Foreign-policy realists and relative noninterventionists, among others, want to commit Americans to offshore balancing, an idea drawn from various English political-economic sources. After the Glorious Revolution (1688) securing the Protestant succession, influential English statesmen sought to make European balance-keeping central to their foreign strategy. Another view, deducible from 19th-century British practice (and formally called Hegemonic Stability Theory), wants the leading power of the day to impose free trade as a global “public good.” This self-justifying mission also entails someone’s keeping some sort of Balance. Most writers nominate the United States as world balancer.
For some writers, imperial freedom floats all boats (and not just the capitalists’). They thank hegemonic powers for liberalism itself, asserting that imperial naval (or air) power deployed overseas leaves domestic liberalism unharmed. By contrast, standing armies are said to threaten domestic liberty. Yet embracing imperial means, we might expect very thin liberalism indeed; with Machiavelli’s “republic for increase” walking the earth, we might at least speak frankly of “free trade imperialism.”
Drawbacks of the British Empire
Not so long ago, “empire” meant any consolidated, land-based state with an irresponsible executive. Such states were long-lasting. An overseas empire gained commercial wealth through naval power; its core was a republic or a quasi-republican monarchy (Holland, England). Such empires had shorter lives. They could be formal (= colonial) or informal (ruling through local collaborators). Few states have successfully combined landed and overseas empire. Britain, with its powerful Indian state, tried, but the United States remains the best candidate.
Anglo-Canadian historian Edward Ingram sees Great Britain/India as a dual monarchy. With India’s weight fully counted, the great fin-de-siècle German “menace” quickly recedes. Britain actually “relied on military [land] power more than sea power,” once India replaced “the American state it had lost” as of 1783 (my italics). Seeking to control (as against Russia) the space between its states, Britain “demanded” Asian hegemony and represented “state-building in the periphery as support for allies in the [European] core.” (This was the Great Game.) Britain was an Asian land power: control of the Indian budget and finances was not in Parliament. (This is very bad for the Democratic Peace Theory.) The Indian army was essential for “projecting power inland” (Egypt 1801, Italy 1945, and many other cases).
Ingram suggests that Britain’s famous balance of power “promoted, perhaps demanded, disorder” in Europe. (German historian Otto Hintze complained that under England’s policy, “the Continental Powers should destroy each other by constant warfare,” ensuring England’s “free hand at sea and in the colonies.”) Similarly, plans in World War I for spreading “havoc in Persia — what Britain called keeping the peace” — failed for lack of a suitable base (Ingram’s words, my italics).
If it was not mere delusion, the Great Game was what Brits-as-Romans did in and near India. Having hopped the Anglo-American Idea Express, the notion turned Teddy Roosevelt and others anti-Russian (hence U.S. favoring of Japan in 1905). For Halford Mackinder and later German and American geopolitical theorists, Russia would reappear, slightly disguised as a hypothetical Eurasian hegemon.
Historian David Washbrook writes that the locally recruited army was the “key institution … the single most important reason” for holding India, because it “relieved the British taxpayer of heavy military expenditures” while staving off “feudo-military reaction” at home. It was “the army of British imperialism, formal and informal, opening up markets … subordinating labor forces,” exporting progress — “the major coercive force behind the internationalization of industrial capitalism.”
While this useful Indian army permitted “the paradox of liberalism and imperialism subsisting in the same political system,” by the late 19th century, British possession of India mainly strengthened “forces of reaction.” The imperial connection bred “oppression and exploitation in both India and Britain at the same time.” (This “paradox” seems a case of wanting very badly to find liberalism where there wasn’t much of it.)
The tale of applied despotism in the British Empire would require many volumes: here the Governor Eyre massacre in Jamaica (1865) must suffice. Failure of the prosecution against Eyre made “administrative massacres” safe down through Amritsar (1919), Kenya (1952–1960), and beyond. Tax collection in Iraq by aerial bombardment (1923–1932) marks another high point.
England: “Liberal” at home?
English elites built their empire during the transition from agrarian capitalism to industrial capitalism. Historian E.P. Thompson finds in 18th-century Britain “a predatory phase of agrarian and commercial capitalism.” With the Hanoverian kings came new “courtier-brigands…. [R]eal killings were to be made in the distribution, cornering and sale of goods or raw materials … in the manipulation of credit, and in the seizure of the offices of State.” Down to the mid 19th century, English liberalism remained noteworthy for its relative absence, as critics such as Thomas Paine, Richard Price, Thomas Hodgskin, William Cobbett, and Samuel Bamford could testify.
Writing in 1814, Virginian planter John Taylor of Caroline (1753–1824) saw Imperial Britain as everything Americans should reject. Britain’s domestic and foreign ills were intertwined, with “compulsion at the beginning, as well as at the end of her commerce.” A “monopolized currency” depressed wages at home and naval power, maintained by taxes on labor, sold goods abroad at high prices, “by vexing and crippling competition.” English wealth arose from “two sources, knavery and violence.” This system generated frequent foreign wars, while “penalties, corruptions, and mercenary armies” oppressed English workers. That Britons enjoyed a few bits of freedom meant little in the colonies: “Mr. Hume has said, that free governments are … most ruinous and oppressive to their provinces,” as Ireland and India showed.
To Taylor, the English state was “a confederation of parties of interest”: “the church of England, the paper stock party, the East India company, the military party, the pensioned and sinecure party, and the ins and outs” (Whigs and Tories), all growing fat in the monarch’s shadow. Properly speaking, England had “no government” —there was “no British nation” beyond the interested parties.
Referring to the “brisk circulation of money” advocated by Dr. Samuel Johnson (the “best informed” Tory), Taylor added “a brisk circulation of power,” since Johnson “neglected to tell us … that money attracts power, and power, money; and that by accumulating either for the sake of a brisk circulation, you accumulate and circulate both.”
As for the balance of power, Taylor wrote that it presupposed hostility, whose effect was war: “A balance of power is therefore the most complete invention imaginable for involving one combination of states, in a war with another.”
Historians Philip Harling and Peter Mandler write that by 1815 “a ruthlessly regressive tax system” secured to Britain the highest revenue (relative to GNP) of any major state. “War and foreign policy” drove the 18th-century British state — a war machine based on credit, taxes, and excises. The enormous costs of its wars, including the American and French revolutions, piled up huge debt service. Reacting badly, the English public became a disguised Country Party unwilling to pay. Retrenchment and the gold standard were popular; attacks on fees, gratuities, and sinecures abounded.
Demanding cheaper but “more efficient” government, Whigs and Benthamite reformers cut military expenses but expanded state activity elsewhere. From the late 1700s into the 1830s, new men with gentry, Indian, colonial, and military connections, and wealthy brewers, lawyers, and overseas merchants, joined the landed elite. City men (bankers, lenders) favored the standing military-fiscal order. Reform made it less costly, but (alas) saved it.
Ingram notes that “noblemen, civil servants, army and navy officers, and bankers” — not “industrialists, manufacturers, and merchants” — ran the British state (or states). The old Great Britain, built between 1784 and 1842, was “authoritarian and militarist … created by force.” Financial power, not cotton and manufacturing, accounted for its wealth, which “followed” upon world power. The response to the Indian Mutiny (1857) showed that “Britain was not a liberal constitutional monarchy, but a militarist despotism, however supposedly enlightened” — “dominated by the landed, financial, service elites who represented the City’s interests.”
Empire and actually existing liberalism
Strictly free trade and markets seem rather absent from this picture so far. If we looked deeper (Ireland and India would suffice) we would find a pattern of constant, detailed intervention and redistribution of land and resources by the imperial authorities. If that is how a hegemon produces economic liberalism, something is quite wrong.
And in any case, what is the connection supposed to be, exactly, between liberalism and free trade? Is much liberalism involved when Prussian Junkers (or South Carolina planters) go in for free trade? Is free trade, considered abstractly, so wonderful that if empire can get it for us more quickly, we should take up empire? If empire causes free trade and free trade causes liberalism, then we only need to get ourselves a hegemon to provide us with these worthy appliances.
But then (to take an admittedly extreme example) what if the German Reich, dominant in Europe as of 1942, had repackaged its Greater German cartel economy as free trade? There was precedent for that: already in the First World War, German planners, writes Dale C. Copeland, considered establishing “a free-trade zone within Europe after victory in order to compete against the remaining world powers”; and in World War II, they envisioned “a self-sufficient ‘large economic area’ … protected by tariff barriers.” If internal trade were freer in either of these cases, can we not call it free trade?
Further, as John Locke, Thomas Paine, and Hans-Hermann Hoppe have noted, a liberal state can accumulate massive arms at modest tax rates. But “liberal” here means little more than having a monarch or bureaucratic class able to grasp the Laffer Curve principle that lower taxes on relatively free production can yield higher revenues. We may doubt that the empire built by such a “liberal” state will be especially liberal in its overseas workings.
If the point is that under “free trade” certain fellows will make more money than they otherwise would, it might be cheaper to find them and pay them directly. On various trickle-down arguments, the economic benefits to the rest of us ought to be substantially the same, and we shall have saved ourselves the costs of empire — including certain rather subtle moral, institutional, and legal costs. Costs, of course, bring us to blowback.
The employment of many liberals in the India Office made the self-erasure of English liberalism nearly inevitable. As “justifiable” exceptions to laissez faire, big infrastructure projects in India undercut the usual arguments of economic liberals. Political economists discussed “improvements” in Ireland as if no people lived there, aside from English landlords. Reactionary values (“service ideology”) flourished in the empire and spilled into domestic life. Constant war and war scares tended to militarize the mass mind, making patriotism the first refuge of scoundrels.
Richard Cobden asked in 1850, “Is it not just possible that we may become corrupted at home by the reaction of arbitrary political maxims in the East upon our domestic politics, just as Greece and Rome were demoralised by their contact with Asia?” Since the “arbitrary maxims” in question were those of British administrators, their return home was both possible and unwelcome.
Decades later, in 1902, John A. Hobson complained that the Liberal party’s “leaders, having sold their party to a confederacy of stock gamblers and jingo sentimentalists, find themselves impotent to defend Free Trade, Free Press, Free Schools, Free Speech, or any of the rudiments of ancient Liberalism.” He deplored demands for uncritical support of executive measures abroad and the corresponding decline of party criticism (which Americans learned to call “bipartisanship”) and laid out the ways in which empire exalted executive power over Parliament and gutted representative government. (Here in 1902 was the same message Garet Garrett preached to Americans in his Rise of Empire.)
As for famous English liberties (including pre-liberal ones, such as habeas corpus and much of common law), those did in fact exist, subject always to numerous exceptions tied to status and social class. If English liberalism accomplished anything, it was to generalize “feudal” survivals and make them available to more people. (Later, of course, Benthamite liberal bureaucracies began taking them away again.) Hangings gradually declined, in favor of transportation, but the “crimes” so punished remained as trivial or political as before (poaching, for example). Colonial police methods crept into Britain itself. Administrative, legal, and policing experiments in Ireland may have been especially important.
Our own very British coup
To follow in Britain’s footsteps, we would have to:
Impose “free trade” as a global public good.
Not have standing armies at home. (No one takes this seriously, especially as America’s standing armies of police robotically adopt imperial-military ideas and practices and imaginary barriers between empire and “liberalism” melt away.)
Promote disorder in Europe and elsewhere…. Spread havoc in Persia — or anywhere — and call it keeping the peace. (Americans have some experience here.)
Invent a flawless find-a-stooge app or logarithm, since as Ingram says, “Any offshore balancer looks for a stooge.” (The stooge-app, long under construction, has not worked so far.)
When the United States spreads death, chaos, and confusion far from home, it is acting in a very British tradition. (So, too, when it shapes its home economy to the interests of microscopic elites, and does everything against which John Taylor warned us.) So U.S. elites slog on — waist deep in the big muddy, the big sandy, the big tundra — merging landed and overseas empire, playing at being Brits playing at being Romans, precisely when defense has become a hopelessly threadbare excuse for the whole operation.
Against that background, balancers come at us from two or more sides, pleading their modest aims as the relative peace party, since they have no ideological or oily-and-gaseous crusades. Similarly, Imperial British “isolationists” only wanted overseas empire built on naval power and eschewed European involvement, except when the continental balance seemed threatened. American “imperial isolationists” (Charles Beard’s term), heirs of William McKinley, took a similar view. (These heirs included certain interwar Republican “isolationists” allergic to war in Europe but ready to intervene in Latin America or Asia.) But that means that both of the unilateralist-imperialist cadres courted overseas wars anywhere outside Europe, and accepted them there under certain circumstances: hardly a real peace position or even a noninterventionist one.
John Taylor gave little ground to iron-bound, “realist” necessities. He saw America as able to deal well enough with the European states-system while avoiding illiberal, state-building wars. Only Americans could throw away their geographical and political advantages and make their country into a “spurious” republic, heavily taxed and often at war. It was never America’s job or destiny to do British history over again.
But again, only a rather exceptional nation could keep its leaders and elites off the path of empire, once they have been tempted by it.
This article was originally published in the May 2015 edition of Future of Freedom.