How Powerful Societies Failed Because of the Low Morals of its Leaders
Experts found a common trait in powerful empires that plummeted
Throughout our lives, most of us have seen instances where a business or corporation goes down in flames due to corruption and various shenanigans of one sleazeball manager or CEO. They make one self-serving decision after another and completely wreck what hundreds, if not thousands of hard-working people, took years to build¹.
Now take this up a few notches. What if that lowlife was the leader of an entire nation?
Unfortunately, this is more common than we would like for it to be — especially during ancient times.
What researchers discovered out about ancient societies and their leaders
Recently, researchers discovered a common element in those powerful ancient societies that eventually fell. And perhaps it had something to do with karma.
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A study was conducted by anthropologists, who examined thirty pre-modern societies. And they learned that even civilizations who had ‘good’ governments were not protected from perishing. The ancient cultures that had savvy governmental structures and furnished ample goods and services to their citizens fell even harder than those with despots. This occurred even in the presence of substantial inequalities of wealth and power.
The prime commonality in such societies’ demise was when their leader’s failings tore apart the morals and ideals of their respective civilizations².
Could modern societies suffer the same fate?
Amazingly, these pre-modern societies were much like what we have today. They even possessed many of the characteristics that we would define today as a contemporary democratic country, according to Gary Feinman, the MacArthur curator of anthropology at Chicago’s Field Museum, and was a co-author of this study.
“The states that had good governance, although they may have been able to sustain themselves slightly longer than autocratic-run ones, tended to collapse more thoroughly, more severely,” stated Feinman.
Richard Blanton, the lead author of this study and is a professor emeritus of anthropology from Purdue University, believes that these societies’ breakdown could have been foreseen and even prevented. The only problem was that individual leaders caused so much damage that they couldn’t be saved.
“We refer to an inexplicable failure of the principal leadership to uphold values and norms that had long guided the actions of previous leaders, followed by a subsequent loss of citizen confidence in the leadership and government and collapse,” said out Blanton.
They focused mainly on these four empires
This study placed their particular focus on four societies that were around for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Those were the Ming Dynasty of China, the Roman Empire, India’s Mughal Empire, and the Venetian Republic. These societies had pretty much an even number of successful and failing leaders — even though they held no elections.
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While there aren’t any direct equivalencies of modern democracies to what was observed in ancient times, these anthropologists used other reference points, such as good governments’ main traits, especially when meeting people’s needs.
“They didn’t have elections, but they had other checks and balances on the concentration of personal power and wealth by a few individuals,” Feinman stressed. “They all had means to enhance social well-being, provision goods and services beyond just a narrow few, and ways for commoners to express their voices.”
Favorable governments provide the needed communication to citizens, collect taxes, sustain services, and disburse public goods. This was the formula for helping citizens and funding leadership.
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Societies with these elements tended to last longer than those ruled by autocrats or small power groups. However, when they collapsed, it was far more destructive on the citizens who became dependent on government support for their livelihood.
Conversely, when countries led by dictators fell, citizens fared much better because they did not rely as much on taxation, and their leader had monopolized all their resources anyway. We can also assume that people in these nations were already living badly because of those in power’s unethical behavior.
Poor qualities of a leader
What traits were required for a leader to destroy and demolish a previously well-governed society?
“In a good governance society, a moral leader is one who upholds the core principles and ethos and creeds and values of the overall society,” Feinman pointed out. “Most societies have some kind of social contract, whether that’s written out or not, and if you have a leader who breaks those principles, then people lose trust, diminish their willingness to pay taxes, move away, or take other steps that undercut the fiscal health of the polity.”
The primary lesson learned from this study is that any society can fail, regardless of how virtuous or powerful. In the end, every culture is as fragile as the human construct; that’s the cold hard fact.
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Past glory presents no assurance of future success. This is especially true when we elect leaders that serve their own interests and exhibit low morals.
To examine a modern example of this fact, we only need to look at Venezuela’s once-prosperous country³.
: Douglas A. McIntyre, Alexander E.M. Hess and Samuel Weigley. (February 10, 2013). Eight founders who ruined their companies. https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2013/02/09/founders-ruin-companies/1905921/.
: Richard E. Blanton, Gary M. Feinman, Stephen A. Kowalewski, and Lane F. Fargher. (October 16, 2020). Moral Collapse and State Failure: A View From the Past. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpos.2020.568704/full.
: Zeeshan Aleem. (September 19, 2017). How Venezuela went from a rich democracy to a dictatorship on the brink of collapse. https://www.vox.com/world/2017/9/19/16189742/venezuela-maduro-dictator-chavez-collapse.