Liddick: Make Rome great again (column)
April 3, 2017
By 283 A.D., Rome was in a ruinous state. When a century of peace, prosperity and growth — the "Pax Romana" — came to an end with Marcus Aurelius, what was left of the ancient virtues — honor, selflessness, service, moderation, practicality — evaporated. There was political chaos, economic collapse and ruinous inflation; the once-mighty "solidus" lost 98 percent of its value. The end, it seemed, was near.
Except it wasn't. In 284 a former general seized control with what amounted to a pledge to "Make Rome Great Again." He commenced reforms that, although they seemed good ideas at the time, sealed Rome's fate in the West.
Diocletian froze people in their parents' occupations. He initiated wage and price controls, blaming "detestable profit seeking" rather than overspending and mismanagement for Rome's economic woes. And he levied crushing taxes on everyone.
Particularly hard-hit were the Decurions: the rural gentry who often became city officials and by this time were the foundation of Rome's government everywhere outside the largest cities. In the Republic, these men accepted responsibility for certain public projects — baths and reliable water supplies, for example. They did this both out of a sense of civic responsibility and for the honor it conferred — and for goodwill, which often translated into support for higher office.
Reforming the tax system is central to resolving these problems.
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But by the mid-fourth century, the burden was unbearable. In 377, Decurions were ordered to support construction projects formerly paid for by the central government. In 384 the Emperor demanded all pay their "fair share" for building ports, aqueducts, roads and other "infrastructure." By 396 the cost of building and maintaining fortifications was distributed among "all landowners" and Decurions were given financial responsibility for social welfare — food, housing, entertainments and the like. It was a burden that would bankrupt any who undertook it, but by then none were willing to try.
Most hid their wealth or left collapsing urban centers for self-sufficient country estates. Others abandoned their loyalty to Rome, deserting to the Goths, Franks or others. They may not have been as cultured or wealthy as Latins and they were unpredictable, but the security they provided cost significantly less.
So when Aleric the Visigoth sacked Rome in 410, he crushed an empty shell. Rome in the West disappeared because the class of people on which it had relied for 800 years and more for survival no longer thought it was worth their time, their effort, their blood and treasure. It took the West a millennium to recover.
The foregoing is for those who think they have nothing to learn from history. In fact, history has invaluable information about government overspending and confiscatory taxation: Above a certain level they are ruinous. They may take time but — as a drop of arsenic a day will not kill a man immediately — if continuous the result is certainly fatal.
Our national government has a familiar tripartite financial problem: burgeoning national debt due to many decades of unpaid bills; a tax system badly needing reform; want of money for a variety of necessary projects. And the clock is ticking. During the Obama years, low interest rates held down the cost of debt service. That will end — and our circumstances will be further straightened.
Reforming the tax system is central to resolving these problems. But by "reform," we cannot simply focus on our equivalent of Rome's Decurions, for obvious reasons: If they fly, taking their money with them, to whom will avaricious bureaucrats turn? Instead, we should argue from utility — since everyone enjoys the security and "domestic tranquility" the national government supposedly provides, everyone should pay for it. Perhaps a truly universal income tax, without exemptions, write-offs, favors or deductions would provide better revenue and spark more interest in how our money is disposed. Or, if we really must have deductions, choose five things the state must encourage. When our solons have determined by bloody battle which those are, discard two.
We must also control spending. A constitutional amendment to create a balanced budget used to seem overkill — but in the past couple decades there has been no sense of responsibility from either Republicans or Democrats so perhaps it's time to admit that we are out-of-control spendaholics and sign up for rehab.
None of this will be fun. It will require sacrifice. It will draw howls of anguish from groups accustomed to handouts for life and from the politicians who rely on their dependent clients for re-election. But the alternative is a slow, steady and certain evaporation of the Republic, starting with the disappearance of the class that pays most of the bills. We have no special dispensation from suffering the same end as other great states in history, including Rome; indeed, without immediate, sustained effort our fate will be the same as theirs.
Time to put aside willful ignorance, and begin.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.