Moral Decline and its Effect On the Collapse of Nations
Part One: Introduction "A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largess from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising them the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy.... The world's great civilizations have progressed through this sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to great courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to selfishness; from selfishness to complacency; from complacency to apathy; from apathy to dependence; from dependence back again into bondage." Alexander Tyler (ca.1770) When the American professor Tyler was writing this passage, he was witnessing the birth of one of the world's greatest nations. In the 1770's, the thirteen American colonies liberated themselves from Britain and began the legacy of the United States of America-a legacy that would endure almost three hundred years of existence, years that were filled with many glories and achievements. The American forefathers laid down a governmental system based on the numerous lessons of history. The United States' Constitution provided for the rights and freedoms of every citizen and allowed for amendments, or changes, when they felt it necessary. Its political system was equally well adapted. It fit nicely into Aristotle's model of the ideal state. Aristotle wrote that an ideal state would have the elements of a good democracy, an aristocracy, and a monarchy: a "good" democracy, as opposed to a "bad" democracy, in which the citizens participate in their government and always vote for the best option; an aristocracy voted for by the people who are an educated, wealthy elite that deal more closely with the intimate workings of the government; and a monarch-opposed to a dictator or despot-who is the sovereign head of state that follows the will of the people. The United States had, for the largest part of its history, all of these elements with universal suffrage, an elected congress, and an elected president. The spoils of such a government were enjoyed by all citizens. The freedoms abounded and the riches flowed. Immigrants came from all around the world to join the "Land of the Free." Through the course of one century the country rapidly advanced so that by the 1800's it was industrialized and was a player in worldwide trade and influence. Aside from one civil war, two world wars, and the occasional assistance in other countries' wars, America was not a nation wracked with war and its citizens enjoyed the security of living in a well defended nation. However, as one of the iron rules of history says, "Great nations will eventually develop great problems." America fell victim to its own successes. Ambassador Henry Grunwald, quoted by Richard Lamm in his lecture, "The Rise and Fall of the American Civilization," said: "For freedom to be workable as a political system, there has to be strong inner controls; there has to be a powerful moral compass and sense of values." America, eventually obsessed with its affluence and indulging in its luxuries and freedoms, lost this inner control and spiraled into decline. There started a drastic absence of morality, and such will, at some point, affect the entire society and will inevitably bring about its downfall. America fell just before the turn of the twenty-second century at the hands of the new Asian economic imperialism. The story of the Ancient Roman Empire is strikingly similar. The Roman Republic was born after Rome fought for its independence from its Etruscan rulers in ca. 735 B.C.E. This Republic remained until the reign of Julius Caesar ended in ca. 30 B.C.E. During this time the Republic grew immense in size; it overtook the Carthaginian Empire during the Punic Wars, and eventually encompassed almost all of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. The rise and fall of the Roman Republic is as noteworthy of discussion as that of the Empire, but here we will deal only with the Empire. The Roman Empire emerged out of the rubble of the Republic in about 30 B.C.E. beginning with the rule of Emperor Augustus Caesar. During its life of close to five centuries, the Empire extended its area even more until its borders stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Euphrates River and from England to the Sahara Desert. Like the United States, it too had many accomplishments as a society. Rome managed to grow out of its barbarous surroundings, form institutions of civilization, and acquire an affluence previously unseen in the world. The earliest days of the Roman Republic brought forth a coherent government and political process, much of which remained until the end of the Empire. Here again were Aristotle's three components of the ideal state present; there was a democracy, an aristocracy (senate), and a monarch. And, although all three did not remain until the end of the empire, remnants of aristocracy and democracy did remain throughout Rome's life. Roman citizens were able to live in relative freedom and security. Edward Gibbon, the great historian who bequeathed to us much invaluable information about Rome, wrote, "If one were to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus [C.E. 96-180]." (32) Many Roman writers also spoke of the "Immense majesty of the Roman peace." Rome was quite secure amidst the surrounding German tribes whose chief gods were those of war. The Roman army could, and did on many occasions, crush any enemy. Unfortunately, this great nation also developed internal problems that eventually resulted in its ultimate military defeat. What caused the downfall of empires as great as Rome and the United States? Amongst the numerous failures that contributed to their collapse, I believe that a loss of morality played a significant role. By that I mean the citizens of each somehow ignored the moral fibers that once bound their nations together. They indulged in luxuries-best defined as providing themselves an excess of possessions at the expense of the rudimentary needs of others, they allowed crime to abound, and they lost the sense of their responsibilities as citizens. The effects of their declining morality worked upward from the societies' bases until it pervaded all aspects of them. I believe that we can analyze the effects of this moral decline by focusing on these three failures of the societies. Part Two: Luxury and Classes Recalling Tyler's sequence. I believe both nations' morality became a problem with their step from the stage of affluence to that of selfishness. As the citizens grew rich they became greedy. In doing so they stepped into what one scholar has called "the Four Danger Zones of Morality: wealth, force, sex, and speech" which are the areas that, when neglected in societies, tend to present a plethora of problems. (Smith, 286) A plethora of problems was indeed the result. As America and Rome grew more greedy, class divisions became more apparent and quite volatile. Towards the end of both basically only two classes remained-those that had money and were well endowed with it, and those that had very little if any money. The rich ignored the lower class's economic problems, or simply detested the poor, because they felt that they were a national burden. The poor detested the rich because they felt that it was the rich that forced them into squalor. H.G. Wells said that the reason for Rome's problems "was not a decline in religion, a decline from the virtues of the Roman forefathers, Greek 'intellectual poison,' or the like. We...can see that what had happened to Rome was 'money.'" (366) Besides being detrimental to the societies' integrities, the divided classes destroyed the nations' economies. The poor were leeches from the system as they collected welfare entitlements and free food. Julius Caeser began the Roman tradition of doling out free food to those who needed it. At that time the number of recipients was 320,000; towards the end of the Empire it is estimated that a full two-thirds of the population of Rome were receiving free food. (Cowell, 138) In America the problem was the same; welfare and food stamps became by far, the largest expense of the government. In 1991 the Congressional Budget Office reported that ten percent of American citizens were receiving food stamps, and between unemployment benefits and food stamps (only two of the many welfare entitlements there was a yearly cost of $45 billion. The rich also fed off of the system. The upper classes were very politically powerful. It was the rich in the United States that funded candidates' campaigns on the terms of reduced taxes and various grants. "...[the campaigns] didn't produce politicians. It only produced political mercenaries that would fight for the special interests that funded them into office." (Lamm) Again, the same was true in Rome. The emperors would seek to satisfy the rich and powerful senators by relieving them from their taxes (which they would then reapply on the farmers). The Roman Salvian wrote, "...Who can find words to describe the enormity of our present situation? Now when the Roman commonwealth, already extinct or at least drawing its last breath...is dying, strangled by the cords of taxation...still a great number of wealthy men are found, the burden of whose taxes is borne by the poor... The rich have thus become wealthier by the decrease of the burdens that they bore easily; while the poor are dying of the increase in taxes that they already found too great for endurance." (qtd. in Grant, 131) Thus we have two opposing classes that worked equally against the possible continuation of the state. The people's greed progressed into complacency. The nations were content with their moribund condition, blind to their mounting problems and to their disproportionate wealth relative to the world. Economic decline was perpetuated by the immoral and apathetic multitudes that wanted only to appease their appetites without due consideration to the cost of their behavior. Thus, as the masses became richer, they became oblivious to others' needs. Neither nation made any effort to share their wealth with other struggling parts of the world. In fact, quite the opposite was true. Gibbon wrote, " The most remote countries of the ancient world were ransacked to supply the pomp and delicacy of Rome." (22) A parallel can be effortlessly drawn between this and the imperialism of the United States. The masses were apathetic to the rest of the world. H.G. Wells commented, "Rome was content to feast, exact, grow rich, and watch its gladiatorial games without the slightest attempt to learn anything of [the lands which they raped]." (392) The United States used an estimated 40% of the world's resources to satisfy 6% of the world's population. Although an increasing number of Americans began to recognize their gluttony towards the end, frankly the nation as a whole didn't care. Part Three: Violence and Crime Equally as symptomatic of the nations' spiral of decline was their invasion of another one of the "Four Danger Zones of Morality." Both Empires grew to be quite desensitized to force, or violence, and both experienced a surge of violent crime that ravaged once great cities into badlands of fear and despair. "Thousands of men despaired of making an honest living at all, and went underground to form traveling gangs of robbers and bandits. These guerrilla groups were swollen not only by deserters from the army, but by hordes of destitute civilians as well." (Grant, 110) This quote from Michael Grant could be easily applied to either twenty-first century Los Angeles or fourth century Rome. In this case Grant was speaking of Rome. It seems that as a nation's classes become more divided, "when the rich get richer and the poor get poorer," the lower classes are almost forced to loot and pillage in order to make their living. At such a time robbery, rape, murder, and other such heinous crimes abound while the government tries wildly, and yet impotently, to 'crack down' on crime. Salvian wrote: "...The poor are being robbed, widows groan, orphans are trodden down... ...We transform these misfortunes into crime, we brand them with a name that recalls their losses... we call those men rebels and utterly abandoned, whom we ourselves have forced into crime... ...They were satisfied to become what they were not, since they were no longer allowed to be what they had been; and they were compelled to defend their lives as best they could, since they saw that they had already completely lost their freedom." (qtd. in Grant, 112) And in America, one of the main issues that candidates would stress is how they would deal with the nation's rampant crime if they were elected. Jails become overburdened, and capital punishment was often the war cry for desperate politicians and citizens. America's murder rate grew to exceed all other countries' by alarming proportions. Almost every one of its large cities had 'urban ghettos' which were sure trouble to any innocent wayfarer. The Roman and American cultures expressed their obsession with violence by their choice of entertainment. The gladiatorial games were probably the most popular form of entertainment in the Roman world. The first game took place in 264 B.C.E., the year in which the first Punic war began, and was only a modest display of three couples (as two men fought to the death). However, this number soon progressed into the hundreds as Romans would use prisoners of war, captured slaves, and criminals as their combatants in the arenas. In the year 80 C.E, Emperor Titus inaugurated the great oval amphitheater, which is now known as the Colosseum. He promised one hundred days of games, during which ten thousand prisoners and five thousand wild animals were to fight. Though no record remains of what became of this exhibition, it does provide an insight into what was considered entertainment. H.G. Wells wrote, rather pompously, that "This organization of murder as a sport and show serves to measure the great gap in moral standards between the Roman community and our own." (362) However, perhaps this gap grew smaller than he had ever anticipated. The United States sensationalized violence through its media, their form of entertainment. News magazines often depicted gruesome photographs on their covers to grasp people's attention, songs that promoted and glorified violence were sung, most popular movies were based around violence-e.g. movies about serial killers, 'gang wars' of inner cities, or even heroes that didn't think twice about killing his enemies. The movies were judged by how graphic and realistic the violence was portrayed. The American Psychological Association reported that in 1993 "The average child has watched 8,000 televised murders and 100,000 acts of violence before finishing elementary school." There may not have been the "great gap in moral standards" that Wells spoke of after all. Is this obsession with violence only a symptom of decline, or is it a cause for it also? It does unquestionably make a statement of a civilization's moral declination. However, it contributes to it also. As people are exposed to such violence they become desensitized to it, and thus grow almost to expect and accept its occurrence. As Rome and America became enrapt in their violence, they became introverted and apathetic to the outside world. Rome eventually couldn't fill its military ranks, nor could the decadent civilians mount any sort of effective defense; and America eventually couldn't produce enough qualified or productive workers to operate the industrialized nation. In addition to violent crime becoming more rampant, both of the societies' legal systems grew increasingly impotent against it. It seems that as these societies became more immoral, further drowning in their sea of crime and litigation, their governments mass produced new laws-more specific and redundant-that addressed the situation. Gibbon detailed some of the laws set forth by Constantine between the years 315 and 323 C.E. One addressed "The horrid practice, so familiar to the ancients, of exposing or murdering their new-born infants, that was becoming every day more frequent." (Gibbon, 175) The edict made parents that were unable to support their newborn present their child before a magistrate. Gibbon later wrote, "The law, though it may merit some praise, served rather to display than to alleviate the public distress." (175) The Theodosian Code is a collection of Imperial enactments, extending back more than one hundred years, that were passed in 438 C.E. by both the Western and Eastern Empires of Rome. These documents also tell us a tremendous amount about the present conditions of the decaying empire. Within the Code, there were very specific laws that often times overlapped. This repetition, though meant to reinforce, only showed the law's growing impotence against internal turmoil. Michael Grant wrote, "Especially as the Western Empire drew towards its end, [the Code] displays an almost hysterical violence, revealing emotional confusions between sin and crime that would have been alien to the classical Roman Law." (159) And, possibly due to the increased focus on laws, or to the prosperity and status of the position, lawyers began to flourish like never before. Roman towns came to be filled by these new statesmen that seemed more inclined to indulge in unethical practices in order to win a case than to honestly accept a defeat. Thus, they did not help matters any. Ammianus, a Roman historian that lived ca. 330-395, wrote, "Not content with promoting utterly useless legislation, they employed their audacious, windy eloquence for criminal frauds, procrastinated by creating hopeless legal tangles, and deliberately raised deadly hatred between one member of a family and another." (qtd. in Grant 163) The American situation was strikingly similar. Laws were produced in each state that emphasized and reemphasized certain points about murder, abortion, euthanasia and many other subjects. The number of lawyers grew excessively... it is estimated that in the 1990's one in four hundred Americans was a lawyer, while in Japan, the number was one in ten thousand. Richard Lamm said, "The United States' legal system definitely contributed to their uncompetitiveness...as litigation hung over every U.S activity like a sword of Damacles adding costs to virtually every public and private affair." In the year 1990 alone, 18 million lawsuits were filed in America-put another way, that amounts to one lawsuit every two seconds. Thus, both Empires developed legal systems that failed to reverse their decline, and in fact "added fuel to their fires." Part Four: Responsibilities as Citizens "And if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand." Mark 3:24 "Join hand in hand, brave Americans all: by uniting we stand, by dividing we fall" "The Liberty Song" There came a time in both empires when the citizens began to be myopic, short sighted. Since they possessed everything that they needed and more, they no longer had to plan ahead to make their lives better. Their only priorities were personal or "special;" most thought nothing about prolonging the life of their nation, nor what would happen "to the seventh generation." Only that which was immediately good on the personal level was worthy of their attention. Therefore, one result was that people would desperately try to avoid taxes. And since the rich could succeed in doing so, there came to be an unbearable tax burden on the weaker citizens. In Rome the rich weren't only able to exempt themselves from taxes, but they also gained control of taxing the poor-which they did unmercifully. Salvian wrote, "...Taxation, however harsh and brutal, would still be less severe and brutal, if all shared equally in the common lot... The tributes due from the rich are extorted from the poor, and the weaker bear the burdens of the stronger." (qtd. in Grant, 109) Perhaps, in either case, if all the citizens had paid their fair share, the nations would not have gone bankrupt. Possibly an even more damaging effect of such short-sightedness was that the citizens no longer supported the institutions that once kept their nation running. America was an industrialized nation in a competitive world, yet its citizens allowed its productivity go to waste. From the 1970's upward, the United State's productivity drastically declined. The country went from being an exporting nation in the 1970's to an importing nation in the 1980's where it imported $1.5 trillion more than it exported. By the beginning of the 1980's America had the lowest productivity growth rate of any industrialized nation-it was 1/2 of the German rate, 1/3 of the French rate, and 1/4 of the Japanese rate. "The reasons for such decline were that they let their plants and equipment become outdated...and because of their inadequate education system, they could no longer produce quality workers." (Lamm) The result was that by the end of the twenty-first century, the nation was defenseless against the rising Asian economic imperialism. Rome was an empire that was able to remain in existence because of its powerful army. Yet it let its military decline in such a way that it "collapsed, in what at first sight seems an unaccountable fashion, before foreign forces which were... the sort of enemies that Rome had often encountered before, and had defeated." (Grant, 70) Seduced by the luxury of cities, most Romans weren't even fit to be soldiers, and those that may have been passed their duty on to the farmers; but the farmers, resistant against yet another burden, preferred to pay off their required service. What resulted was a mercenary force made up of the very enemies that they were supposed to be fighting. Germans and Huns were not only enlisted to fight for Rome, but were encouraged to take up settlement within its borders, creating a racial tension between the Romans and the "barbarians" that is unsurpassed in all of history, except maybe by the racial tension found in twentieth century America. Not unexpectedly, in the end, the Germans turned against Rome and put it to sack. Their leader, Alaric, became the captor of Rome in about 410 C.E. Part Five: Conclusion Is America just another Rome? Will history repeat itself again? Unfortunately, I do believe that this will be the case. Like Ancient Rome, America has already stepped past its stage of abundance and into its irreversible decline. Through this comparison of the two nations' moralities, I believe the extent of America's decadence can be seen. For many years now its citizens have bathed themselves in luxury to the point that now many do not even realize that they are living luxuriously. Thus, like Rome, its population is a showcase of smugness and apathy. The manifestations of America's immorality are also very similar to Rome's. I find it rather ironic that less than a century ago H.G. Wells commented on how easy it would be to appreciate the great moral gap between America and Rome by simply comparing the different forms of entertainment. Yet today America is internationally notorious for having a murder rate that far exceeds all other countries'. Also, it was not merely coincidental that I chose to give the example of Constantine's law that addressed the "horrid practice" of murdering infants. I see the whole situation arising again in America. Infanticide was Rome's abortion-parents that did not want to raise their child into a hard life, or those that could not support a child for whatever reason would simply leave their child to die. The current litigation over abortion might very well be interpreted by some future historian as "meriting some praise, but serving rather more to display than to alleviate the public distress." Finally, as Rome lost its ability to support its driving institution, so is America losing its ability. All of the vital components of securing a strong work force are deteriorating more each day. Children are not receiving an education comparable to other nations, factories are becoming outdated and yet there is not ample quality research to replace them, the enormous national debt and trade deficits point to the direction of collapse... The list goes on. Within a few short generations America will no longer be able to support its industrialized machine. While I do believe that the United States will eventually collapse, I do not look upon that as a necessarily "bad" thing. I believe that it would be better for a nation of apathetic, immoral gluttons to fall than to destroy the world and, along with it, the chance for future generations to survive. What would the world be like now if Rome had not fallen? Would there even be a world? Thus, what will the world be like in another two hundred years if America does not fall-will it be any different than the world you imagined would exist if Rome hadn't fallen?