If you asked the average American what he thinks when you say the word “empire,” he’d probably say something about exploitation, oppression and the heavy hand of intrusive government - a leviathan-like state we’re steering toward yet desperately need to avoid.
But in terms of the largest empire the world has ever seen - the British Empire, the empire that gave birth to the United States and gave America its ideas of liberty and limited government - he’d be dead wrong. Compared to today’s modern welfare state, the British-empire (that is, Britain and the quarter of the globe it governed in the 1920s) operated on a budget the size of the projected fiscal revenue for Best Buy stores in 2012 (in inflation-adjusted dollars). The British Sudanese civil service, which governed a country of 9 million people, was 140-men strong (smaller than the combined active rosters of the Rams, the Packers and the Cowboys of the NFL), and governed - perhaps needless to say - with a far lighter and fairer hand than the regime now in Khartoum. In India, 100,000 British soldiers and civil servants ruled more than 300 million people. To put that in perspective, in 2009 California, a state with a population of about 37 million, had 206,000 full-time state employees - that’s not even counting city, county or federal workers. Oh, and incidentally, it’s a little remarked fact that the British ended up taxing the Indians at a far lower rate than the Moghuls had taxed their subjects before the British arrived. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “I have more than once said that the government is best that governs least; and I have found that it is possible for me to be governed least by the British Empire.”
The British Empire was always run on the cheap. Indeed, it was often run by free enterprise, whether in the form of the British East India Company or by lone adventurers like James Brooke, the White Rajah of Sarawak, who paid for his wannabe British colony out of his own pocket and ran it quite well; so well, in fact, that one can only wish that trust-fund graduates of Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Princeton, Stanford, Sewanee, and Washington and Lee, who read “Lord Jim” in college and have a taste for adventure and good deeds, might put their financial inheritance to practical use and work their way into governing Darfur, East Timor or Guinea-Bissau. That would surely be a far more effective way of helping the tribes of Darfur, the Timorese or the people of Guinea-Bissau than joining the Peace Corps or working for the United Nations or getting a Ph.D. and lecturing on the evils of colonialism.
Even when the British government was footing the bill, economy was a byword, which is why, unlike us, the British Empire was content to punish Afghan regimes that didn’t behave without occupying the country and trying to “nation-build.” It’s why Winston Churchill and T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) installed a Hashemite monarch to govern Iraq after World War I and turned to the Royal Air Force to keep the peace there (it was cheaper than ground troops; and the British intervened again in a big way only in World War II when they reversed a pro-Nazi coup in Iraq). It’s why the British relied on “martial races” (Gurkhas, Sikhs and others) that they defeated in combat and then turned into allies, using them to police native territories. It’s why Lord Cromer said of Lord Kitchener, a career soldier, that he “won his well-deserved peerage because he was an excellent man of business; he looked after every important detail, and enforced economy.” In other words, he ensured his troops did not waste ammunition and he kept tight screws on the costs of his campaigns.
The United States, alas, shuns the idea of being an imperial power. Instead we’re a welfare state power. During the Vietnam War, for instance, President Lyndon Johnson extended the “Great Society” to Southeast Asia to the point that the United States Military Assistance Command Vietnam (better known by its acronym MACV) became, in the words of historian Walter McDougall, “less like a comrade-in-arms to the Saigon regime than a nagging social worker.” In Afghanistan, the attitude seems to have taken hold that corrupt warlords are to be shunned rather than cultivated and put to good use; so instead of warrior races filling the Afghan army and police force we have effeminate, mascara-wearing, cannabis-smoking, hand-holding types who are the despair of their American trainers. The British Empire would never have spent - and never did spend - more than a trillion dollars on Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead, British imperialists had specific objectives - keeping the peace on the Northwest frontier, denying Russian influence on Afghanistan, maintaining a friendly regime in Baghdad (to guarantee access to Iraqi oil) - and achieved them in the most economical way possible.
It’s not the “costs of empire” we should fear or shun - at least empire run on the green eyeshade British imperial model - but the ravenous maw of the welfare state that sinks its teeth into everything, ripping the heart out of our economy, gnashing to bits our freedoms, even projecting itself abroad, and demanding ever more from a cowed populace it claims to protect.
H. W. Crocker III is author of “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire” (Regnery, 2011).