When Elite Privilege Breaks


Finding parallels with Rome is a fun topic for writers, and just recently I came across some very interesting ones. They grabbed my attention, and they may grab yours as well.

These passages (in bold) are from The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000, by Peter Brown:

[E]mperor, military, and civilian populations alike needed the idea of a “barbarian threat” to justify their own existence.

Just as our grand states need terrorists to justify their existence, immigrants to threaten the populace, and outsiders to blame.

Note also that the “civilian populations” required a barbarian threat. That directly translates to today’s defense workers, intel agency workers, militarized police forces, and all the millions who’ve merged their identity with “our heroic protectors.” With no big threat, all of that becomes meaningless.

The peasantry had to increase production so as to earn the money with which to pay taxes.

Have you noticed how obsessively young people work these days? People talk about Millennial slackers, and there are some, but I see young families where both parents have to work full time, who work on their smart phones long after business hours, and who are taxed to the hilt without remorse.

My complaint with these millions is not that they’re slackers; it’s that they’re allowing themselves to be driven too hard. They shouldn’t take the abuse they do. They are working harder than their parents did… too hard.

Rome slowly lost its grip on the imagination and on the value systems of the inhabitants of the empire and their neighbors in the course of the fifth and early sixth centuries.

This is going on now. Who still believes in politicians as virtuous leaders? As noble statesmen? Who believes that school systems are serving the citizens rather than themselves? Who doesn’t have horror stories to tell about the police?

And how many people in other countries believe in the God-ordained, virtuous United States?

To the extent that Hollywood informs our imaginations, our Rome is holding on, but only because it more or less controls Hollywood. And that may fail as well; cracks may already be appearing.

[T]here was one thing the fourth-century Roman state did well, which was to extract money from its subjects.

This one is interesting, because while it’s true that our Rome is superb at skimming money from its subjects, it gets an equal or greater amount through what we can call for simplicity’s sake “money printing.” Rome couldn’t do that.

The collection of taxes offered unparalleled opportunities for enrichment for landowners, tax collectors, and bureaucrats. What was gathered through taxes was redistributed at the top, in the form of gifts and salaries paid in solid gold. This process created a swaggering new class….

Can you say, “top one or two percent”? And note that the money was “redistributed at the top,” precisely as now. Redistribution goes to the first hands at the spigot of printed money; to Wall Street, being the one and only destination for investments; and to those who purchase favors from the state. These people have indeed formed “a swaggering new class.”

So, putting all of these together, we get:

  • Fears, manufactured or otherwise, to keep the state thriving.

  • People overworking themselves to keep up with the burdens placed upon them.

  • People who no longer believe the myth of the glorious state and its righteous leaders.

  • States that excel only at stripping money from its masses and (now) creating it out of thin air.

  • Stripping the masses to redistribute money at the top, thus creating a new, luxury-purchasing class.

I think those are rather interesting parallels. And so are the consequences that followed:

[W]e end, around the year 600 A.D., with a world of smaller units, ruled by low-pressure states.

Decentralization, in other words; in my opinion a very good thing.

[T]he villas of the West had been turned into farmhouses.

Notice that the “elite dwellings” were now being turned into working buildings and non-elite dwellings. When centralization and enforced privilege break down, non-elite people return to prosperity.

[I]n one way, the barbarian invasions and the civil wars of the early fifth century did prove decisive. They broke the spine of the empire as a tax-gathering machine.

Here again, I think of money printing rather than tax gathering only. And if the fraying of our “empire” results in “breaking the spine” of money printing and tax gathering, many of us will be thrilled. And given that these systems can only remain intact if the populace is mindlessly compliant, breaking them may not be as difficult as it seems.

Within a century, they had overturned one of the “pillars of bigness” on which not only the court and the army, but the economy and the high pitched social structure of the later Roman empire [sic], had depended.

The pillars of bigness: One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all, and so on. This self-congratulatory myth needs to be overturned if we ever hope to live in a sane, just world. So does “we’re the biggest badass on the planet.”

[I]f anyone was happy in the early Middle Ages, it was the peasantry. Freed at last from the double pressure of landlords and tax collectors, they settled back to enjoy a low-profile golden age.

As I’ve detailed in the subscription letter, the so-called “Dark Ages” were a period of liberation for non-elite people.

And how might we – the peasantry, the people of flyover country – feel about a world without tax collectors, money-scammers, and self-righteous oppressors? I think most of us would welcome it as a golden age.

So, there you have them. I’m not saying that all these parallels will turn out precisely this way, but they do make a very interesting model to work from.

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7 thoughts on “When Elite Privilege Breaks”

  1. “This one is interesting, because while it’s true that our Rome is superb
    at skimming money from its subjects, it gets an equal or greater amount
    through what we can call for simplicity’s sake “money printing.” Rome
    couldn’t do that.”

    Rome could and did do that, not through the issuance of digital fiat money of course, but through the debasement of coinage. Under Diocletian the silver content of the double denarius fell from 40% fineness to under 5% fineness in just 30 years from 240 AD to 270 AD — a monetary inflation rate of about 7% per year. That’s actually a lower rate than we’ve seen recently from the Fed though.

    1. Hi Patrick,
      You’re certainly right that they debased their coinage, but I tend to think of that as a somewhat different thing than creation ex nihilo.
      YMMV 🙂

  2. If you’re not already familiar with it, Joseph Tainter’s book ‘The Collapse of Complex Societies’ is worthwhile reading for more on this topic. I offer a couple of particularly relevant passages:
    1: “Sociopolitical organizations constantly encounter problems that require increased investment merely to preserve the status quo. This investment comes in such forms as increasing size of bureaucracies, increasing specialization of bureaucracies, cumulative organizational solutions, increasing costs of legitimizing activities, and increasing costs of internal control and external defense. All of these must be borne by levying greater costs on the support population, often to no increased advantage. As the number and costliness of organizational investments increases, the proportion of a society’s budget available for investment in future economic growth must decline. Thus, while initial investment by a society in growing complexity may be a rational solution to perceived needs, that happy state of affairs cannot last (…) Ever greater increments of investment yield ever smaller increments of return.”
    The parallel with today’s metastasizing governments is obvious as they seek ever more powers and ever more revenue. It’s important to note that ‘collapse’ in Tainter’s view does not necessarily mean a regression to the kind of violence and lawlessness depicted in apocalyptic movies such as the ‘Mad Max’ series – rather, it refers to a reversion to less complex social structures. This may well not be viewed as a disaster by anyone except those at the top:
    2: “What may be a catastrophe to administrators (and later observers) need not be to the bulk of the population. It may only be among those members of a society who have neither the opportunity nor the ability to produce primary food resources that the collapse of administrative hierarchies is a clear disaster. Among those less specialized, severing the ties that link local groups to a regional entity is often attractive. Collapse then is not intrinsically a catastrophe. It is a rational, economizing process that may well benefit much of the population.”
    Tainter here offers a tenable explanation for the differing reactions of elite classes and the ordinary population to the two main political shocks of 2016: the ‘Brexit’ vote by the UK to quit the European Union and the ascent of Donald Trump as the next US president.
    In the US we can see the elites (and the privileged young liberal-student types who aim to join their ranks) are still in shock at the Trump victory, while ‘flyover country’ and the ‘rust belt’ are celebrating.
    Here in the UK the wealthier upper social echelons are devastated and angry at prospect of no longer being micro-managed by unelected European bureaucrats (a wealthy hedge-fund manager called Gina Miller led a legal challenge which resulted in a High Court ruling that Parliament has to approve the formal start of the withdrawal process, in the hope that the mainly pro-EU parliamentarians would override and reverse the popular vote), whereas the poorer, lower-status groups are cheering and celebrating at the prospect of ‘getting our country back’ – or, as Tainter put it: “Among those less specialized, severing the ties that link local groups to a regional entity is often attractive.”
    Or, to put it in ‘Hunger Games’ terms: the Katniss Everdeens of the Districts are in revolt against the Plutarch Heavensbees of the Capitol.

  3. Nice article Paul. I agree that there are many parallels between then and now.
    On a related note, Rome’s fall ultimately came about because people recognized the system they were living under was broke and trending towards more of it not less. A recognition that is psychological at its root. In Rome’s case the decline lasted well over a century. However, communications today are so much quicker, that such an awakening to the true state of the state could sweep through much faster. Therefore I suspect the super states of today might go down much quicker than Rome. It wouldn’t surprise me to see substantial progress made into new decentralized (post-super) states within our lifetimes.

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