The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 3

By William Roger Louis; Andrew Porter et al. | Go to book overview

30
Costs and Benefits, Prosperity, and Security,

1870-1914

AVNER OFFER

Empire for what? A benefit or a cost? Agent of peace or engine of war? To ask these questions about the late-Victorian Empire necessarily involves contemplating imaginary alternatives, 'counter-factual' worlds, in which the Empire did not exist or existed in a different form; imaginary worlds in which the First World War was avoided, or perhaps had been lost. There is no end to counter-factuals, but only one past. Counter-factuals nevertheless help us to define which aspects of the past are significant, and what questions to ask. To evaluate the past, as opposed to merely describing it, history must be compared with what did not happen.

To begin with, the questions of cost and benefit will apply to Britain alone. The experience of scores of societies overseas is beyond our scope. What benefits should we value? Intangibles such as 'well-being, or 'virtue' (e.g. in the form of I the white man's burden')? These may be rewards of Empire, but they are difficult to measure, and it is necessary to fall back on other proxies for success. Two predominate: one is prosperity, or economic performance, using the measuring- rod of money. Another is security: preserving the peace or prevailing in war. To be sure, prosperity and security do not capture the full range of rewards or address important non-economic and non-political motives for Empire.1 But prosperity and security, while only parts of the picture, are large and important ones. This chapter therefore surveys economic thinking about the theory of Empire, and goes on to evaluate the impact of trade, emigration, investment, governance, and defence on some British balance sheets.


Theory

The economics of Empire are informed by a few simple ideas, stated by Adam Smith and further developed by subsequent writers. Smith encompassed trade,

____________________
I am grateful to Michael Edelstein and James Foreman-Peck for valuable comments and corrections.
1
Ronald Hyam, Empire and Sexuality: The British Experience ( Manchester, 1990); Avner Offer, The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation ( Oxford, 1989), chaps. 9, 21.

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