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Samizdata quote of the day – do empires make economic sense?

One can see why this idea has taken off again: it sits at the intersection of two of the most voguish ideologies of our time, namely, woke progressivism and anti-capitalism. It is a story about white people – white men, mostly – oppressing non-white people, which also doubles up as an “original sin” story of capitalism.

But is it actually true that imperialism makes countries richer? Does imperialism make economic sense?

This question was already hotly debated at the heyday of imperialism. Adam Smith believed that the British Empire would not pass a cost-benefit test.

Kristian Niemietz

34 comments to Samizdata quote of the day – do empires make economic sense?

  • jgh

    You don’t have to have political control of a country to trade with the people there.

  • Barbarus

    One would presume Adam Smith did his homework and is probably right in a purely beancounting sense. Nevertheless, the British Empire appears in retrospect to have been an economic success for the home country, which became “the workshop of the world”. When Adam Smith’s proposal to withdraw from the Empire and replace it with a treaty was adopted, in the form of the British Commonwealth, it does not appear to have been much help. Of course that was in the aftermath of the economically ruinous Second World War which may have obscured some effects.

    Something that Smith leaves out, though, is what you might call the ‘intellectual capital’ effect. Many of the great “Britons” from the days of Empire were not ancestrally British, at least as Britain is defined today: Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the son of an expatriate Frenchman; Sir Arthur Sullivan, son of an Irish immigrant; Sir Hiram Maxim, born in the USA; J R R Tolkien, of Prussian extraction and born in Bloemfontein in what is now South Africa … I could go on. All those men made significant contributions in their fields that an economist would quite possibly miss.

    There is something of a downside to this: after batting about Europe for thirty years, Karl Marx spent the latter half of his life – and wrote Das Kapital – in Britain, and Mahatma Gandhi trained in law at the Inner Temple (and apparently picked up ideas from the Arts and Crafts movement somewhere along the line). Neither of them were exactly great contributors to the Empire they gravitated to.

  • Kirk

    Is Empire worth it?

    I’d submit that it isn’t, and that if the vast majority of such things had never existed, that’d have been a net gain for humanity.

    Empire is big. Automatically so, and because they are big, they’re also the product of the control-freak mentality that built the damn things. Go back to the ancient civilizations in the Fertile Crescent… They created all these watershed empires that became single points of failure when they inevitably collapsed from either internal corruption or external attack.

    Rome is a good example; they conquered most of Europe and a good deal of the regions surrounding the Med: Over the course of their tenure as Imperial Hegemon, what did they do? Converted the entire region into hothouse flowers, dependent upon Rome for security. When the barbarians swept in, the ineffective Roman military collapsed, leaving zero security behind for any of those regions. The sad fact is, if Rome had never conquered Gaul or North Africa, then the existing tribal/national structures would have still been there, and would have likely prevented those provinces from being overrun.

    That’s the trouble with Empire; you’re basically converting the conquered populations into domesticated animals, and that then makes you responsible for their upkeep and defense. The US is running into this problem with Europe today; it’s only now becoming clear to Europeans that the US is getting tired of subsidizing them, and is also running out of money. When that all evaporates, guess what? Y’all will be out there hanging, just like when the Roman legions packed their bags and headed back to Rome for some Imperial infighting.

    Historically, I don’t think that either “Empire” or “Hegemony” is all it’s cracked up to be; the thankless grief that the British have gotten since they shut down the Empire is a perfect example; you put an end to slavery for the first time ever, and ain’t nobody going to forgive you for it. Same-same with any of the nasty little habits all those other folks got up to, like suttee…

    On the whole? I think you’re better off staying home, and letting the rest of the world either beat a path to your door in order to copy what you’re doing, or just keep on minding your own damn business. The wages of Empire just aren’t worth it.

  • Roué le Jour

    you’re basically converting the conquered populations into domesticated animals

    That’s not just a characteristic of empires. Governments naturally try to weaken their people to prevent them from overthrowing the government, which just means that the government, without the protection of a strong people, gets overthrown by outsiders instead.

    Is this a suitable place to ask, of what exact benefit to England are Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?

  • Vegas

    It made sense to Russian aristocracy to raid their neighbors and to drag the captives into slavery in Moscow.

  • Chester Draws

    Germany industrialised as fast as Britain, with no empire to speak of.

    The examples of countries coming unstuck trying to obtain empires is very long indeed. Much, much longer than those who might just have made it work.

  • DiscoveredJoys

    @ Kirk

    “Empire is big. Automatically so, and because they are big, they’re also the product of the control-freak mentality that built the damn things.”

    And there is every sign that the EU is heading down the road to becoming an Empire formally. Is this because of the dynamics of trade? Or that so many control freaks have gathered together?

    I’m going with a litter of control freaks.

  • Kirk

    As I’ve said… The history of civilization can be examined as the continual battle between what I term the “control freak” types and the rest of us… The drive for control is a defect, and until we start testing for it and keeping those people far away from the levers of power, we’re going to suffer from the effects.

    Frankly, anyone I meet who says they “have a good idea” and who want to inflict that idea on the rest of us? My first instinct is to invite them in, murder them, and then hide the bodies somewhere. My skin crawls when I talk to them; they’re like religious lunatics going door-to-door spreading their mental filth. You can feel the dopamine levels rise within them, as they talk to you about what they think “needs to be done”. What needs to be done is culling them from the gene pool, in my opinion.

    I’ve never, ever met a “politically inclined” sort of person that didn’t creep me out. Same ones that blithely talk about “river to the sea” BS with regards to Israel? They’re also the same ones who are so sure about their programs involving everyone else.

    If you ever find yourself saying “…there ought to be a law…”, you’re falling into their mindset. You then find yourself standing in front of friends, neighbors, and family while outlining your program of BS? You really need to be put the f*ck down, like any other mad dog.

    Whether it was building the Akkadian Empire or running the local Homeowners Association like a Nazi acolyte, the Karen impulse is the worst feature of human behavior. You think you know better than anyone else? You should be encouraged to keep your nasty ideas to yourself, and if you insist on implementing them? You should be hung by the neck until dead, dead, dead.

    I really don’t have much patience any more for any behavior anywhere on this spectrum being displayed, let alone lauded.

  • Andy

    @Roué le Jour- as I understand it, historically control of the whole of the island of Great Britain meant we didn’t need to worry about land invasions (The big fear was that Scotland would ally with France or Spain and allow an invasion force to land and pass through). Likewise, control of Ireland protected the western coasts and seaways giving access to the North Atlantic

    The act of Union meant there was no need anymore for a large standing army and so defence focused more on the navy.

    On the growth of the Empire- it often started as trading posts, that grew into cities, which then required control of surrounding land for food and protection (eg Bombay, Hong Kong)

  • Runcie Balspune

    Germany industrialised as fast as Britain, with no empire to speak of.

    Aside from the fact that “Germany” didn’t exist until the middle of the 19th century, they managed to colonise a fair chunk of Africa plus a few Pacific islands, small whilst compared to other European nations but certainly not insignificant.

    As appropriate to this discussion I believe Bismark was in two minds about whether to establish colonial control for trade.

  • Mark

    There’s no question that the fantastic cost of two world wars ruined Britain (and France and Germany and Russia….) but prior to 1914, what was the actual cost of the empire at its height to Britain?

    It may not have been profitable in the strictest sense, but these costs can’t have been too high, and who was actually paying them?

    The state was minute in terms of total GDP compared to the bloated, energy and life force sucking cancer it is today.

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker) Gray

    Dear Kirk, you do realize that the USA could be called an Empire. Let’s ask the Native American Indians if they’re happier now than in the past. And if all empires break up, how long does the USA have? Then again, if California leaves, will America care?

  • Pat

    Some aspects of empire make sense. Had the French gained America or India Britain would have been shut out of those markets. It therefore made sense for Britain to take these places and hold them up to the point where the French, !Spanish Dutch etc. No longer posed a threat.

  • Stephen W. Houghton II

    Not economic sense, but military. I explore some of the details in my booklet, Common Sense, the Case for Crown Commonwealth Confederation and a Wider Pan Anglosphere Alliance. It is available on Amazon here.

  • phwest

    Mark – WW I was, in an of itself, a cost of empire. Britain’s abandonment of Splendid Isolation was linked quite closely to the defensive requirements of the Empire and the strain it put on the British state. The Entente with the French was part and parcel of the settlement of the race for Africa. The Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 (and the Anglo-Japanese Alliance that officially ended Splendid Isolation) was, for the British, primarily a means of securing India from the threat of a rapidly growing Russian Empire (an Empire that proved much weaker in reality than how it was perceived by the rest of Europe before the war – but the perception drove the geopolitics).

    The great strength of the British Empire at its height was how defensible it was. The British Isles were safe from direct invasion, but so was India (which has some of the most effective natural frontiers on earth) and South Africa. Its overseas possessions were protected from other European powers, its main rivals, by buffer states (the Ottoman and Iranian Empires mainly) and sheer distance. The industrial expansion of pre-war Europe significantly eroded those defenses. Russian development made the buffer states more vulnerable and railroads had the potential to open the land frontiers of India. Ottoman weakness also opened Egypt to French competition. And so you saw Britain getting ever more directly involved in the Middle East and Africa, and taking over direct control of territory that cost more than it could supply in revenue in a effort to protect the still profitable possessions. This was ultimately unsustainable, and so Britain ultimately switched sides – abandoning long term alignments with Germany and the Ottomans against their Imperial rivals (France and Russian) in favor of what amounted to a partition of Africa and western Asia with those rivals. And the price for that partition was WW I.

  • Kirk

    @Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker) Gray…

    You do realize that the “American Empire” you refer to is a figment of the imagination? I’m not really sure what the hell you could characterize said “Empire” as, but the sad fact is, there are few if any of the usual “signs”. The US has left everywhere it has supposedly taken into its “Empire” when asked. Philippines? France? Both of which wanted out, so they were politely let out, despite the enormous investment the US had in them…

    If you want to characterize what happened to the stone-age tribal types that occupied North America before the US filled it in as “Empire”, feel free. I’ll simply point out that the history of such primitive cultures managing to survive contact with more sophisticated ones worldwide ain’t what I’d term “positive”. The Kalahari Bushmen once owned most of South Africa, until the more advanced Bantu tribes moved in on them. Same-same with Europe; stone-age primitivism isn’t a good way to compete. Nowhere in the world has any of that sort managed to do more than delay being taken over, and as a matter of fact, the US kept rather more of the indigenes around than most did. You might inquire of your ancestors about what they did with the locals when they swept in from Anatolia with all that high-technology agriculture…

    Empire is a different thing than the sweep of civilization coming down on you. Had the various American Indian tribes eschewed working with the British and French, making common cause with the colonists? Odds are pretty good the story of their later years would have been far different. Those who lived safely in Europe never knew the terrors of night raids, captivity, and slaughter. The American Indian earned everything that happened to them, and they’re quite fortunate that we colonial types weren’t as blood-thirsty as our European antecedents were, thousands of years earlier when they had to deal with the same sort of raging primitives.

    If anything, the bad things that happened to the various flavors of American Indian should be blamed on the manipulations of the various nascent European empires. Stirring up the tribes on the frontiers? You want to blame Americans for what happened, afterwards? Why don’t you go look in a goddamn mirror, and recognize that the machinations of your governments at the time poisoned that well forever? You decry what happened, but your own hands are quite bloody. Every one of those frontier settlements your proxies wiped out or burnt were repaid tenfold when the growing United States swept out over those tribes. It didn’t have to be that way, but you Europeans made damn sure that there would never be any peace. Europe, in the name of expediency and politics, left that legacy behind when they were finally driven out of North America. Odds are that the American experience with the locals would have looked a lot more benign than what it was, had those things not been done. But, yeah, hey… It’s all Americas fault, right?

    I was recently going through family papers. The early days in what they then called the “Northwest” were not pretty; the wonder to me isn’t that there were “problems” with the tribal primitives, but that any at all were left alive when it was over with. There was plenty of grounds there for genocide, but when you live in peaceful, civilized England, it’s rather difficult to understand what it’s like living next door to tribal types who think it’s just fun and games to go on the warpath now and then. Kinda the way all y’all seem to think that the Israelis should just put up with the daily missile attacks and the occasional razzia, with the attendant rape and slaughter.

    I do find it quite humorous that the English have decided to import their own savages, so that they can enjoy the benefits of such experiences right there at home. Should look a little different shortly, hey? I mean, once you start having to put up with the little raids on your homes at night, the rapes, the occasional slaughter of the innocents… See how you like it, and then get back to me about how badly we treated our own primitive tribal types, here in the US.

    I can hardly await the establishment of a reservation system for all the “migrants” your lot have let in. Should be great fun, for all concerned. Do get back to me with your moralizing, in a generation or two.

  • JJM

    All right, 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?

  • Mark


    The whole world seem to blame the British empire for everything. Don’t see why you shouldn’t either!

    Fill your boots, we do find it quite entertaining.

  • SkippyTony

    I’ve spent a fair bit of my life in the remnants / after affects of the British empire, Australia, New Zealand, the US, Singapore. While you may argue the net net value of the empire for Britian, the value of the empire to the vassal states is incalculable. And enduring. Otherwise, the Commonwealth would have collapsed forty years ago.

  • Britain built an empire because it was rich, it did not get rich because it had an empire.

  • Roué le Jour

    The USA may not have an empire, but I cannot help but notice that the four subordinate anglosphere states follow its lead closely. “Shut down our economy? Why yes, we’d love to.”

    Barbarians do not get stuffed in to a reservation, if only, they get a “two state solution”.

  • Kirk


    The whole world seem to blame the British empire for everything. Don’t see why you shouldn’t either!

    Fill your boots, we do find it quite entertaining.

    I’m sure you do find it entertaining, having someone actually call you out on the bullshit your lot have been spewing for generations, now.

    What I find really aggravating is that the world always wants to throw up the treatment that the Indians got at Americans, when it was the very same assholes that set the stage for it all, between their activities during the French & Indian War and later on during the Revolutionary War and War of 1812. Was any thought given to what was being stirred up, or how that would play out for the native patsies, when 18th and 19th Century Realpolitik played out…? Does anyone note the culpability for what happened which accrues to their own governments?

    Nope; not a bit. It’s all constantly throw in American faces about our heinous treatment of the natives, ignoring the very real impact of all those convenient little actions. I’ve yet to meet a British person that even knows about any of that, let alone accept responsibility for what was done in their name.

    Which, frankly, pisses me the hell off every time I hear the usual BS spewing forth. You want to criticize Americans for what happened to the local natives? How about you acknowledge at the same time that you and your government spent a lot of time, effort, and treasure making sure that those relations would be poisonous for all time?

    I’ve yet to see an honest accounting for what the British and French did on the Frontier. It’s all “Oh, the nasty brutish Americans, treating the natives like crap…”, and not a good goddamn word whispered in the dark about just how that came about, thanks to the efforts of both nations. “Empire” at its finest… Using patsies and then abandoning them to their fates whenever expedient.

    No idea how things would have worked out between the US and the native population, absent that interference, but then we’ll never know, will we? I suspect that history would have looked rather different, but to what degree? Who knows? Might have been worse, and the US would have actually earned the casual abuse it gets over the matter. Given the actual history, it’s rather more nuanced than most people bother to understand.

  • bobby b

    Here in Minnesota, back in 1862, the Sioux massacred close to 650 whites over a few months. In response, the US Army came in, and it ended with 38 Sioux being hanged down the road in Mankato.

    So just last month, I watched as people all over the country mourned the massacre of the 38 hanged Indians. No mention of what might have precipitated that hanging.

    No one ought to wonder why our population back in the late 1800’s failed to lovingly embrace the Sioux. They were the original Palestinians.

  • Mark


    Damn, that was easy!

  • Steven R

    I’m not sure you can say the US has never been in the empire business or that we’ve left everyplace that has asked us to. We overthrew the government in Hawaii and then the new US-instilled government asked Washington to annex it. We’re still in PR and Guam and the US took West Florida, all of which were taken from Spain at one point or another, and the American Southwest which was seized from Mexico, and certainly the Indians didn’t get a say in the matter during the westward expansion. And while the US may have willingly granted independence to the Philippines, it wasn’t quite so eager to do the same with southern states during the Civil War. And Washington has never been shy about using overt or covert forces to remove foreign governments to bend them to our will or to protect American company profits. We saw that in the Banana Republics and the aforementioned Hawaii. Once we outright annexed a place, now we simply replace the current government with one more willing to do what we want.

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker) Gray

    Kirk, don’t know why you’re talking about England so much- I’m from Oztralia. Things are great here, unless you are an Aborigine, or from New Zealand.

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker) Gray

    And empires are not just for economics. If you have criminals, you can export them. As an added bonus, your language gets new places to expand in, thus qualifying your language as a global language. French is no longer the Lingua Franca of the world, because it didn’t expand enough.

  • Lee Moore

    Pat has it right. The economic point of Empire is to prevent some other bugger grabbing hold of somewhere you could usefully trade with, and cutting off your merchants from access.

    Same principle applies to government. The point of righties standing for election is to occupy the slots, so as to prevent the lefties getting control of them.

  • jgh

    Why would somebody else running the government cut you off from trade? “Eugh! Their governor general is FRENCH!!!! I’m not buying their bananas and cotton!”

    You don’t buy stuff from governments, you buy stuff from *people*.

  • Steven R

    Tariffs and wars and not wanting to buy from nationalized or semi-government companies ( think the East India Company) because of disagreements over policies all come to mind as reasons not to want to trade with a foreign company.

  • Paul Marks

    Josiah Tucker, Dean of Gloucester Cathedral (and thus normally remembered as “Dean Tucker”) answered this question in the middle of the 18th century – the mid 1700s.

    Empires usually cost more to maintain that they raise – in short, economically, Empires normally do not make sense.

    In short the radical “liberal” Hobson in the early 1900s (who argued that the British Empire was a conspiracy to enrich Jewish capitalists) and “Lenin” (hundred anniversary of his death yesterday) were pushing nonsense with their claims about how Empires benefitted the “capitalist powers” such as the United Kingdom.

  • Paul Marks

    How did Britain industrialise?

    The profits of domestic farming – the agricultural revolution (for domestic food eaters) were reinvested in industry – when it was legal to do so (Britain was first because of lack of monopoly guild legal restrictions), the market for the goods made in the factories was mainly domestic.

    The other Western countries were the same, indeed even more so.

    Disraeli (later an Imperialist – for opportunist reasons) admitted, in a moment of honesty, that the colonies were “wretched mill-stones” around the neck of Britain, Prime Minister Gladstone and Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (see his articles in the old “Saturday Morning Review” – now we know he was the author) had the same negative view of the economic value of the colonies – but this was even more true of the other European countries.

    Someone who believes that Belgium industrialised because of the Congo, or that Germany industrialised because of its (wretched) colonies, will believe anything.

    Western European countries, including France, would have been better off (better off – not worse off) if they had never gone down the road of Empire.

  • Lee Moore

    In answer to jgh – yes, you buy stuff from and sell stuff to people. But only people and stuff that the government of the place where the relevant people live allows.

    I am surprised to have to remind a samizdata reader of the existence of regulation.

  • Paul Marks

    The 18th, 19th and 20th century European Empires were not the Roman Empire.

    The late Roman Republic abolished most taxation in Italy because it had tribute from the Provinces – which it used for such things as providing subsidised grain for the “mob” in the city of Rome.

    The Empires of recent centuries were nothing like that.

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