The End Is Not the End

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Sometimes, comfort has to come in strange ways, and today, it comes from this paragraph in Glenn Reynolds’s most recent USA Today essay:

Of course, collapse isn’t, as Tainter notes, always so bad. When the Western Roman Empire collapsed, ordinary people were often better off because they were freed from the empire’s oppressive taxes and regulations (like the rules that sons of soldiers, civil servants and workers in government factories, among others, must enter the trades of their fathers). Many people in the provinces welcomed the barbarians. The new governments were actually better at what governments are for, as Tainter writes: “The smaller Germanic kingdoms that succeeded Roman rule in the West were more successful at resisting foreign incursions (e.g., Huns and Arabs). … The economic prosperity of North Africa actually rose under the Vandals, but declined again under Justinian’s reconquest when Imperial taxes were reimposed.” Likewise, Venezuelans will probably be better off when they eventually get a new government. They could hardly be worse.

I will say that I think we’re vulnerable on this count, in the United States.  Nations founded on a particular heritage or ethnic makeup don’t lose their identity during regime change, but we’re founded on a governing idea.  When that idea goes away (or when it went away) the identity, and the nation it defined, is (or was) gone, too.

But life goes on.  Some of the choices change, of course.  Those who grew up expecting to make decisions about vacations and what kind of cars to buy must instead make decisions about how much to stand up for their rights and freedom.  When a nation is, at its core, an idea, anybody can keep that idea alive — even as a memorial candle kept burning in some dim basement — until the world is ready for it again.  That too is a decision.

The long threads of human society, leading through our ancestors and us, then into the murky future, continue.  We just refine our understanding of our priorities and adjust our plans.  Our current circumstances are really nothing new in our society’s experience; we’re just living through a period of madness and decline.

As the song goes, “When the cities are on fire with the burning flesh of men, just remember that death is not the end.”



  • stuckinRI

    “but we’re founded on a governing idea”
    I think most people (I won’t use ‘citizen’ or even ‘resident’) in the US have forgotten this (and I wonder how many are even aware), and until some minority/majority once again identifies with ‘the idea’ we will continue this “madness and decline”.
    History truly repeating itself perhaps.
    I fear for my what my children will be forced to endure when they become adults.

    • Rhett Hardwick

      Not so sure about other Europeans, but among Germans I have spoken with, this is true. When they studied world history, the principle thing they were taught about the United States is that “it was founded on an idea”. Have we forgotten?

  • Russ

    Optimism!
    “When the cities are on fire with the burning flesh of men, just remember that death is not the end.”

  • ShannonEntropy
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