Empires in Decline
Jude Wanniski
May 8, 2004


Memo To: SSU Students
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Ibn Khaldun, Part III

This is the third and last lesson drawn from Ibn Khaldun's history of philosophy in the 14th century, the three-volume Muqadimmah. It originally ran in the fall semester of 1998. You will notice political references to Newt Gingrich and Al Gore that now seem dated, but that is because I decided the examples are still good and work in context. This trio of lectures is meant to whet your appetite not only for Khaldun, but also for the classical works of Plato and Aristotle. The more things change, the more they stay the same. What I hope you can extract out of these three guest lectures is an appreciation of the timelessness of human society -- in its origins, development and goals. In Lesson #11 (April 23), Ibn Khaldun sketched out the origins of society, the whys and hows. Lesson #12 (April 30) developed the concept of the leader/sovereign and his assistants, the "bureaucracy." In this last part, Khaldun discusses the signs of deterioration or decay of an empire, all valuable and generally familiar. The most exciting and new to me is his discussion of the ideal ruler and the importance of his gentleness.

Also bear in mind in reading this that it suggests ways in which the United States might think of its responsibilities as the new global sovereign as we move by trial and error toward a management of the new world order. What we are experiencing now in Iraq is an "error" of global management that is the result of the Bush administration's "trial" -- its unilateral determination to get rid of Saddam Hussein. The pre-emptive war was based exclusively on its own information about the threat posed to its national security, the President deciding to reject the advice and council of the United Nations. In that sense, history would judge that the "trial" served a useful purpose in that it has produced such a clear failure that in the future there will no repetition. The ruler will henceforth consult the ruled before taking harsh action. That's also how Ibn Khaldun might see it.


Use of Clients and Dependents

The Concentration of Authority Heralds the End of the State

Reform of Political Institutions

Territorial Limits of the State

The Ideal Ruler

Use of Clients and Dependents

Know, then, that, as we said before, the instrument by which a ruler achieves domination is his own people. For it is they who band about him and give him support; they who help him put down rebellions; it is they whom he appoints as ministers and entrusts with the collecting of revenue and the governing of districts. For they are his helpers in victory and his partner in public matters, sharing his work with him.

All this is true of the state in its first stage, as we said before; in the second stage, however, when the king shows despotic inclinations, monopolizes glory, and keeps his former associates away from it, they become in reality enemies of his. In order, then, to keep them out of public affairs and to prevent their sharing in his power, he has recourse to other, foreign, dependents on whom he can rely for support. These foreigners therefore are nearer to him than are his own people; it is they whom he keeps close to him and takes into his service; they on whom he showers favours and honours; for they are ready to die for him and help him keep his own people away from the posts which the latter once occupied and from the positions they used to fill in the days when they had their share of power. The ruler therefore honours and favours his foreign clients...and chooses his minister, governors, generals, and financial agents from among them. And it is they who constitute his closest dependents and his trustiest advisers.

This change heralds the downfall of the state and is a symptom of the grave disease from which it is suffering. For it marks the disappearance of that solidarity which had secured domination; it also marks the hatred and enmity felt for the king by the original conquerors, who now wait for an opportunity to get rid of him, all of which causes grave harm to the state. This disease is incurable, increasing with time until finally it brings the state to an end.

Consider, as an example, the Omayyad dynasty whose kings relied, for their wars and administration, exclusively on Arabs, such as ĎAmr ibn SaĎd....

[At the beginning of the Abbaside dynasty too the kingís helpers were also chosen from among the Arabs.] When, however, the kings of that dynasty began to concentrate power in their hands, they began to check the Arabs and to rely on Persian ministers and helpers, such as the Barmecide family...and on Turkish clients such as Bugha....

In short, the state soon comes to belong to others than those who founded it, and power passes to others than those who first grasped it.
[Vol. I, p. 330]

The Concentration of Authority Heralds the End of the State

Once the concentration of power in one person has been achieved and luxury and inaction have spread, the state approaches its decay.

This is due to several causes:

First because of the concentration of power. For to the extent that glory is equally shared by all the members of a group, they all strive equally for it and make great efforts to overcome others and to defend what they have, spurred on by a collective ambition and force. They all aim at power and find death sweet in the pursuit of glory, and in truth would rather face annihilation than the disruption of their group.

When, however, one man concentrates power in his hands, he tries to curb the wills of the others and destroy their feeling of solidarity; moreover, he tends to appropriate wealth, excluding them. As a result they become lazy and unwilling to conquer, and soon get accustomed to humiliation and slavery. The second generation is brought up in that atmosphere, regarding the kingís gifts to them as rewards for the protection and help they give him, and unable to conceive of any other state of affairs. And it becomes rare to find anyone hiring himself out in a service which may lead to his death.

All this means a weakness in the state and a decrease in its power; for solidarity is weakened by the loss of these virile qualities and the state approaches its decay.

The second reason is that the establishment of a state leads to luxury, as we said before, with an increase in wants and a resulting excess of expenditure over receipts. The poorer among the people die off, while the richer spend all they receive on luxuries. This goes on increasing with successive generations until finally the whole income cannot meet the expenditure to which their habits of luxury have accustomed them, and thus they fall in need. When the kings demand that their subjects reduce their expenditure, in times of wars and invasions, the latter are no longer able to do so; whereupon the kings punish them and confiscate the wealth of many of them, keeping it for themselves or giving it to their own families or officials. All of this weakens [the ruling group] and consequently the power of the ruler himself.

Another possibility is that, as luxury increases and their [i.e., the ruling group] income is unable to meet their expenditure, the king finds himself compelled to increase the allowances he grants them, to enable them to balance their budget and put themselves once more on a sound footing. Now the amount collected in taxation is fixed, showing neither increase nor decrease; even should new taxes be imposed, the increase would only be limited. If, therefore, the proceeds of taxation are distributed in allowances, and the scale of allowances is raised, because of the greater luxury and the increase in expenditure of the recipients, the number of the armed forces must necessarily be cut down. When this process goes on repeatedly the number of soldiers greatly diminishes, which weakens the protection afforded by them, lowers the power of the state, and emboldens its neighbours, or the tribes and bands in its territory, to rise against it, until finally God decrees for it the extinction which is the lot of all his creatures.

Moreover, luxury corrupts morals, by inducing evil and depraved habits, as will be mentioned in the chapter on civilization. The good qualities of people, which were a sign of domination, now disappear and are replaced by contrary qualities of evil, which herald decay. The state then begins to decay and totter; it is visited by grievous and incurable diseases of old age; finally it passes away.

The third reason is that the nature of the state demands docility, as we mentioned before. Now once men have accustomed themselves to docility and inaction, these qualities develop into a second nature, as with all habits. The younger generations [of the ruling group] are then brought up in luxury, ease and inaction; the old habits acquired in their free life are shed, and forgotten the nomadic ways which had secured for them dominion, such ways as firmness of character, predatoriness and the capacity of going out and roaming in the wilderness. In short, they become indistinguishable from the subject sedentary masses except for their culture and insignia. Their power is weakened and their value as soldiers decreased, all of which harms the state, causing it further to decay. And so civilization increases and with it the habits of luxury, docility and inaction, and the people move ever farther from nomadic roughness and forget the courage they previously had, which enabled them to protect and defend themselves, until they eventually become dependent upon some garrison [of mercenaries], if they should have one. Consider only the history of those states whose records are at hand and you will see the undoubted truth of what I have told you.

And it may well happen, when this luxury and inaction and decay have come about, that the ruler of the state may seek the support of hardy foreign soldiers, who can show themselves more enduring in wartime and better able to bear hunger and rough living. This may preserve the state from decay for a further period of time, until God finally dooms it to extinction.

This is what happens in the Turkish kingdom of the East, most of its soldiers being Turkish slaves. And the kings choose from these imported Mamelukes both their horsemen and their foot soldiers, who show themselves hardier and more enduring than the sons of the Mamelukes who were there before them, and who have been brought up in luxury and the shadow of the sultan. This, too, is the case in the kingdom of Al Muwahhidum, in North Africa, where the ruler often chooses his soldiers from among the Zenata and Arabs, leaving out his subjects who are used to luxury. And by this means the state may acquire a new lease of life.
[Vol. I, p. 302]

Reform of Political Institutions

....The ruler then begins to modify the regulations which have been followed up till then in the military, financial, and provincial administrations. He thinks he can regenerate the state by balancing the budget, reorganizing the army on a sounder basis, reforming the provincial administration, and changing the basis of taxation. With this object in view, he follows faithfully the methods and ordinances which prevailed during the early years of the dynasty.

Yet in spite of all these changes the causes of the evil still persist, threatening the state on all sides. The empire still has to face the same tribulations as before and the ruler to fight against the same difficulties. He makes use of methods which have been tried before, hoping thus to ward off an evil which keeps on returning and threatening the integrity of the empire. Finally, he establishes a new frontier less advanced than the preceding one. But the same disorders which have marked the preceding reigns reappear.

All rulers who change the political regulations observed by their predecessors may be said to found a new kingdom and establish a new empire....
[Vol. II, p. 115]

Territorial Limits of the State

Each state has its apportioned share of territories which it cannot exceed. The reason for this is that the state must distribute its troops and armed forces among the kingdoms and frontier posts which have been conquered, in order to protect these territories against the enemy, enforce the orders of the state, raise taxes, awe the population, and so on. Once all the troops have been so distributed and there are no reserves left, the state will have attained its limits; should it then seek to expand further it cannot garrison the newly acquired territories, which are liable to be seized by its enemies or neighbours with a resulting loss of prestige which is harmful to the state. As long, however, as there remain some troops which have not been distributed among the frontiers and provinces, there remains in the state the power to seize what lies beyond its frontiers, until it shall have attained its limits.

The natural explanation of that lies in the force of social solidarity, which is like other natural forces; for every force gives rise to certain effects.

Now the state is stronger at the centre than at the periphery, weakening at the borders and becoming inoperative outside them, like light rays and beams radiating from a centre, or like circles spreading out on the surface of the water from the point at which it has been impinged upon.

And when old age and weakness overtake a state it begins to contract at the extremities, the centre remaining preserved until God decrees the total extinction of the state, whereupon the centre, too, is wiped out. And should a state be defeated at the centre it is of no avail to it that its provinces should survive; it will surely be wiped out. For the centre is like the heart, from which the soul is diffused, and once the heart is seized the extremities are soon overpowered.

Consider the Persian Empire, whose capital was Ctesiphon; once Ctesiphon had been captured by the Muslims the total power of the Persians was wiped out; nor were the remaining outlying provinces of any use to Yazdegerd.

Consider, on the other hand, the Byzantine Empire whose capital was Constantinople. When the Muslims defeated the Byzantines in Syria and wrested the province from them, they retired unscathed to their capital. Their empire continues at the centre until God shall have decreed its extinction.

Consider too, the Arabs at the beginnings of the Muslim conquest. Thanks to their numerous troops they quickly overran Syria, Iraq, and Egypt and soon overflowed into Scinde, Abyssinia, Tunisia, and Morocco, and then still further into Spain. They were then dispersed, as garrisons, to the provinces and frontier posts; as a result they had no further reserves and could not go outside their limits. Nay the borders of the state began to contract, until God decreed its extinction. And this was the fate, too, of the states that followed.
[Vol. I, p. 291]

The Ideal Ruler

Know, then, that the use of the ruler to his subjects lies not in his person, his fine figure or features, his wide knowledge, his excellent penmanship or the sharpness of his intellect, but solely in his relationship to them. For kingship and rule are relative terms, implying a certain relation between two objects: the ruler being the possessor of his subjects and the manager of their affairs. The ruler is, then, he who has subjects and the subjects are those who have a ruler, the rulerís relationship to his subjects being one of possession.

If this possession, and the consequences flowing from it, be excellent [i.e., if proper use is made of it] the object of rulership is perfectly fulfilled. For if [the power arising from] possession be applied in a just and beautiful way, the interests of the subjects will be promoted; if on the other hand it is applied in an evil and oppressive way, the subjects will suffer much harm and may even perish.

Now the excellence of rulership arises out of gentleness. For if the king is harsh, prone to inflict heavy punishments, always searching for the defects of his subjects and enumerating their misdeeds, they will be seized by terror and humiliation and will seek to protect themselves from him by lying, trickery and deceit until these qualities become ingrained in them and ruin their character. They may desert him in wartime, thus imperilling the country or else may conspire to kill him, ruining the state and its defences. And if such a condition should persist, their solidarity will be weakened and with it the very basis of protection of the state.

Should the ruler however be gentle with his subjects and willing to overlook their shortcomings, they will have confidence in him, rely on him for protection, love him, and be prepared to fight unto the death against his enemies, thus bringing about a general improvement in conditions.

As for the requirements of good rule, they are that the ruler defend his subjects and be generous towards them. Defence is indeed the raison díÍtre of rulership, while generosity is one aspect of the rulerís gentleness towards his subjects and one means by which he can increase their welfare; it is also one of the chief ways of gaining their affection.

Now it is rare to find gentleness in men who have keen intelligence and awareness; rather is it to be found among the duller people. For an intelligent ruler is apt to impose upon the subjects more than they can bear, because he sees further than they, and can, thanks to his intelligence, foresee the consequences of any act or event; all of which spells ruin to the subjects. This is why he [i.e., Mohammad], peace be upon him, said: "Follow the pace of the weakest among you." This is why, also, the Lawgiver does not require excessive intelligence [in a ruler]...for this may lead to oppression, misrule and the driving of the people beyond what they are accustomed to, as will be shown at the end of this book, and "God is the best of rulers."

[This is an extremely important insight, one Iíve never seen expressed as well as it is here by Khaldun. The leader, by virtue of his superior wisdom, sits atop the pyramid and from that point can see more of the surrounding terrain than any of his people. He may know exactly the direction they should carry the pyramid beneath him, but if he tries to move them faster than they are able to go, they will rebel against him and cast him out of favor. The best, most recent example is that of House Speaker Newt Gingrich following his ascent to the peak of leadership in the Republican Party after it won control of Congress in 1994. Determined to move the government as far and as fast as he could from his legislative leadership position, Gingrich outran the ability of his followers to follow, and the electorate turned to the "gentleness" of President Clinton for protection. After he won re-election in 1972, Richard Nixon decided "no more Mr. Nice Guy," and declared war on the federal bureaucracy. It was of course his own palace guard that turned against him and the bureaucracy that fed his adversaries in the press corps and Democratic Party. In the Islamic world, the Shah of Iran clearly outran his people in 1978, and they ejected him in favor of the Ayatollah Khomeini. This insight applies not only to governance of a nation, but also to any pyramidical institutional hierarchy -- including families and multinational corporations. JW]

It has thus been shown that intelligence and foresight are defects in a politician, for they represent an excess of thought, just as stupidity is an excess of stolidity. Now in all human qualities both extremes are reprehensible, the mean alone being commendable: thus generosity is the mean between extravagance and niggardliness, and courage between rashness and cowardice, and so on, for other qualities. And that is why those who are extremely intelligent are described as "devils" or "devilish" or something analogous. "And God creates what He pleases and He is the all-knowing and all-powerful."
[Vol. I, p. 341]

* * * * *

Intelligence and foresight are defects in a politician. But not in a theoretician. Sometime in the spring of 1980, a young reporter from Boston named Sidney Blumenthal asked me who I thought was smarter, Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan. I told him that Carterís IQ was surely much higher than Reaganís, but that Reagan would make a better President. Both might confront an automobile that would not run, I said. Carter could take the machine apart and put it together blindfolded while Reagan would not know how to lift the hood. Reagan, though, would more quickly check to discover that it was simply out of gas. After the famous debate in 1996 between Jack Kemp and Al Gore, the opinion polls showed Gore had easily won the debate. I told Kemp not to worry about it, that Gore had studied debating at Oxford. More important was a secondary question in the same opinion poll that said Kempís ideas were better than Goreís. By the same token, I could win a debate with Gore on almost any subject, but Iíve always known Iíd make a terrible politician, while Kemp is one of the best, in Reaganís league. I scarcely have the patience to be a political theologian. And Iím awed by Ibn Khaldun, as I guess you can tell.