image courtesy of Time magazine
Just like the Roman Empire, the decline and fall of Europe and indeed of the West has already begun. It is no longer mere speculation it is a fact!
Current European social and political forces alarmingly resemble those that helped push the late Roman economy in Western Europe into the Dark Ages. The basic similarity between late Rome and present-day Europe is that in each case man-made political and social developments seriously damaged a formerly robust commercial world, leading to enormous disparities in wealth and opportunity. The few Romans who possessed that wealth and opportunity were able to negotiate tax and legal concessions that greatly weakened the central government, atomized the state and ultimately destroyed its legitimacy.
However Europe does, have crucial advantages: We know where the present road leads, whereas the Romans did not, and as a democracy we still have the chance to change our fate.When Marcus Aurelius became the Roman emperor, in 161 A.D., ruling the largest state the world had ever known, it was “the period in the history of the world,” according to Edward Gibbon, “during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous.” Today many would say the same for the 20th-century U.S. In the Roman world, a robust class of knights, entrepreneurs, civic leaders, and well-paid retired soldiers inhabited the empire’s many cities and towns, enjoying a market-based and monetized economy. The empire’s per capita money supply, measured as a multiple of the amount needed for subsistence, was nearly 80% as much as circulates in the Europe today. Even in primitive northwestern Europe, where Rome stationed its army at frontier posts like Cologne, Mainz and Vienna, cash salaries and pension payments, plus the use of private businesses to supply food, arms and other necessities, ensured a city-centered, money-based market economy.
The crisis of the third century A.D. demolished this world and led to a social and economic restructuring of late Roman society. In northwestern Europe it produced an oligarchy of a few exceptionally wealthy families. The elevation of the extremely wealthy to oligarchic status is happening differently today, but the outcome of that elevation could follow a similarly disastrous course.
The social and economic restructuring of northwestern Europe in Roman times began with a series of disasters and wars not entirely unlike the Great Recession and multiple wars that afflicted the beginning of British PM’S David Cameron’s term in 10 Downing Street. These shocks devastated the population and sharply reduced production. Marcus Aurelius’ foolish son Commodus squandered the imperial treasury, and expenses skyrocketed as later emperors launched expensive wars of choice against family enemies, greatly enlarged their imperial armies and raised military salaries. The emperor who followed Commodus, expressing a view somewhat akin to that of recent Republican administrations, advised his sons: “Be of one mind: Enrich the soldiers; trouble about nothing else.”
Since the tax revenues from a diminished empire could not meet such increased expenditures, the emperors started paying soldiers and suppliers in depreciated coinage. Credit and commerce collapsed under the resulting inflation and distrust, barter returned to poorer parts of the empire like northwestern Europe, and land values there plummeted. Peasants fled from soldiers and vagabonds foraging for food, the urban middle classes floundered, and the surviving towns and cities, barely hanging on, could no longer protect the countryside and its farms. Only the very rich–Roman senators, imperial generals and the like–had the diversified investments that allowed them to escape the poverty and dangers that engulfed virtually everyone else.
These wealthy Romans acquired huge tracts of land at bargain prices, becoming the owners of northwestern Europe’s most productive assets. They could offer protection and aid in return for loyal service, and desperate men flocked to their employment (mostly tenancy). The emperors now had to wheedle taxes and manpower from these great powers. The resulting bargains gradually sapped imperial power, and after the Vandals sacked Rome itself, in 455, the last emperor soon departed.
Northwestern Europe’s new social and economic structure consigned the vast majority of the population to miserably impoverished lives. The self-sufficient great landowners had little interest in maintaining roads, protecting those who were not employees or generating prosperity for others. Except in their own households, life was largely reduced to the terms of subsistence, and in the absence of a more widespread demand for goods and services, even the richest could no longer find or acquire luxuries that had once been commonplace.
As the very wealthy assume political power through the virtually unlimited campaign spending that the U.S. Supreme Court now allows, do they not also demand tax relief and legal protections? And if their power becomes overwhelming, is it not foreseeable that their demands could debilitate our military strength, and the government’s ability to protect the public interest within its own borders?
The same economic laws still apply. If the very rich can use their power to monopolize wealth today and a prosperous middle class disappears, then the disappearance of demand will force even the wealthiest to suffer a sharply reduced style of life.