An Empire of the Unwilling

In his influential but highly-overrated work, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, the English historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) maintained that “[i]f a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.” Personally, I rather think we are better off now, when we can reasonably expect not to die from some microbial infection every time we drink a glass of water. Be that as it may, Gibbon’s point is that there was a window of time during the Roman Empire when things seemed to be going well, at least for a significant number of people who chose to remain docile towards their Roman overlords.

As I write this blog post, the world is awaiting election results in Greece, a country whose significance in contemporary world affairs has ballooned in recent months not because of its achievements, but because of its seeming inertia. Unable to form a government, reform its unions, or collect taxes properly, Greece needs a scapegoat in its latest round of voting. Not having the Church to kick around in this mess as he would like, presumably Gibbon would blame the Germans, as leftists tend to do.  Of course the Duke of Gloucester, when he received the second volume of Gibbon’s “Decline” from the author upon its publication in 1781, is supposed to have remarked, “Another damned, thick, square, book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?”

Over on this side of the pond, we look at Greece and at Europe, and shake our heads, telling ourselves, “What a tragedy, if only they would…” The fear of a different sort of microbial infection spreading through the entire European Union and thereby global financial markets should Greece leave the single currency is one which some in the media are embracing wholeheartedly, while others are dismissing as being, at most, highly unlikely. Whatever you may read or hear from the opinionated and the chattering classes, no one really knows what will happen if the Greeks simply decide to say, “No,” to the bailout agreements they have already ratified in their parliament. No one is particularly anxious to find out, either, exactly what would happen, given the interconnectedness of world financial markets.

Yet as much as other government and business leaders around the globe might collectively be holding their breath to see what is going to happen, there needs to be some soul-searching in Western democracies like Greece about where things go from here.  There has been a steady erosion of the idea that smaller communities are better able to look after their own needs, and instead an insistence upon the creation of giant economies of scale, which were supposed to be the Marxist alternative to the bloated, almost Byzantine aspects of British, French, and Russian imperialism that preceded them.  Everyone wants to join the European Union when things are going well, but when things become difficult, as they are now, there is an unwilligness to take personal responsibility for making difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions.

Take the newly-elected president of France, for example. M. Hollande recently un-did one of the most unpopular but sensible achievements of his predecessor, M. Sarkozy: he has lowered the retirement age back down to 60, from the 62 M. Sarkozy had raised it to.  Given that the average life expectancy of a Frenchman today is approximately 81 years, that means a large number of people will be drawing pensions for a decade or more longer than previous generations.  And because of declining birth rates and restrictions on immigration, there will be fewer and fewer workers available to pay for these pensions.  Though by then, of course, M. Hollande will be long out of the picture, having achieved the election he wanted without having to pay the piper for the consequences of his decision to encourage irresponsibility on the part of his countrymen.

All of this begs the question: has the West really become such a selfish place that we are being dragged down the drain, and our children along with us, by those who are unable to control their appetites?  If I am short of funds, I economize wherever I can: I brown-bag my lunch, rather than go out to eat, or I turn down invitations to activities I must pay for, until such time as I am back on my feet again.  If I need help, I ask for it, but as a last resort, after I have tried everything else.

Western democracies seem to have lost this concept.  The supposedly evil Germans are treating the Greeks unfairly, but rather trying to encourage them, and others, to behave responsibly and prudently, particularly if they come asking for help.  Pundits have missed out on what the real issue is here: an empire of the unwilling, i.e. one of those unwilling to do what is necessary for the best of their own people.  Whatever the results of the Greek elections today, there needs to be a re-examination of their fundamental approach to government and its interactions with society, and the rights and duties of the members of that society in return.

“The Course of Empire: Destruction” by Thomas Cole (1836)
New York Historical Society, New York

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