Time to put on my myth busting cap again. This time, it looks like the USA is turning into Rome. But probably not. This is a comparison we almost always hear from hyperinflationists, those making ridiculous claims about the USA being bankrupt or those who are excessively worried about the influence of the government in the USA. And maybe some of this is justified to a certain degree. After all, it was largely government ineptitude that led to the decline of the Roman Empire.
Before any discussion about the Roman Empire begins, we should put things in perspective. The rise and fall of Rome was a spectacular historical progression. Although the fall of Rome is often described as some sort of event, the truth is that the rise and fall of Rome occurred over the course of 1,000 years with the final 200 years broadly being seen as the period of decline. The USA has only existed for 235 years and has only been a superpower for about 100 of those years. This doesn’t mean we have 765 years left to party, but some perspective is appropriate. The tendency to view the fall of Rome as an event and not a gradual progression is highly misleading.
There are, in my opinion, three major differences between the Roman Empire and the USA. They are:
- The USA is not colonizing the world.
- The USA is a very stable political environment.
- The USA’s economic dominance continues.
Manifest Destiny is long gone….
The first point is one of the most important. Any empire that overextends itself is bound to run into any multitude of problems trying to maintain stability outside of their direct sphere of influence. At their peak, the Romans had conquered all of Eastern Europe, much of Western Europe, a large portion of northern Africa and much of the Middle East. This was no small feat back in the days before cars, phones and internet. Coordinating such a vast empire must have been a logistical nightmare. And that’s exactly what it proved to be. Not unlike the British Empire, this proved an impossible task as cultures clashed, coordination become increasingly difficult and authority from Rome diminished on the fringes.
Some people claim that the USA’s large military and policing of the world are somehow comparable to this. But the reality is that we haven’t colonized any part of the world since 1959 when Hawaii became the 50th state. It’s true that the USA went through a period of “manifest destiny” in which we essentially established what is now know as America, but those days are long gone. We’re not in the business of colonizing the world or ruling foreign lands. Yes, we are probably overextended on the military front and I am not sure why we often feel the need to police the world, but this is dramatically different than what the Roman Empire did through directly conquering and establishing their own leadership in other parts of the world and then attempting to maintain direct control over those regions.
The leading cause of the decline in the Roman Empire was political instability. The Roman Empire was actually only one period of Roman prosperity. Rome was many different styles of government over time with the Monarchy and then the Republic leading to its great rise and the Empire leading to its great decline. The Empire led to considerable division within the Empire itself with the leadership, at times, being distributed across many different Emperors. There was no real unification, but rather separate rulers as time went on. The Roman Empire was generally fragmented between East and West and this lack of unification led to instability as time went on.
The United States is in no way comparable to the Empire of disunity or rule by Emperors. We are and have always been a Constitutional Republic. This form of government has proven remarkably stable with time. And while we might see increasing disagreement among the various political parties within the USA, the foundation of our Republic is strong and stable. There is no first or second triumvirate, no Brutus stabbing Caesar in the back, no overthrow of one government for another….There is only a stable progression of leadership chosen by the people and for the people.
I know it’s not popular to cite the continuing economic dominance of the USA, but the reality of the matter is that the USA is still the dominant economic power throughout the world. Despite China’s incredible growth, the USA is still the largest economy in the world. Our GDP per capita is almost 6 times China’s. Nominal GDP is 23% of ALL world output. If you combined ALL of the BRIC nations you’d still have an economy smaller than the USA’s. We export more goods and services in the course of a year than the entire nominal GDP of Russia.
Now, clearly, the U.S. economy is in stall speed currently. I am not trying to downplay the obvious rut the economy is in. But let’s not be overly dramatic here. The USA is still comprised of incredibly innovative and productive corporations and a people who seek the very best living standards in the world. And while we might be a bit off track currently, I don’t see the trend in innovation and output collapsing any time soon. I know it’s not popular to be optimistic about the future of this country, but let’s maintain a little perspective here. The obvious direction from being #1 is becoming #2, but that doesn’t mean the American society is going to be overrun by vandals overnight to the point where it becomes a mere shadow of what it once was.
In short, the USA might be on decline (though I don’t really think so). But one thing we’re not is the Roman Empire. The comparisons are apples and oranges.
Mr. Roche is the Founder and Chief Investment Officer of Discipline Funds.Discipline Funds is a low fee financial advisory firm with a focus on helping people be more disciplined with their finances.
He is also the author of Pragmatic Capitalism: What Every Investor Needs to Understand About Money and Finance, Understanding the Modern Monetary System and Understanding Modern Portfolio Construction.