Imperialism refers to both a political practice and the set of arguments used to justify it. In the first sense, it means a state of affairs in which one nation, tribe, or political entity (or, actually, their ruling elite) exercises political power over others. The resulting polity is an empire. The term empire also can be used to describe a political order that unites all of a single civilization or culture, as in the case of historic China, but this scenario is less common. In its pure form, imperialism involves the direct rule of subordinate peoples and territories by the imperial power. However, it also can take the form of indirect or hegemonic control, in which the imperial power does not govern directly, but through clients.

Empires have been a feature of world politics almost since the first appearance of complex political orders some 6,000 years ago. In fact, by some calculations, the majority of human beings in most periods of history have lived within empires, rather than one of the other forms of polity. In most periods, the logic of interstate relations and the self‐​interest of ruling elites have driven states to expand and become empires by various means, until they were checked by an external force or by natural limits. The ancient world saw a whole series of empires rise and fall, including the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Achaemenid Persian Empires in the Middle East and the Mauryan, Kushan, and Gupta Empires in India. In China, the various competing states were united into a single inclusive empire by the state of Qin in 221 B.C. The best‐​known empire of the ancient world was, of course, the Roman Empire, which faced an equally large adversary in the neo‐​Persian empire of the Sassanians after 224 A.D. In the ancient world, one can already see the emergence of an ideology of empire as well as its practice. This ideological rationale takes two distinct, but not exclusive, forms. The first in essence is the argument that “might makes right,” that the success of the dominant imperial power justifies and legitimates its rule. This argument suggests that the imperial power is simply the one that has come out on top through its own qualities or fortune. However, this justification is usually supplemented by the second argument—that the imperial state is favored by divine authority and is fulfilling some kind of providential destiny and that, in doing so, it benefits the world in general and its own subjects in particular. This view makes of imperialism a moral enterprise. The benefits always include peace, order, and good government.

The early Middle Ages saw a decline of empires in several parts of the world, but imperialism later reappeared, particularly in China and the Middle East. The 13th century saw the formation of the largest empire yet and the closest the world had come to a truly universal one, with the appearance of the Mongol empire created by Genghis Khan and his successors. However, the empires that shaped much of the history of the modern world came into being after the disintegration of the Mongol hegemony, as a result of the so‐​called military revolution of the late medieval and early modern period. By 1590, most of the Old World was dominated by a small number of large empires, in particular the Chinese, Ottoman, Iranian, Russian, and Mughal empires. Europe did not see the emergence of a single imperial hegemon in the way that China, India, Russia, and the Middle East did. However, the European advantage in long‐​distance oceanic travel and the conquest by European nations of most of the New World after 1492 led to the appearance of seaborne empires, in which European powers exercised imperial rule over territories in other parts of the world through naval power. The first such empires were those of Portugal and Spain, followed by the Dutch Republic, France, and Britain.

The 18th century was the first great age of world imperialism. The European empires that had come into being during the previous two centuries ruled large parts of the planet directly and increasingly dominated other areas, such as much of India. Meanwhile, the Chinese conquered Tibet and a large part of Central Asia while the Russians expanded overland across Northern Asia. At the same time, there was a rearticulation of the ideology of imperialism. Although it continued to be defended on the grounds of self‐​interest, imperial rule was further justified as spreading civilization and true religion and as reflecting the moral, cultural, and racial superiority of the imperial nation. The argument from self‐​interest rested on the connection of imperialism and its related phenomenon of colonial settlement with the economic doctrines of mercantilism. According to this view, trade was a form of competition or struggle between states for shares of an ultimately fixed amount of wealth. Thus, the way to prosperity was for a state to control a large area of the planet’s surface and of the trade that took place among the people who lived on it and to capture the wealth that the trade created. This approach meant encouraging specialization and a division of labor within the empire, but not on a global basis. In particular, it implied that colonies should supply raw materials and cash crops in exchange for finished manufactured goods and high‐​value services, which would be produced by the core imperial territory. Nor would direct trade be permitted with people from outside the imperial sphere. This prohibition was enforced by tariffs or outright trading prohibitions. The effect was that, in practice, imperialism led to grants of monopoly trading rights within a given part of the world to specially privileged groups of merchants and investors, such as those involved in the Dutch and British East India companies.

Opposition to this kind of imperialism was a central feature of classical liberal thought and agitation from the beginning. Adam Smith made criticism of the “colonial system” a central part of the Wealth of Nations, and his arguments were extended and developed by subsequent economists and liberal activists. They maintained that imperialism and the associated economic policy of protectionism and special privileges were harmful to both the subaltern populations of the colonies and the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of the imperialist territory. In fact, the only groups that were economically better off as a result of these imperialist ventures were those who gained from the special privileges that were part of the system. This economic critique was only one element in the case against imperialism made by classical liberal thinkers and politicians. It also was attacked because it was viewed as inherently associated with other things that they opposed, such as slavery and warfare. In particular, imperialism’s opponents made the argument that imperialism was necessarily associated with extensive and oppressive government and a whole series of cultural values that they strongly condemned. Imperialism was inherently wrong, they contended, because it violated the political principle of consent, which, for most classical liberals, was the only legitimate basis for political authority. One important argument that combined political and social analysis with an economic one was that imperialism was a policy that served the interests not of the great bulk of society—the “industrious classes”—but of the parasitic groups that gained wealth through the exploitation of political power. Thus, this conclusion combined a critique of imperialism with the classical liberal theory of class conflict as articulated by thinkers such as Frédéric Bastiat, Charles Comte, and Charles Dunoyer.

Between 1776 and the 1850s, the intellectual and political tide moved in favor of the classical liberal critique and against imperialism. Movements such as the Manchester School of Richard Cobden and John Bright made opposition to British imperialism one of their central doctrines. Following the successful revolt of the American colonists against the first British Empire, most of the Spanish and Portuguese territories gained independence by the later 1820s, and after the Mackenzie rebellion in 1837, the Durham Report led to the granting of self‐​government to Canada, a model followed elsewhere in the British Empire. By 1850, there seemed to be a growing consensus that colonies and imperialism were morally disreputable and a waste of money. However, British rule in India through the East India Company became even more extensive and intrusive over this period, and anti‐​imperialism began to lose support in the 1860s. The last third of the 19th century witnessed a revival of European imperialism both in practice and theory with the extension of direct imperial rule to areas that had previously escaped it, such as most of Africa and parts of Asia and the Pacific. This renewed expansionism was justified partly by a revival of mercantilist thinking, but, more important, by the increasing popularity of the idea of empire as a civilizing mission of tutelary powers engaged in the uplifting of backward peoples, together with the newly formulated arguments of pseudoscientific racism. Classical liberals such as Herbert Spencer kept up a strong resistance to the idea of a civilizing empire, and to the racism it often entailed, but they were on the losing side.

The position of the United States in this argument was problematic. As a polity born of a successful revolt against imperial rule, the United States being an anti‐​imperial power was always an important part of its national self‐​image. However, during the first half of the 19th century, there was a vigorous internal debate between the advocates of territorial expansion and groups such as the Old Republicans and certain elements in the Democratic Party who saw episodes such as the Mexican War as imperialist and a threat to the republican and constitutional nature of the American regime. After the Civil War, the expansion of the United States to its natural boundaries—defined by the two oceans, the Rio Grande, and the 49th parallel—was seen by most Americans as inevitable and not an example of imperialism. However, arguments in favor of the United States adopting an imperialist policy in other parts of the world became stronger after 1880 and finally proved successful with the Spanish American War of 1898, which led to the annexation of the Philippines and Puerto Rico. This conquest was followed by a much more extensive interventionist policy in Latin America and the Caribbean under Theodore Roosevelt, leading to an informal empire in much of that region of the world. Classical liberals such as E. L. Godkin and William Graham Sumner strongly opposed this turn in policy and argued that as well as being wrong, it would be harmful to the cause of liberty and republican government within the United States.

During the 20th century, imperialism reached its height after World War I. However, the period since 1939 has seen the collapse of all of the European empires, as well as the demise of Russian, German, and Japanese imperialism and the final disappearance of the Ottoman Empire. The United States played an active role in much of this ruin, and its hostility to the French and British Empires contributed to their demise. Critics, however, including some libertarians, have argued that this overtly anti‐​imperialist policy went along with the development of an informal American empire. Discussion of imperialism in the 20th century has been dominated by the analysis put forward in 1902 by J. A. Hobson in his book Imperialism: A Study, which was later taken over by Lenin in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Hobson reiterated the classical liberal argument that imperialism reflected the interests of a small predatory class, but made this class financial investors, rather than a political elite. Lenin adopted this view and argued that imperialism allowed the capitalists to buy off their own working classes and so head off the supposedly inevitable proletarian revolution. Although disproved by a whole range of empirical evidence, this thesis has been and remains amazingly influential.

The last 10 years have seen a revival of the argument for imperialism as a broadly beneficial phenomenon. The case put forward by authors such as Niall Ferguson is that the world economy as a whole needs a single imperial power that will act as a global hegemon and provide public goods such as protection against predators and a framework of rules and laws for the global economy and society as a whole. In the 19th century, this service was provided by the British Empire, whereas the United States now finds itself with this role. The second part of the argument is an updated version of the notion of imperialism as a civilizing mission. The idea is that imperial powers can provide the goods of law and good government and social and economic development to parts of the world that would otherwise lack them. In general, most contemporary libertarians are as strongly opposed to this revival of imperialist thinking as their classical liberal forbears were to its antecedents 100 or 200 years ago.

Further Readings

Armstrong, William M. E. L. Godkin and American Foreign Policy, 1865–1900. New York: Bookman, 1957.

Hobson, John A. Imperialism: A Study. New York: James Pott and Co., 1902.

Mises, Ludwig von. Nation, State, and Economy. New York: New York University Press, 1983.

Spencer, Herbert. Facts and Comments. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1902.

Trask, H. A. Scott. “William Graham Sumner: Against Democracy, Plutocracy, and Imperialism.” Journal of Libertarian Studies 18 no. 4 (Fall 2004): 1–27.

Stephen Davies
Originally published