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The road paved with good intentions

By Elisabeth Moore
web posted November 4, 2019

“Are we Rome?” Asks Lawrence Reed in his 2013 economic-history essay, titled by the very question.

It’s a good question. Reed writes a detailed analysis of the decline of the Roman Republic and his own opinion of what started it. However, he trusts his readers to read between the lines and determine if America is becoming the second Rome. Reed is primarily an economist, one who does not glorify the past, as many others would. Yes, Rome had it’s heroes, its colosseums, it’s poets… but it also festered with tyranny and plague. After taking years of Latin classes, and even more of Roman history courses, I have read of Rome’s ruination from every angle, yet the economic analysis was novel. I found it particularly insightful — and I believe you will as well. 

The Roman republic descended into empire in the year 27 B.C., when Caesar Augustus, nephew of the famed Julius Caesar, declared himself emperor. It was when the Roman Republic mutated into the Roman Empire that things started to go downhill. When Rome fell in 476 A.D, the event was not sudden. It had been rotting from the inside for the last several hundred years, only keeping up an illusion of stability. Reed chalks this up to a decline of societal character and belief in the value of hard work. This slothfulness led to a learned dependence on the state for public handouts. Personally, I believe it may have happened in reverse order — welfare then moral decay — but most likely they happened simultaneously, rolling rapidly in a self-perpetuating cycle. One of the key facts Reeds highlights is the unbelievable extent of this welfare. At the mark of BC becoming AD, a third of the Roman population was supported by the state. Imagine the street you live on, and the neighbors to your right and left. If such a welfare state was invoked today, one of you three would be financially dependent. Reed doesn’t put the number of Americans on welfare — he leaves that to the audience to the research — but the number is staggeringly high: 20% (Census Bureau). America would appear to be on a path headed towards that of Rome.

A path, of course, paved with good intentions. No nation plans to fall apart. A major reason Roman citizens needed welfare was because of the skyrocketing taxes. They simply did not have the disposable income to live. The powers of tyrants lay in enslaving the poor. The Roman senate surely considered themselves noble Robin Hoods as they taxed the rich to redistribute wealth. But, this “rich tax”, or as Reed calls it, “a tax on the productive”, only succeeded in bankrupting the wealthy, and the middle class came next. The only people with substantial money, Reed neglects to mention, were those in political power. Soldiers had to be sent out to scout of tax evaders. In America similar reforms are happening. The wealthiest 1% of Americans must pay an individual income tax rate several times higher than the bottom 50% of Americans; in terms of value, the 1% pays 37% of all individual income taxes (Bellafiore). This over-taxation harms everyone, because the 1% is discouraged from starting business that might be a risk financially but would otherwise result in more jobs.

The nature of Roman handouts themselves changed too, as the population became less independent. Subsidized flour eventually became free bread, which quite reasonably incensed bakers and put them out of business. The state was irrational too — Emperor Domitian, to raise the price of wine, destroyed half of the vineyards surrounding Rome. Government assistance was considered a right, and soon the Senate was in control of entertainment. The moral decay of the Romans became evident as their gladiator fights — once more like boxing matches — became bloodbaths, and citizens cheered at the slaughter of Christians. 
Diseases and fights broke out as infrastructure, no longer invested in, fell apart. The once glorious aqueducts were built with poorer and poorer stone, which wore away quickly. The porous surface grew bacteria, and it spread though the water. The constant marching of soldiers through the city only helped further the spread of disease. The slums of the city expanded and were prone to sudden collapses and widespread fire.  What about America? Our infrastructure too is degrading. The average age for a bridge in the United States is fifty, and for dams its even worse. Many pipes in America are over a century old (Thompson and Matousek). Failing infrastructure drags down the economy.

No one escapes the laws of economics, even Romans. Frivolous government spending caused hyperinflation. As Reed points out, the once almost pure silver coins because hardly 5% silver in an effort to keep up with inflation. Reed leaves readers to decide themselves if America should act on Rome’s warning — but I think the message is clear. Dependency and tyranny go hand in hand. I don’t believe his statement that moral decay results in the need for welfare, but they do at least occur simultaneously.  We can’t escape the laws of economics either. No nation can last forever, but it would do America, or rather any nation, good to pay heed to Rome’s warning and steer clear of economic suicide. ESR

El. Moore is a homeschooled high school student living in Texas with a passion for ancient history and economics. This is her first contribution to Enter Stage Right.

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