The Costs of Empire


Will writes from Washington, D.C. (well, Arlington, Virginia). You can reach him at willblogcorrespondence at gmail dot com.

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9 Responses

  1. M. Farmer says:

    The conclusion is that all nations benefit more from peace and free trade rather than through war, occupation or domination — not to mention the uncalculated cost of human lives. Trade would have developed more naturally had we not been influenced by our history of war and domination being erroneously accepted as “beneficial” to the conquerors. If we learn from history, conquering, domination and plunder will be seen as something not “beneficial” to anyone. I think this is presently the case for most nations. I can expend energy to rob people and make a few bucks, or lots of money for a while, but, like Madoff, it doesn’t turn out well, and in the long run, that energy will profit me more by applying it honestly to the pursuit of wealth.Report

  2. Kyle says:

    This is an interesting thought, historical relationships between metropole and periphery are usually complex and always costly. Hell Britain spent a pretty penny colonizing, defending, and then warring with America for about a century and a half, still it probably worked out to their net benefit over the last century.

    In any case, I would argue that empires do benefit from their political arrangement. The imperial cities of Europe, Athens, Rome, Paris, and London supported advancements in the arts and sciences that were luxuries afforded by imperial wealth. Is there a museum in Scandinavia that rivals the British Museum? Or architectural treasures that rival Rome and Athens?

    I think if you add a dimension of human/ethical costs it becomes a lot murkier but as a straight up cost/benefit, I think while empires inevitably overextend themselves, their golden years are rarely matched.Report

    • Will in reply to Kyle says:

      @Kyle, I think it’s true that colonialism benefits some opportunistic individuals, but collecting a bunch of impressive doodads doesn’t mean England’s wealth couldn’t have been invested more productively elsewhere.Report

      • North in reply to Will says:

        @Will, I’m on board with that Will. What do you think about economics though, lets say that instead of investing in Cabot and his ilk Elizabethian England had spent the resources of colonization at home on the things that countries of that era spent their resources on. Would the country have been stronger or weaker in the sweep of history?Report

      • Kyle in reply to Will says:


        Perhaps. It just seems to me that comparisons to historical counterfactuals are unhelpful and Britain doesn’t really have many peers that allow for useful comparisons, Britain-Sweden maybe for an imperial/non-imperial Northern European country?

        So it’s a hard thing to judge, but I would argue the proof is in the pudding so to speak, the imperial cities don’t just have an impressive collection of doodads, they have a history of contributions to western civilization the value of which is difficult to ascertain. London’s prime position in maritime trade, meant they made the rules, British legal inventions, financial habits created by the Bank of England or Lloyds of London, insurance law, etc…

        So it seems to me to be rather difficult to compare the decision to spend 1,000 pounds on military expenditures versus investing in Good X, without considering the residual effect of that military expenditure, dominating rules of global law, finance, and insurance for several centuries with a legacy that extends to today.

        What’s the value of having commercial contracts that benefit your businesses/commercial priorities for several centuries, versus a different standard that disfavors British commercial interests?

        It’s all just shooting in the dark isn’t it?Report

        • Will in reply to Kyle says:

          @Kyle, Yeah, I actually think the comparison to other Northern European countries without colonies is instructive. It’s not as if Sweden is noticeably poorer because they didn’t grab a bunch of land in the 1800s. I also tend to think that England’s financial and industrial infrastructure developed independently of its imperial expansion.Report

          • Kyle in reply to Will says:


            That might be the case but it can’t proven. I think the major problem with Britain is that it’s really quite incomparable in many respects and while Sweden may not noticeably poorer, it is significantly poorer. Though the 1800’s remark begets asking whether imperial ambitions at large benefited Britain, versus imperial ambitions towards Africa.

            As for commerce and empire, we’ll have to agree to disagree. The role of mercantile economic policies driving imperial expansion is well documented. In Britain’s case the volume of maritime trade and activity necessitated the growth of maritime law which adopted common law traits and thanks to the longevity and expanse of the Empire forms the basis of international maritime/admiralty law. English is the preeminent influence/base for one of the most critical aspects of international trade, shipping and has been for the past 300+ years.

            Maybe it’s because I’m reading a history of American law now so I’m overly-sensitive to how legal forms and innovations affect economic decision making but that level of globe-spanning prominence in determining the rules that govern commerce is a pretty big deal and of inestimable value.Report

  3. North says:

    Well I’m open to the idea that colonies were overall a liability but I remain doubtful. Certainly I agree that under modern understandings of human rights, governance and trade colonies are a liability but for the majority of the British Empire all three of those factors were either absent or in nascent development.
    I cannot for the life of me imagine how England would have maintained her position vis a vis her larger and more gifted in natural resources peers in Europe had she not had the colonies to draw upon both as for resources early on and then as semi-captive markets later on.
    Take the Napoleonic wars, Napoleon leveled a massive continental embargo on English trade (and the British shut him down coastally in return). I have no idea where England would have obtained the materials to maintain her navy without the resources of the colonies nor the capital to continue the war without the friendly markets of the same.

    Now in the end the colonies were a liability and were sensibly spun off into their own countries. But prior to the modern era? I’m skeptical.Report

  4. Joe Schlessinger says:

    The argument I find most persuasive (it’s not my invention) is that British maintenance of their empire represented a tax shift from the lower and middle classes to the property-owning class. Everybody got taxed but the factory owners got the benefit. Given how colonialism actually took root in England, it’s hard to argue that this benefit was not uppermost in the government’s plans.Report