One of the effects of the Soviet meme war I’ve been writing about
recently is that to most educated Westerners it is absolutely taboo to
think that Western imperialism might have been a good thing. Since
the end of World War II, even conservatives have generally conceded
this point, as a way not to look reactionary with respect to a class
of controversies that seemed safely dead. Why defend imperialism when
your country no longer has either the desire or the capability to
engage in it?
Unfortunately, as I observed
in 2002, some parts of the Third World have now become so
dangerous to the whole world that some kind of neo-imperialism seems
to be required of us as a matter of self-defence. Or, as I put it a
few months before the second Iraq war began,
In the 19th century, the Western powers built empires for prestige
and economic advantage. In the 21st century, we may be discovering
that we need to get back into the imperialism business as a matter of
survival. It may turn out that the 20th century was an interlude
doomed to end as cheap transportation made the world smaller and
improving weapons technology made large-scale destruction inexpensive
even for barbarian thugs like Saddam Hussein.
Envy the British of Sir Richard Burton’s time. They could conquer
half the world for simple gain without worrying about the
Fuzzy-Wuzzies or the Ndebele aerosol-dropping pasteurella pestis on
Knightsbridge. We — and I mean specifically the U.S. now —
may have to conquer the Islamic world a second time, simply because
the risks of war and the moral hazards of imperialism are less
threatening than the prospect of some Allah-crazed Islamofascist
detonating a knapsack nuke on the Smithsonian Mall.
I was only a little ahead of the curve on this one. In the war
year of 2003, historian Niall Ferguson came at the same question from
a slightly different angle in Empire:
How Britain Made the Modern World and, later, in
Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire. A summary of his
argument can be read here.
Ferguson makes a strong case that the British Empire was, despite
obvious flaws, a good thing for the world. In 2006 that seems an even
more difficult case to refute than it did three years ago — one
doubts, for example, that an Iran still run by the British would be
threatening to nuke Israel.
Ferguson goes on to argue explicitly that the U.S. has a global
empire, that contrary to the fulminations of remnant Marxists this is
a positive development, and that we’d bloody well better get
good at running it. I’m not so sure about that; writing as an
economist rather than a cultural historian, I have argued that U.S.
hegemony has neither the intentions nor the structural features of
empire. (Analysis continued here.)
For libertarian reasons, I hope the U.S. hegemony can continue to
get away with not having the structural features of empire. Because,
in the long run, empire is bad for the imperialist country itself on
many levels ranging from economic to moral. Imperialists have to spend
a lot of blood, treasure, and talent maintaining their dominion; the
common end result is that the home-country economy is hollowed out and
the imperial class becomes lazy and parasitic. Former imperial powers
tend to degrade into stultified, shambolic backwaters absorbed in
tattered dreams of past glory.
Still, at this point in world history it’s fair to reopen the older
question: was imperialism so bad for the natives? Are there cases where
they should have been grateful to be overrun and ruled by foreigners with
Maxim guns? Are there cases where they were grateful, and even still are?
Actually, the answer turns out to be yes. The two most conspicuous
cases I know of are the Phillippines and Belize — both places where a
primarily non-European population looks rather fondly on its colonial
occupiers. Some parts of what was formerly French West Africa have
positive memories as well.
Very few places other than the Phillippines ever had the good luck to
be colonized by Americans, and it’s indicative of the ‘good luck’ that
almost all of them are parts of the U.S. now and the natives’
descendants have full citizenship and are more numerous and wealthier
than when they were at time of first contact.
But, as Ferguson eloquently argues, the British empire was
generally a pretty good deal for the natives. Railroads, sanitation,
and the rule of law count for rather a lot. And by objective measures
like incidence of famine, warfare, and civil disorder much of Africa
(and Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and Southeast Asia) has been worse off
since independence than under colonial rule.
More generally, whether imperialism was a good thing our not
depends on who the imperialists were. All were bad some of the time,
but only some were bad all of the time. Japanese imperialism was a genocidal
nightmare, and the Russian Empire’s brutality was limited mainly by
its incompetence. What the Belgians got up to in the Congo doesn’t
bear much thinking about either.
But the Germans, despite nasty spots like the Herero massacres,
weren’t too awful. Nor the French; they, like the British, believed
in a mission civilatrice and usually behaved
accordingly. Another objective check on this is that France still has
overseas departments in the Third World that are in no hurry to get
out from under the supposed yoke of European domination.
I think Niall Ferguson is correct when he argues that what made the
British Empire mostly a good thing was the presence of a strong
classical-liberal critique of empire from within itself. The effect
was that the British were unable to resist demands for autonomy and
liberty from their subject peoples once those subjects had become
civilized enough to make those demands in the language of classical
What was true of the British is even more true of the U.S., as (for
example) the independence of the Phillippines demonstrates. In Iraq,
which opponents of the U.S. repesent as an imperial adventure, there
has never been any question that the Iraqis would swiftly form their
own government and have political independence from the U.S.; the
option of ruling the country through proconsuls as we did for years
after WWII in Germany and Japan wasn’t even on the table.
A kinder, gentler, imperialism? Yes, actually; but, as Ferguson
and I have pointed out, the U.S.’s behavior is still continuous with
the entire history of Western imperialism, with all the promises and perils
that implies. Which means that, rather than accepting the simple
“imperialism = evil” equation dinned into us us by the Soviets and
their apologists, we need to learn from that history and, as much as
possible, try to avoid the bad parts and replicate the good.