For all the recent controversy in Washington concerning the future of the sunsetting Bush tax cuts, we have yet to hear from the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, the bipartisan commission whose report is due in December. It could possibly recommend the creation of a VAT tax or a national sales tax, coupled with the always laughable promise of Congressional spending cuts. “Nothing is off the table”, Deficit Commission co-chair and former U.S. Senator Alan K. Simpson told Fox News Sunday some months ago.
I’ve been on a Roman history binge lately. Some flipped-through dogeared Penguin paperbacks off my shelves (Julius Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul, Suetonius, Tacitus, Plutarch), and a dusty old tome got from the public library simply titled History of Rome (1923) by a long-gone Columbia University history professor named Tenney Frank. All this miscellaneous scholarly reading has me entertaining the gloomy notion that the United States is going the way of the Roman Empire.
Some would argue that we haven’t yet lost “the Republic” in its classic American definition of representative government. Rome as republic-morphing-into-empire lasted eleven hundred years, only truly crumbling in the last three hundred. Thanks to modern technology, we seem to be doing it much faster.
Roman history is replete with world historical figures from the civically virtuous (the Scipios, the Gracchi) to intellectual giants (Cicero, Virgil, Horace). Let’s not forget the brilliant schemers (Julius Caesar, Augustus) and the absolutely powerful but crazy (Caligula, Nero). One who caught my eye was the Emperor Diocletian (Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus).
Historians credit Diocletian (reigned: 284-305 A.D.) with repairing the political and economic damage the result of Rome’s, in Professor Frank’s phrase, “fifty years of anarchy” in the third century, when the empire saw a preview of its final dissolution two centuries later. Barbarian tribes were breaching the Danube and Rhine frontiers, there was an ongoing war with Persia in the east, and military-civil wars raged as Roman legions battled each other in the interests of putting their own candidates (mostly generals) on the imperial throne. Twenty-five emperors reigned in 33 years, some for only a few days or weeks, and most were assassinated. Diocletian, an Illyrian and a soldier (a cavalry general), put the whole mess back together by sheer force of will and at the point of a sword. He split the empire into its East-West configuration in order to govern it more efficiently, establishing the “Tetrarchy” of a co-emperor (Maximian) and subordinates. But history shows us that his efforts were too little-too late, and in many ways misguided.
Diocletian was the Augustus of Late Antiquity. In political terms he can be compared to Abraham Lincoln, in economics he was a Marxist before Marx. This patriotic Roman citizen seeking — to use a Lincolnian metaphor — to bind the wounds of a bleeding Roman Empire, imposed a burdensome income tax system. In the short term he saved the day by pouring money into the empire’s long-neglected infrastructure (cities, roads, aqueducts, etc.). In the long run he crushed its economic vitality. In 301 AD he issued the Edict on Maximum Prices, a disastrous experiment of price controls, which faded away after it was universally ignored.
Diocletian expanded the IRS-like tax collecting bureaucracy that became generational. If you were a firstborn male and your father was a tax collector, so would you be, and were despised from birth. Individual tax collectors had quotas, and if they came up short were responsible for making up the difference. This only added to the rampant corruption.
The tax system was so extensive and corrupt that it resembled the Beatles song “Tax Man” (a satirical take on the post-World War II British welfare state). Considering its primitive non-tech methods, it efficiently taxed everybody: farmers, merchants, and artisans.
Diocletian was analogous to a surgeon who extends the life of a patient in old age. But the tax system made Rome a totalitarian state at the expense of the rights that Roman citizens had enjoyed since the days of the Republic. There were restrictive laws forbidding the changing of occupations, and businesses were taken over and land was confiscated in lieu of taxes. There were penalties as severe as death for deviations from this system.
All incentive for entrepreneurial activity was stifled. This gave rise to a black market economy for goods and services. And so the empire endured with massive resources extracted from the people to sustain it. The empire went on without the support of the populace, and its final dissolution was hardly noticed by the average Roman, who was really not a Roman at all in the classical sense.
In third century Rome there was no welfare state per se, other than the occasional free distribution of grain in times of local famine, war, plague and other hardships. Hordes of slaves populated the estates of the Roman aristocracy. Young unpropertied men lacking employment ironically joined the army for 20-year terms in order to survive economically. Then in times of war and political anarchy, the trick was to survive — period.
Much of the tax revenue went to the army, those thousands of men in the legions garrisoned in the far flung corners of the empire. For the emperors of Late Antiquity to neglect the legions was to put in jeopardy their political futures, that is, their lives. In ancient Rome “the politics of personal destruction” wasn’t a metaphor. Diocletian might have known of his predecessor Septimus Severus’ (193-211) deathbed advice to his son Caracalla (211-218): “Pay the soldiers. The rest of it will take care of itself.” Another irony is that the legions in the provinces were increasingly staffed by those same barbarians putting pressure on the borders.
Diocletian’s burdensome tax policies added to an already unsteady state of affairs. The subsequent Fourth Century saw one last noteworthy emperor early on in Constantine (311-337). After that it was back to imperial instability and anarchy. Scholars argue whether Constantine’s toleration of the three centuries old Christian Church (he was baptized on his deathbed) contributed to the empire’s demise. And the geopolitical pressures exerted by the barbarians on the frontiers in Northern Europe were certainly a permanent demographic problem. But Diocletian’s fiscal policies spawned Rome’s economic ruin. The empire simply could not endure if governed by weak emperors serving at the pleasure of the army, an impotent Senate, a decadent aristocracy, tax collectors and bureaucrats. The Fifth Century saw the strife of the Third Century writ large, and the barbarian hosts finally showed up and burned the libraries and knocked down the statues.
America has no private armies or barbarian tribes crisscrossing the landscape committing murder and mayhem (the media smears of the Tea Party notwithstanding). But our economic malaise has its antecedents in antiquity. Will we learn from those mistakes?