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
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
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.'"
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 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
(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
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,

"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 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
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?

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