U.S. must adjust expectations

May 1, 2011


Comparisons between the Roman Empire and America are commonplace but also of enduring interest to pessimists seeking the secrets of decline. One explanation for Rome’s fall is that it was overrun by barbarians. But barbarians were already on the inside, many of them fighting for the emperor, as historian Finley Hooper observed. Incessant warfare and plagues were factors. A shortage of manpower and depletion of the soil may have contributed to economic decline.

The theory that seems most relevant to contemporary America is simple: The Roman Empire went bankrupt. Taxes soared even as the economy withered. People entered the civil service, where they could join the “tax-collecting units” oppressing those who still worked. Moreover, Rome became infected with a “loss of spirit,” wrote Hooper. Fear about the future pervaded the whole society. People felt that they had no say in their own destiny. The individual’s sense of responsibility “had been drained away by the increasing use of coercion by the government even for what seemed desirable goals at the time.”

All those notes have a familiar ring today. We may not feed people to lions, but our governments are very good at dreaming up “desirable goals” — regulatory fine-tuning of the cosmos, attempts to remove anxieties and discomforts from life. As with the Romans, the goals have outrun our means to pay for them. Increased longevity and technological advances have confounded the assumptions on which our entitlements were originally based. The money to pay for 30-year retirements and limitless health care simply isn’t there.

In short, our expectations have to change. Our joyride on high octane consumption and corrosive debt is coming to an end. We don’t need visionaries who promise to “change the world.” We need sober bean counters. We must live within our means. Politicians won’t save us. They’ll continue to promise free lunches while they demonize one another, as if the solution to our problems lay in a simple choice between Democrats and Republicans. Meanwhile, they’ll keep picking our pockets and distributing the proceeds to special interests.

Standard and Poor’s recently downgraded the credit of the United States. Several states are headed towards bankruptcy. The rest of the world is gaining on us, but we still act as if we’re the only game in town. We beat our chests about “American exceptionalism” while China eats our lunch.

Can we summon the same kind of energy and determination to face this challenge as we have in times of war? Or are we “exhausted” as the Romans were and so addicted to our entitlements that we’re incapable of reform? The image comes to mind of the Romans huddling inside their walls, while the conquering warlord stood at their gates, laughed at them and declared, “The thicker the hay, the easier it is mowed.”

— George Gurley, a resident of rural Baldwin City, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.


imlikesoomg 7 years ago

The first thing to do is remove Obama and his left wingers who are hell-bent on purposely driving America off the cliff, then fully plan on reshaping it as they envision it. They need to all be replaced with competent and patriotic leaders. Great strides were made back in November, and the job of removing these left-wing extremists needs to be completed November of '12.

Corey Williams 7 years ago

Because it's only the left that is "hell-bent on purposely driving America off the cliff". I guess republicans only do it by accident.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years ago

The main comparison between Rome and the US is extreme concentration of wealth, and the dependence of the wealthy on the cheap labor and resources they need to extract from the majority of the population in order to maintain it.

Blaming our problems on "entitlements" is nothing but a rephrasing of the following-- "The rich say we're broke, so the poor and middle class must pay." And this just happens to be the mantra of the Republican Party (and a whole lot of Democrats, as well.)

Ron Holzwarth 7 years ago

If the United States lasts as long as the Roman Empire did, we have many centuries left.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.