Great empires rise and fall as seen throughout history. I cannot help wondering what cause them to falter. Of course there are many reasons. Most of them are simply perceived as external such as foreign aggression or natural disasters. Aren’t these the problems that every country has to cope with every now and then? Why some countries can deal with them and others cannot?
When a country succeeds in overcoming various external challenges, it grows stronger and rises to power. However, a country in decline becomes paralyzed and succumbs to the external threats. On the surface, its downfall seems to be the result of factors coming from outside. I think the opposite is true. The external factors only hasten its downfall. The root cause originates from within. Simply put, the decay and corruption of its human resource bring down the whole system. Ultimately, the ascendance of a country depends on how its people perform, not on how much machinery or materials it possesses. The reason is that people create new material assets when they perform well. When they are in decline, they will squander all their existing resources.
Why power cannot last long? Some fundamental truths are in order, which have to do with human nature such as aging, complacency, old attitudes, and entrenched interests, which will be explained below. These are the intrinsic forces that bring about decay within a society. The decay will be aggravated by one extra force: corruption. Again, corruption originates from within as a devious effort to protect entrenched interests from losing power, but unknowingly prevent the adaptation to new conditions.
Aging is an obvious debilitating factor apart from illness. Although the older you are the wiser you get, how much more productive can you become when you reach 60 or older? That is why there is such thing as retirement. Besides, the stubbornness of old age makes adaptation difficult. Thus an aging population is a worsening burden on the society as a whole. This is increasingly visible in countries like Japan and Italy suffering from a declining birth rate. Unless compensated by new young immigrants, the aging crisis due to low birth rate means not enough young people to replenish the lost productivity and energy of the aging ones.
Complacency is human nature. Who wants to work or compete if one can afford not to? Who doesn’t want to be a landlord or lender collecting rent or interest without having to labor? The question is not about whether you deserve it. It’s about human tendency to rest on their gains. After all, how many years do you have left to enjoy the fruits of your hard-earned harvest?
Old attitudes are hard to change. In the face of new challenges, they may even toughen as a defensive move. In a rapidly changing world, old attitudes stand against adaptation and change. They also discourage new ideas from developing by stifling brave thinking and experimentation.
Entrenched interests refer to traditional established industries and the old power structure existing in society. Entrenched interests represent the material side of old attitudes. The two are inseparable. Both will fight to the very end against change, adaptation, new thinking, and new way of life. They fail to react properly even when they see the world is rapidly changing.
Entrenched interests are flushed with money. They like to bribe government officials to set up laws and regulations for their own benefits. This is the worst form of corruption because the government now protects the regressive practices of big business rather than the public. Furthermore, corruption creates a culture that holds back progress because it emphasizes money and connection instead of talent and performance. In many countries, corruption aggravates the decaying situation to the point that the common people rise up and bring down the whole system in a revolution.
From the above, it looks like success ironically ferments its own failure. This decaying process may range from a few short years for an individual or company to a few hundred years for an empire or institution. This is a natural process tied to human nature, which allows the system to self-destruct and regenerate. Is this good or bad? I think it’s good for the long term but bad for the short term.
Regarding the fall of the British Empire after World War II, and the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, I urge you to think about the complicated causes. As for the Arab Spring of 2011, the result is messy and too early to tell. In China, Maoist communism has been replaced by a unique form of communist-led capitalism that yielded a surprisingly strange result. It has produced a new kind of business corruption quietly practiced by the Communist Party. In spite of this, the country has achieved astounding economic growth every year since the mid 1980s. It will be interesting to see how the decay and regeneration processes play out in the future.
Given that decay is a natural process, should we leave things as they are or attempt to do better? Of course we want a smooth and productive transition from old to new because this is what progress is all about. How? First, you have to fight the evil force of corruption driven by money. You cannot fight corruption by competing with the powerful entrenched interests. You must fight corruption smartly by exposing the corrupt acts, encouraging the press to dig out more skeletons, and protecting the whistle blowers who are not afraid to speak out. Corruption exists everywhere and varies in degrees only. It thrives quietly in the dark. All you need is to shine a light on it.
Apart from corruption, how can you fight the natural decay of the human resource in the first place? The answer lies in developing the next generation of young people who think freely, critically, creatively, and with the right attitude to adapt to change. This points to a quality education to prepare future generations for the challenges ahead. Every society needs young blood to replace the old. We don’t need young people to blindly follow the old. We want them to think critically what is wrong with the old system, and to reinvigorate the society by applying their new way of thinking to make progress. If the young generation fails, the society will slide down the path of internal decay aided by the business malpractice of corruption.