Posted by: thepatriots1776 | November 4, 2008

America & Ancient Rome; a comparison

We thought we would write a blog article about a comparison between current affairs in America to the Decline of Rome and how they are so very much alike. The issues that lead to the Fall of Rome are very much the same as America has experienced in the last few decades leading to it’s own decline. Below is such a comparison.

Sources of material:

The Decline of Rome

How Excessive Government Killed Ancient Rome

Beginning with the third century B.C. Roman economic policy started to contrast more and more sharply with that in the Hellenistic world, especially Egypt. In Greece and Egypt economic policy had gradually become highly regimented, depriving individuals of the freedom to pursue personal profit in production or trade, crushing them under a heavy burden of oppressive taxation, and forcing workers into vast collectives where they were little better than bees in a great hive. The later Hellenistic period was also one of almost constant warfare, which, together with rampant piracy, closed the seas to trade. The result, predictably, was stagnation.

Sound familiar?

Taxation in the Republic and Early Empire

The expansion of the dole is an important reason for the rise of Roman taxes. In the earliest days of the Republic Rome’s taxes were quite modest, consisting mainly of a wealth tax on all forms of property, including land, houses, slaves, animals, money and personal effects. The basic rate was just .01 percent, although occasionally rising to .03 percent. It was assessed principally to pay the army during war. In fact, afterwards the tax was often rebated (Jones 1974: 161). It was levied directly on individuals, who were counted at periodic censuses.

As Rome expanded after the unification of Italy in 272 B.C., so did Roman taxes. In the provinces, however, the main form of tax was a tithe levied on communities, rather than directly on individuals. This was partly because censuses were seldom conducted, thus making direct taxation impossible, and also because it was easier to administer. Local communities would decide for themselves how to divide up the tax burden among their citizens (Goffart 1974: 11).

Oppression and extortion began very early in the provinces and reached fantastic proportions in the later republic. Most governors were primarily interested in acquiring military glory and in making money during their year in office, and the companies which farmed the taxes expected to make ample profits.

Sound familiar?

Inflation and Taxation

As early as the rule of Nero (54-68 A.D.) there is evidence that the demand for revenue led to debasement of the coinage. Revenue was needed to pay the increasing costs of defense and a growing bureaucracy. However, rather than raise taxes, Nero and subsequent emperors preferred to debase the currency by reducing the precious metal content of coins. This was, of course, a form of taxation; in this case, a tax on cash balances (Bailey 1956).

Occasionally, the tax burden would be moderated by a cancellation of back taxes or other measures. One such occasion occurred under the brief reign of Pertinax (193 A.D.), who replaced the rapacious Commodus (A.D. 176-192). As Edward Gibbon (1932: 88) tells us:

Though every measure of injustice and extortion had been adopted, which could collect the property of the subject into the coffers of the prince; the rapaciousness of Commodus had been so very inadequate to his extravagance, that, upon his death, no more than eight thousand pounds were found in the exhausted treasury, to defray the current expenses of government, and to discharge the pressing demand of a liberal donative, which the new emperor had been obliged to promise to the Praetorian guards. Yet under these distressed circumstances, Pertinax had the generous firmness to remit all the oppressive taxes invented by Commodus, and to cancel all the unjust claims of the treasury; declaring in a decree to the senate, “that he was better satisfied to administer a poor republic with innocence, than to acquire riches by the ways of tyranny and dishonor.”

State Socialism

Unfortunately, Pertinax was an exception. Most emperors continued the policies of debasement and increasingly heavy taxes, levied mainly on the wealthy. The war against wealth was not simply due to purely fiscal requirements, but was also part of a conscious policy of exterminating the Senatorial class, which had ruled Rome since ancient times, in order to eliminate any potential rivals to the emperor. Increasingly, emperors came to believe that the army was the sole source of power and they concentrated their efforts on sustaining the army at all cost.

As the private wealth of the Empire was gradually confiscated or taxed away, driven away or hidden, economic growth slowed to a virtual standstill. Moreover, once the wealthy were no longer able to pay the state’s bills, the burden inexorably fell onto the lower classes, so that average people suffered as well from the deteriorating economic conditions. In Rostovtzeff’s words, “The heavier the pressure of the state on the upper classes, the more intolerable became the condition of the lower” (Rostovtzeff 1957: 430).

At this point, in the third century A.D., the money economy completely broke down. Yet the military demands of the state remained high. Rome’s borders were under continual pressure from Germanic tribes in the North and from the Persians in the East. Moreover, it was now explicitly understood by everyone that the emperor’s power and position depended entirely on the support of the army. Thus, the army’s needs required satisfaction above all else, regardless of the consequences to the private economy.

With the collapse of the money economy, the normal system of taxation also broke down. This forced the state to directly appropriate whatever resources it needed wherever they could be found. Food and cattle, for example, were requisitioned directly from farmers. Other producers were similarly liable for whatever the army might need. The result, of course, was chaos, dubbed “permanent terrorism” by Rostovtzeff (1957: 449). Eventually, the state was forced to compel individuals to continue working and producing.

The result was a system in which individuals were forced to work at their given place of employment and remain in the same occupation, with little freedom to move or change jobs. Farmers were tied to the land, as were their children, and similar demands were made on all other workers, producers, and artisans as well. Even soldiers were required to remain soldiers for life, and their sons compelled to follow them. The remaining members of the upper classes were pressed into providing municipal services, such as tax collection, without pay. And should tax collections fall short of the state’s demands, they were required to make up the difference themselves. This led to further efforts to hide whatever wealth remained in the Empire, especially among those who still found ways of becoming rich. Ordinarily, they would have celebrated their new-found wealth; now they made every effort to appear as poor as everyone else, lest they become responsible for providing municipal services out of their own pocket.

The steady encroachment of the state into the intimate workings of the economy also eroded growth. The result was increasing feudalization of the economy and a total breakdown of the division of labor. People fled to the countryside and took up subsistence farming or attached themselves to the estates of the wealthy, which operated as much as possible as closed systems, providing for all their own needs and not engaging in trade at all. Meanwhile, much land was abandoned and remained fallow or fell into the hands of the state, whose mismanagement generally led to a decline in production.

Sound familiar?

The Fall of Rome

Constantine (308-37 A.D.) continued Diocletian’s policies of regimenting the economy, by tying workers and their descendants even more tightly to the land or their place of employment (Jones 1958). For example, in 332 he issued the following order:

Any person in whose possession a tenant that belongs to another is found not only shall restore the aforesaid tenant to his place of origin but also shall assume the capitation tax for this man for the time that he was with him. Tenants also who meditate flight may be bound with chains and reduced to a servile condition, so that by virtue of a servile condemnation they shall be compelled to fulfill the duties that befit free men [Jones 1970: 312].

Although Constantine made an effort to restore the currency, subsequent emperors resumed the debasement, resulting in renewed price inflation (West 1951). Apparently, Emperor Julian (360-63 A.D.) also refused to believe that the inflation was due to debasement, but rather was caused by merchants hoarding their stores. To prove his point, he sent his own grain reserves into the market at Antioch. According to Gibbon (1932: 801),

The consequences might have been foreseen, and were soon felt. The Imperial wheat was purchased by the rich merchants; the proprietors of land or of corn withheld from the city the accustomed supply; and the small quantities that appeared in the market were secretly sold at an advanced and illegal price.

Sound familiar?

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