nations on earth. And many of my Burmese friends have wondered why Iraq was invaded when it would have made much more sense to overthrow Burma, if we’re talking about basic human rights. Much of this could be said for a number of African nations as well. But here in the West we have the luxury to sit back and pretend there is a moral equivalency, a priori, between bad native rulers and bad invaders (no matter the circumstances ) while the real world options of the native populations go down the tube.

  51. Suppose some other nation (ex: a New Caliphate) took over America and made it a client state, and 200 years later our ancestors are all genetically engineered, geniuses, living for centuries and flying on jet packs. Does that make our loss of sovereignty “okay” suddenly?

    Of course not. And we’re *libertarians* after all. I don’t get why trading a lot of sovereignty for alleged promises of enlightenment seems like a good idea to anyone here. So what’s with all the apologists?

  52. DevP,
    The problem is in your analogy. Domestic life in America, however still far from perfect, is a far cry from a place like Burma, where the schools close at the first sign of trouble (maybe someone looked cross-eyed at a crossing guard), where the opportunities and liberties of the people are abysmally low, where political prisoners number in the thousands, and no structure of good governance is even remotely in place. America at least has the structure of liberty, however imperfect it is applied.

    Now suppose America does continue to lose its liberties to the point where the whole of the Constitution is one day rewritten depriving Americans of any liberties at all. Are you saying, that revolution from within or without should never be tolerated then – suppose the invaders happened to be comparatively much much more enlightened, freer, and an advanced society. Are you saying under no circumstances, even if our government were to descend to the point of the liberty deprived state of Burma, that you would intransigently object to invaders who would give us back our liberties?

  53. the British deliberately adopted policies that caused as many as 29 million Indians to starve to death in the late nineteenth century, say

    That’s an interesting choice of phrase. Does he mean the British deliberately starved tens of millions of Indians to death? Or does he mean that the British deliberately adopted a policy, and that policy happened to have the side effect of causing millions of Indians to starve? Morally speaking there’s a world of difference.

  54. Wasn’t there a thread here some time ago about a guy pointing to the fact that the black descendants of American slaves are better off than most black Africans, and therefore slavery wasn’t entirely a bad thing?

    Comment by: Jennifer at June 22, 2006 01:42 PM

    Muhammed Ali said that he thanked God his ancestors were on the boat after he made a visit to Africa.

  55. The natural state of man appears to be small kin-groups of 40-50 individuals, maybe fewer. Creating any group larger than that- tribe, country, nation, empire – that enforces rules and exerts authority over its members requires some degree of oppression of individuals.

    Comment by: vanya_6724 at June 22, 2006 03:24 PM

    You are leaving out the alpha male question and inter-tribal warfare for booty and brides.

  56. impeckish,

    You know, Burma was a former British colony. Thus the question would be, did Britain make things worse or better for the place?

    M. Simon,

    Did the slave trade to the West (we’ll ingore the internal slave trade in Africa and that to the Arab world for the moment) so rob Africa of its human population, help to create and/or foster despotic institutions, etc. that going on the boat created or helped to create or reinforced the current situation sub-Saharan Africa? If so, who carries the blame for this? African rulers? European rulers and their underlings or counterparts in the Americas? Both?

  57. Anyway, isn’t a lot of what goes into defending the British Empire the assumption that its development was the best of all possible options or in fact the only option? If so, I’d say that without this assumption that the argument falls apart. Thus I would argue that you better be able to defend that assumption before you start plumping up the glories of an Empire created and maintained (at least in part) by violence, coercion, bribery, treachery, bigotry and other values that many libertarians generally consider an anathema.

  58. “Anyway, isn’t a lot of what goes into defending the British Empire the assumption that its development was the best of all possible options or in fact the only option? If so, I’d say that without this assumption that the argument falls apart. Thus I would argue that you better be able to defend that assumption before you start plumping up the glories of an Empire created and maintained (at least in part) by violence, coercion, bribery, treachery, bigotry and other values that many libertarians generally consider an anathema. ” – PL

    A few thoughts…

    If you recognize that Empire is not inherently evil and that it brings with it many benefits that societies might not otherwise stumble across on their own, it becomes a benefit vs. cost analysis of the cultural and technological advantages being part of the Empire brings vs. “violence, coercion, bribery, treachery, bigotry and other values that many libertarians generally consider an anathema.”

    The knee-jerk rejection of previous empires and their contributions to what makes life better for most people who live in Western civilization seems amazingly short-sighted. Sort of along the lines of not realizing that without the cultures of the past we’d still be killing off those outside our 40-50 person tribes, not to mention any rivals within that tribe.

    For example, without the evolution of the British Empire, we might all be pre-Enlightenment witch-burners and pre-20th century slave traders or worse. On the other hand, sure, the British Empire did some heinous things to both its subjects and those considered to be below its subjects.

    Of course, I have yet to encounter a system of human organization, government, or bureaucracy that doesn’t trample someone. That might be part of human nature even more so than the system itself, tho…

  59. A cyclone, the Japanese capture of Burma (hitherto the ricebowl of Bengal), the Indian government’s refusal to put price caps in place, and increased demand for rice from Allied troops around the world pushed rice prices in Bengal beyond the reach of the average Bengali. So they starved.

    End of story.

    The cyclone was a natural event, but the fall of Burma, the interruption in trade routes which could have brought more rice, and the increased demand are all products of the war.

  60. More food for thought about the British:

    “You know, when I was a young man, hypocrisy was deemed the worst of vices,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It was all because of moral relativism. You see, in that sort of a climate, you are not allowed to criticise others-after all, if there is no absolute right and wrong, then what grounds is there for criticism?”
    Finkle-McGraw paused, knowing that he had the full attention of his audience, and began to withdraw a calabash pipe and various related supplies and implements from his pockets. As he continued, he charged the calabash with a blend of leather-brown tobacco so redolent that it made Hackworth’s mouth water. He was tempted to spoon some of it into his mouth.
    “Now, this led to a good deal of general frustration, for people are naturally censorious and love nothing better than to criticise others’ shortcomings. And so it was that they seized on hypocrisy and elevated it from a ubiquitous peccadillo into the monarch of all vices. For, you see, even if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case, you are not making any judgment whatsoever as to the correctness of his views or the morality of his behaviour-you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another. Virtually all political discourse in the days of my youth was devoted to the ferreting out of hypocrisy.
    “You wouldn’t believe the things they said about the original Victorians. Calling someone a Victorian in those days was almost like calling them a fascist or a Nazi.”
    Both Hackworth and Major Napier were dumbfounded. “Your Grace!” Napier exdaimed. “I was naturally aware that their moral stance was radically different from ours? but I am astonished to be informed that they actually condemned the first Victorians.”
    “Of course they did,” Finkle-McGraw said.
    “Because the first Victorians were hypocrites,” Hackworth said, getting it.
    Finkle-McGraw beamed upon Hackworth like a master upon his favored pupil. “As you can see, Major Napier, my estimate of Mr. Hackworth’s mental acuity was not ill-founded.”
    “While I would never have supposed otherwise, Your Grace,” Major Napier said, “it is nonetheless gratifying to have seen a demonstration.” Napier raised his glass in Hackworth’s direction.
    “Because they were hypocrites,” Finkle-McGraw said, after igniting his calabash and shooting a few tremendous fountains of smoke into the air, “the Victorians were despised in the late twentieth century. Many of the persons who held such opinions were, of course, guilty of the most nefandous conduct themselves, and yet saw no paradox in holding such views because they were not hypocrites themselves-they took no moral stances and lived by none.”
    “So they were morally superior to the Victorians-” Major Napier said, still a bit snowed under. “-even though-in fact, because-they had no morals at all.” There was a moment of silent, bewildered head-shaking around the copper table.
    “We take a somewhat different view of hypocrisy,” Finkle-McGraw continued. “In the late-twentieth-century Weltanschauung, a hypocrite was someone who espoused high moral views as part of a planned campaign of deception-he never held these beliefs sincerely and routinely violated them in privacy. Of course, most hypocrites are not like that. Most of the time it’s a spirit-is-willing, flesh-is-weak sort of thing.”
    “That we occasionally violate our own stated moral code,” Major Napier said, working it through, “does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code.”
    “Of course not,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It’s perfectly obvious, really. No one ever said that it was easy to hew to a strict code of conduct. Really, the difficulties involved-the missteps we make along the way-are what make it interesting. The internal, and eternal, struggle, between our base impulses and the rigorous demands of our own moral system is quintessentially human. It is how we conduct ourselves in that struggle that determines how we may in time be judged by a higher power.” All three men were quiet for a few moments, chewing mouthfuls of beer or smoke, pondering the matter.

    – From Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age”

  61. Another morsel:

    As nasty as the British were, it should be remembered that it was the British who ended the European slave trade, and pressured the rest of the world to follow suit to end slavery, the oldest and cruelest institution in human history, altogether. The moral equivalency argument just falls apart in the face of history, when the differences between various bad asses in power is actually quite stark.


  62. Does he mean the British deliberately starved tens of millions of Indians to death? Or does he mean that the British deliberately adopted a policy, and that policy happened to have the side effect of causing millions of Indians to starve? Morally speaking there’s a world of difference.

    The line isn’t so clear. British rule deliberately adopted several policies that made faminies vastly more likely and exacerbated the plight of those stricken by famines when they did happen. They provided absolutely no relief when famines did happen and often actively opposed it.

    In the famine of 1943, the great humanitarian Churchill actively refused to allow food imports nto India despite requests by the Indian viceroy. One has to conclude that Churchill seems to have deliberately intended to starve Indians and make the famine worse probably because he hated Indians, regarded them as subhuman and hoped that weakening India would make the prospects of Home Rule post war more likely. This great statesman and democrat, so very concerned about iron curtains descending in Europe, was perfectly happy to keep India in the Raj forever.

    Indian historians have determined that there were far more famines under British rules than in preceding years under Indian kings and Mogul Emperors (despite advances in technology and the railroad). And post-British India has had hunger and malnutrition, but never had famine.

  63. Made me think about you. Are you raising your children in the Roman way? 🙂

    it’s not difficult, is it, when our age so closely parallels their imperial/antonine age? one can simply pay a lot of convenient lip service to these ideals and ignore them wholesale in practice — just like a good imperial roman! 🙂

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