In an interview about imperialism Chomsky claims there were no overall benefits of colonialism to the British population, and asserts there are studies confirming this.

But, going back to the British Empire, the studies of it have suggested that the costs to the British people may have been about on a par with the benefits that the British people got from it. However, it’s a transfer internally. To the guys who were running the East India Company: fantastic wealth. To the British troops who were dying out in the wilderness somewhere: a serious cost. So it’s a part of class war internally. And to a large extent that’s the way empires work. A big element of it is internal class war.

Source: https://chomsky.info/200311__/

is this claim supported by studies?

(In response to some comments) note, I’m not asking whether the claim is decidedly true but whether studies exist supporting the claim. Chomsky can be forgiven for recalling a conclusion of a poor study but not for making up facts and claiming they’re supported by research.

  • 2
    What's the security and pride of being a super power cost? Hard to quantify, I'd think.
    – user11643
    Commented Jul 15, 2018 at 20:54
  • 1
    Did the British working class actually have security circa 1900, though? This would presumably include the Irish
    – Avery
    Commented Jul 15, 2018 at 22:14
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    You realize that any "net benefits" calculation entails subtracting apples from pears... well assigning some numerical wight value to apples, and some to pears, and then doing the math. I don't see how that isn't going to be primarily opinion based. It's like asking "was the net benefit/legacy of president X's policies [across all domains] positive or negative?" Etc. Commented Jul 15, 2018 at 22:39
  • See for instance the equivocal answer to "Did Britain grow rich while the empire became poor?" on historyextra.com/period/victorian/… N.B. I suppose it's fair question whether any such studies exist, but then don't underestimate low quality journals publishing almost anything. Commented Jul 15, 2018 at 22:48
  • Ok, but then you should edit the question title, because it's definitely asking "is X true" not "are there papers saying X is true". Actually, I've done the edit myself. Commented Jul 15, 2018 at 23:08

1 Answer 1


Yeah, there are such studies (which doesn't mean that's the consensus; I don't want to spend my time figuring that out, because I think asking whether such studies are correct in their conclusions or not is ultimately "primarily opinion based", although the opinion here is going to come in the form of methodology). From one of the papers in this line of works, its review of prior works is the interesting part:

Yet for many years Keynes’s counterfactual – that the economic performance of the British Isles would have been enhanced if British capital had stayed at home – was central to debates about the costs and benefits of British imperialism. Among others, scholars such as Pollard and O’Brien argued that late nineteenth century capital exports diverted resources away from the modernization of British industry.(5) In particular, the overseas investment that flowed to Britain’s colonies was regarded as a questionable use of resources. Was it even economically rational? Davis and Huttenback calculated that, between 1884 and 1914, the returns on sample of imperial investments were somewhat lower than the returns on roughly comparable domestic investments.(6) Such views continue to be influential. In a recent synoptic paper, O’Brien and Prados de la Escosura argue that ‘the net benefits derived by the British and other economies from trade with their empires suggest that after mid-century the net benefits could not have been other than “small” … Investment at home (or overseas in independent countries outside European empires) would turn out to be a superior allocation of capital for a nation’s economic growth’.(7) Elsewhere, O’Brien has argued that after around 1846 Britain could have withdrawn from Empire with impunity, and reaped a ‘decolonization dividend’ in the form of a 25 per cent tax cut. The money taxpayers would have saved as a result of a Victorian decolonization could have been spent on electricity, cars and consumer durables, thus encouraging industrial modernization at home.(8)

Such negative assessments of Britain’s relationship to the Empire sit somewhat uneasily alongside the large ‘nationalist’ literature on the economic costs of empire to Britain’s colonies, notably India. In the words of B. R. Tomlinson, ‘the suggestion remains that British rule did not leave a substantial legacy of wealth, health, or happiness to the majority of the subjects of the Commonwealth’.(9) Numerous authors have insisted that the principal consequence of British rule in the Indian subcontinent was a legacy of ‘underdevelopment’. Can it really be that the Empire was economically bad for both Britain and her colonies? By drawing on the recent economic literature on globalization, past and present, this essay seeks to argue otherwise.

Although useful enough for a literature review, this is a paper by Niall Ferguson so it's ultimate conclusion (rather predictably) is that

the British Empire was economically beneficial, not only to Britain herself, but also to her Empire – and perhaps even to the world economy as a whole

Anyway, one can quibble the "zero net benefit" claim of Chomsky requires some nudging to match any of the studies above, such as after a certain time, or equating "small" with none, or considering the counterfactual of having invested at home instead. I wasn't able to find a paper along the lines of his argument of "internal transfer (of wealth)", but who knows, it may exist.

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