Imperial measurement

Think tank: Institute of Economic Affairs

Author(s): Kristian Niemietz

May 1, 2024

This report from UK think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs offers a cost–benefit analysis of western colonialism.

In recent years, we have seen a renewed interest in Britain’s imperialist past: the British Empire, the slave trade and the Caribbean slave labour plantations.

More precisely, we have seen a revival of the idea that the wealth of the Western world – and Britain’s in particular – was originally built on slavery and colonial exploitation.

Colonial empires do not come cheap. The acquisition, defence and administration of overseas territories require huge upfront investments and ongoing maintenance costs. This is why, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Britain and other colonial empires had higher levels of military expenditure than their less imperialist neighbours and, consequently, a substantially higher tax burden.

The economic benefits of empires are often overstated. Empires boost trade between their constituent parts, but they are far from the only determinant of trade volumes. At least some trade between Britain and India, for example, would have occurred anyway, even if India had never been colonised, or even if it had been colonised by some other European power.