Empire, What’s it Good For?

A follow up to Darwin’s post.   I do not think that the United States is an empire, at least in the manner of past empires, and I do not wish to reopen that debate here.  I am more intrigued by the question of whether an empire has to be evil by definition.  I think it is an undeniable fact of history that, as is the case with all forms of human government, there have been evil empires, the Third Reich and Stalin’s Soviet Union top that list, mostly good empires, the British Empire I think is the prime example, and mixed empires, the Roman and the Spanish empires come to mind.  Even a mostly good empire can be hard to live under, as the Founding Fathers and my Irish ancestors would attest, and even an evil empire will have its adherents.  Like any human institution an empire has to be judged on its record.  The best empires I think are those which bring peace and allow for trade and the exchange of ideas among different peoples.  The wisest empires understand that no human institution can last forever and help to prepare by their actions their peoples for the day when the empire will be one with Nineveh and Tyre.

18 Responses to Empire, What’s it Good For?

  1. jpf says:

    “. . .mostly good empires, the British Empire I think is the prime example,”

    Then Washington, Jefferson, Adams, et al, must have been the equivalent of ungrateful Iraqi of their day, seeking to throw off the light handed and beneficent yoke of such a great and magnificent country. They were such ingrates.

    Didn’t they realize as Big Government Conservatives and Liberals do now that all the benefits of being a member of such a great empire do not come with out a cost. What are the loss of a few liberties and taxes in order to further the aims of such a great empire?

    Many of today’s present international conflicts and problems are the remnant of past colonial rule – good or bad. Different tribes of people being forced to live together with boundaries of artificially contrived countries mapped by former colonial rulers/imperial powers. Tyrannical nationalist rulers being able to prop themselves up by tapping into their peoples’ resentment of past colonial rule and continued internal intervention by world powers.

    Your video and comments imply that the material improvements provided by an empire can justify their existance and any downside to their heavyhandedness. . . . my, such a “Catholic” viewpoint.

  2. “my, such a “Catholic” viewpoint.”

    Take it up in the next world with the various Catholic Emperors and Empresses you will meet there. All forms of government can be good or bad depending upon how they perform. I am a firm believer in representative republics myself, but I understand that they can be bad just as they can be good. The same thing goes for empires.

  3. crankycon says:

    Was there an actual argument put forward in any of jpf’s rant?

    I would suggest that jpf read a biography of Adams, Hamilton, or really any of the Founding Fathers who continued to express admiration for the British Empire, even after we declared and won our independence. I’m sure one his buddies at the Jon Birch society should have a copy.

  4. Ryan Harkins says:

    Does an empire necessarily equate with evil? I think the question there goes beyond just looking at what good the empire could possibly do, or whether or not the rulers of the empire reigned benevolently. I think there’s also a historical situation that judges the goodness of empire. In that, I’m referring to rise in modern times of the notion of the nation-state, and also the modern technology that has allowed us to harvest far more resources than ever before, to make more efficient use of those resources, and to enable huge populations in such a small space.

    If we talk about an historic need for empires, we have to examine empires in terms the internal pressure to expand and the external pressures to halt or stagnate. In olden times, the way to acquire more resources was to expand the borders of the realm. But while that brought in more food and iron and whatnot, it also meant more land to govern and more people to feed, which had a tendency to entail further need to expand. However, if the empire ever reached a point where it stopped expanding and started stagnating, the empire entered into a decline. But then, if the empire grew too large, it became hard to manage, with rebellions cropping up in the fringe territories, and conquerors able to strike on so many fronts that the standing armies could barely fight them all off.

    I think historically, empires were what provided people with the opportunity to thrive and grow culturally. So historically, empires I think were generally good things (or maybe the least worst of all options).

    Nowadays, of course, the quest for more resources comes through economic and not military might (in general). Boundaries are essentially set; nations are more or less fixed in place, the idea of national sovereignty reigns so supreme that it is hard to think of things being any other way. The idea of conquering neighboring territories for access to their resources has become anathema (think the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait). I guess that’s a long winded way of saying we live in different times.

    In these times, the classic idea of empire has fallen away and has been replaced with spheres of influences, alliances, trade agreements. The true empires, it can be argued, are the multinational corporations, which run into many ethical considerations such as using lax labor laws in one country to produce merchandise at a low cost in order to sell in a country with much stricter labor laws.

    So in my mind, the classic notion of empire is essentially an evil today, but due to the changed circumstances. In the past, I believe they were more or less a decent option, given the choices (and perhaps modern prejudices that man back then was so much more barbaric than today, which I know is false).

  5. Matt says:

    I think the difficulty with empires is not necessarily with their maintenance, but with their creation. Taking over a foreign nation with the intent of possessing it without justification beyond expanding your own territory is the key problem. Now it may have been moral, perhaps in the case of the Holy Roman Empire where the expansion was, and presuming this to be true, based on the desire to spread stability and allow Christianity to flourish. Having inherited an existing empire, dismantlement is likely to cause more harm than good, and thus the moral action is to seek to maintain stability and expand justice within the realm.


  6. Elise B. says:

    I am not sure that Indians (from India) would consider the British Empire as “good”. What did Gandhi fight for?
    As a French-Canadian Catholic, I have reservations about the “goodness” of the British Empire. The first thing they tried to do, after the conquest, was to turn us into Protestants. And the “Deportation of the Acadians” would not qualify as an act of goodness. I remember the remark made to me by an Englishman as he showed on a map what had been the British Empire: “What a bunch of thieves we were!”
    Elise B.

  7. “I am not sure that Indians (from India) would consider the British Empire as “good”. What did Gandhi fight for?”

    For an India ruled by Indians, which he got courtesy of the British Raj destroying the Moghul Empire and the petty principalities into which India had been divided. Without the British India would still be a geographic expression rather than a country. I would also add that Gandhi was lucky he was dealing with the British. One can imagine how Hitler or Stalin would have dealt with him.

    “As a French-Canadian Catholic, I have reservations about the “goodness” of the British Empire. The first thing they tried to do, after the conquest, was to turn us into Protestants.”

    Actually didn’t the Quebec Act of 1774 guarantee freedom of religion to the inhabitants of Quebec?


    As for the expulsion of the Acadians, didn’t it occur because the Acadians refused to take an oath of allegiance to the British crown?

    “I remember the remark made to me by an Englishman as he showed on a map what had been the British Empire: “What a bunch of thieves we were!””

    No doubt a sentiment shared about the French canadians by the Iroquois.

  8. Matt McDonald says:


    Actually didn’t the Quebec Act of 1774 guarantee freedom of religion to the inhabitants of Quebec?

    the Canadian Constitution to this day guarantees freedom of discrimination against English speakers in Quebec… I, as a Western Canadian would not really consider the Quebecois to put upon, at least these days. Sadly the Catholic Church in that province is in ruins as well, and that has more to do with the Spirit of Vatican II than protestant oppression.


  9. Donald R. McClarey says:

    I deleted your last rant jpf. Find another venue to vent your bile.

  10. Matt McDonald says:

    guarantees freedom of discrimination against English speakers in Quebec

    Just to avoid confusion I am in fact describing the right of Quebec to discriminate AGAINST English speakers.


  11. The wisest empires understand that no human institution can last forever and help to prepare by their actions their peoples for the day when the empire will be one with Nineveh and Tyre.

    Which empire ever did that?

  12. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Britain with the parliamentary institutions it brought to every colony in the Empire. Canada, for example, where you currently reside, achieved dominion status in 1867, followed by a host of other nations over the next century. India, another example, pursuant to the Government of India Act of 1909, began the first steps towards self-rule which culminated in 1948. The British Empire is dead and buried, but the form of government it installed still thrives in many nations.

  13. When, though, did they acknowledge publicly that they would not last forever?

  14. I’d have to look it up, but I seem to recall several statements by British politicians during and after the Great War to the effect that by fighting the war Britain had effectively chosen to give up its empire. (I imagine Donald knows what I’m thinking of — he’s handy with a quote.)

    And the political choices made by the Brits, as cited by Donald, certainly seem to have constituting a putting things in order so that their fading into history as an empire (pretty much complete by 1950) would cause the minimum in pain and chaos.

    Compared to, say, the death throws of the Spanish empire, I’d say the Brits pretty clearly laid the ground work for a peaceful transition to the post-British Empire world.

  15. Donald R. McClarey says:

    by Rudyard Kipling


    God of our fathers, known of old,
    Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
    Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
    Dominion over palm and pine—
    Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
    Lest we forget—lest we forget!

    The tumult and the shouting dies;
    The Captains and the Kings depart:
    Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
    An humble and a contrite heart.
    Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
    Lest we forget—lest we forget!

    Far-called, our navies melt away;
    On dune and headland sinks the fire:
    Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
    Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
    Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
    Lest we forget—lest we forget!

    If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
    Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
    Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
    Or lesser breeds without the Law—
    Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
    Lest we forget—lest we forget!

    For heathen heart that puts her trust
    In reeking tube and iron shard,
    All valiant dust that builds on dust,
    And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
    For frantic boast and foolish word—
    Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

    It is always a good day when I get to quote Kipling!

    The British were always divided about their empire with the “little englanders” opposed to the imperialists. Kipling was of course an arch imperialist, but at the time his poem Recessional written for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee set tongues wagging with its theme of Imperial decline. Far sighted English statesmen realized the empire was in a downward spiral economically as early as the last Gladstone administration in the 1890s. WWI bankrupted England and predictions of the doom of the Empire became commonplace even as it attained its greatest geographic extent. A good book on the subject is Piers Brendon’s The Decline and Fall of the British Empire.


  16. When do all of you empire-watchers think the united states will acknowledge its imperial decline and cooperate with it in an act of imperial kenosis?

  17. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Contra Paul Kennedy I do not think the United States is in decline, imperial or otherwise. The US learned long ago that the cost of holding territories under direct control far outweights the benefits.

  18. I love reading articles on the British Empire. As an Englishman, I’m intrigued by how members of former dominions/colonies view Britain.
    I think that, generally the British Empire was a good thing. With hindsight, of course bad things did happen. The Slave Trade always stands out. But it should not be forgotten that Britain was not the only country exploiting this shameful resource. Many other nations are also not without guilt. Britain was simply the leading player at the time. Britain at least led the way in aboloshing the trade in 1807 ,when in the 1960s many Black people in the Southern States of the US (the greatest democracy on the planet) were still being cruelly persecuted.
    Spreading enlightenment and freedom of speech and thought can hardly be criticised. That is what the British Empire, I believe generally brought.
    To be honest, I think that Empire in principle isn’t a bad thing at all – if done democratically.
    An integrated world, politically and economically would be a much safer/fairer place, with a more objective distribution of resources. This would help defeat poverty, and fuse together common principles of what is just and is what isn’t.
    The European Union, the United States, and the Commonwealth of Nations all share in a belief in fairness and peace.
    I think that in 100 years time, Empire generally will be looked upon more favourably.
    With a bit of luck, as the world gets smaller politically and economically, a democratic UN will be granted more power to forge unity amongst all nations. The subsequent collective of states, united as one power under the UN flag, would serve the world of the 22nd Century much more efficiently and effectively than the current patchwork of nation states that have been in existence for centuries.
    That’s just my opinion.
    I found an interesting article by someone from West Africa on this subject that you may wish to read:


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