Selfishness and the Fall of Rome

Link to Adrian Goldsworthy’s How Rome Fell: The Death of a Superpower

pp. 418, 419: 

It is only human nature to lose sight of the wider issues and focus on immediate concerns and personal aims. In the Late Roman Empire this was so often all about personal survival and advancement–the latter bringing wealth and influence, which helped to increase security in some ways, but also rendered the individual more prominent and thus a greater target to others. Some officials enjoyed highly successful careers through engineering the destruction of colleagues. Performing a job well was only ever a secondary concern. Even emperors were more likely to reward loyalty over talent. Officials and commanders needed only to avoid making a spectacular mess of their job–and even then enough influence could conceal the facts or pass the blame onto someone else. None of this was entirely new, but it became endemic. When ‘everyone’ acted in the same way there was no real encouragement to honesty or even competence. The game was about personal success and this often had little connection to the wider needs of the empire. 

It was not a phenomenon unique to the Late Roman Empire, nor are its implications only of significance to the United States or indeed any other country. All human institutions, from countries to businesses, risk creating a similarly short-sighted and selfish culture. It is easier to avoid in the early stages of expansion and growth. Then the sense of purpose is likely to be clearer, and the difficulties or competition involved have a more direct and obvious impact. Success produces growth and, in time, creates institutions so large that they are cushioned from mistakes and inefficiency. The united Roman Empire never faced a competitor capable of destroying it. These days, countries and government departments do not easily collapse–and Western states do not face enemies likely to overthrow them by military force. In the business world the very largest corporations almost never face competitors that are truly their equal. Competition within the commercial market at any level is obviously rarely carried out on entirely equal terms. 

In most cases it takes a long time for serious problems or errors to be exposed. It is usually even harder to judge accurately the real competence of individuals and, in particular, their contribution to the overall purpose. Those in charge of overseeing a country’s economy generally reap the praise or criticism for decisions made by their predecessors in office.