(Editor's note: This publication was updated in July 2010. Click here for a PDF of the original version.)
There’s an old story worth
retelling about a band of wild hogs which lived along a river in a secluded
area of Georgia. These hogs were a stubborn, ornery, independent bunch. They
had survived floods, fires, freezes, droughts, hunters, dogs and everything else.
No one thought they could ever be captured.
One day a stranger came into town not far from where the hogs
lived and went into the general store. He asked the storekeeper, “Where can I
find the hogs? I want to capture them.” The storekeeper laughed at such a claim
but pointed in the general direction. The stranger left with his one-horse
wagon, an ax and a few sacks of corn.
Two months later, he returned, went back to the store, and
asked for help to bring the hogs out. He said he had them all penned up in the
woods. People were amazed and came from miles around to hear him tell the story
of how he did it.
“The first thing I did,” the stranger said, “was to clear a
small area of the woods with my ax. Then I put some corn in the center of the
clearing. At first, none of the hogs would take the corn. Then after a few
days, some of the young ones would come out, snatch some corn, and then scamper
back into the underbrush. Then the older ones began taking the corn, probably
figuring that if they didn’t get it, some of the other ones would. Soon they
were all eating the corn. They stopped grubbing for acorns and roots on their
“About that time, I started
building a fence around the clearing, a little higher each day. At the right
moment, I built a trap door and sprung it. Naturally, they squealed and
hollered when they knew I had them, but I can pen
any animal on the face of the earth if I can first get him to depend on me for
a free handout!”
The moral to that story happens to be the connecting link
between the course of ancient Rome and the path which America has been taking
for much of the last century.
Roman civilization began many centuries ago. In those early
days, Roman society was basically agricultural, made up of small farmers and
shepherds. By the second century B.C.,
large-scale businesses made their appearance. Italy became urbanized.
Immigration soared as people from many lands were attracted by the vibrant
growth and great opportunities the Roman economy offered. This growing
prosperity was made possible by a general climate of free enterprise, limited
government and respect for private property. Merchants and entrepreneurs were
admired and emulated. Commerce and trade flourished, and large investments were
It is certainly true that slavery existed within Rome’s sphere
of influence. That’s deplorable from any standpoint, of course. But to be fair
to the Romans, it must be said that slavery was far more common and far more
brutal in the rest of the world in those days.
Historians still talk today
about the remarkable achievements Rome made in sanitation, transportation, the
arts, public parks, banking, architecture, education and administration. The
city even had mass production of some consumer items and a stock market. With
low taxes and low tariffs, free trade and private property, Rome became the
center of the world's wealth.
At one time, the political and military power of Rome dominated
Europe and the Mediterranean. Roman roads facilitated speed of travel and
communication to a degree that would not be surpassed until the development of
the railroad, the steamship and the telegraph in the 19th century. Roman law
and justice enabled the traveler to journey throughout the empire with a
considerable degree of safety. "The benefits of the Pax Romana [the peace of
Rome]," says Arther Ferrill in "The Fall of the Roman Empire," "included the
development of one of man's most impressive codes of law and an administrative
system that met the needs of men of varied languages, ethnic backgrounds and
cultural traditions. The poet Virgil was not far wrong in claiming that his
nation ruled the world in peace and justice."
All this disappeared, however, by the fifth century A.D., and
when it was gone, Europe was plunged into darkness and despair, slavery and
poverty. In the space of 700 years, explains Max Shapiro in his book "The
Penniless Billionaires," "The Appian Way, where Roman legions had frequently
paraded in celebration of victory, was clogged with rubble and weeds. Wild dogs
roamed through the ruins of the Forum, in search of food. And the 60,000 souls
who inhabited the desolate place which had once been called the Eternal City
now referred to it as 'the great cow pasture.'"
Why did Rome decline and
fall? The record is abundantly clear on this point. Rome fell because of a
fundamental change in ideas on the part of the Roman people - ideas that relate
primarily to personal responsibility and the source of personal income. In the
early days of greatness, to a considerable degree, each Roman regarded himself
as the chief source of income. Each individual looked to himself — what he
could acquire voluntarily in the marketplace — as the source of his livelihood.
Rome's decline began when large numbers of citizens discovered another source
of income: the political process, or the state.
When Romans abandoned self-responsibility and self-reliance and
began to vote themselves benefits, to use government to rob Peter to pay Paul, to
put their hands into other people's pockets, and to envy and covet the
productive and their wealth, they set into motion Kershner's First Law: "When a
self-governing people confer upon their government the power to take from some
and give to others, the process will not stop until the last bone of the last
taxpayer is picked bare."
The legalized plunder of the
Roman welfare state was undoubtedly sanctioned by people who wished to do good.
As Henry David Thoreau once said, "If I knew for a certainty that a man was
coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for
my life." Another person coined the phrase, "The road to hell is paved with
good intentions." Nothing but evil can come from a society bent upon coercion,
the confiscation of property and the degradation of the productive.
Early in the process, a politician named Clodius ran for the
office of tribune on a "free wheat for the masses" platform and won. Candidates
for office began spending huge sums to win public favor and then plundered the
population afterwards to pay their campaign debts.
When Julius Caesar came to
power in 48 B.C., he found 320,000 persons on government grain relief.
Temporarily slowing the welfare state bandwagon, he ordered the welfare rolls
cut to 200,000. Within a half-century, the rolls were back up to well over
A real landmark in the course of events came in the year A.D.
274. Emperor Aurelian, wishing to provide cradle-to-grave care for the
citizenry, declared the right to relief to be hereditary. Those whose parents
received government benefits were entitled as a matter of right to benefits as
well. Aurelian gave welfare recipients government-baked bread (instead of the
old practice of giving them wheat and letting them bake their own bread) and
added free salt, pork and olive oil. Not surprisingly, the ranks of the
unproductive grew fatter, and the ranks of the productive grew thinner.
Surely, many Romans opposed
the welfare state and held fast to the old virtues of work, thrift and
self-reliance. Just as surely, some of these sturdy people gave in and began to
feed at the public trough in the belief that if they didn't get it, somebody
else would. That attitude only hastened the slide into bankruptcy.
The central government also assumed the responsibility of
providing the people with entertainment. Elaborate circuses and gladiator duels
were staged to keep the people happy. The equivalent of a hundred million
dollars per year in the city of Rome alone is one modern historian's estimate
of what was poured out on the games. These days, many Americans think that by
virtue of being artists they are entitled to grants from the federal government
at other people's expense. If handouts for the arts constitute a legitimate
function of government, by what possible rationale can just about any other
handout be resisted?
In Rome, the emperors were buying support with the people's
money. After all, government can give only what it first takes. The emperors,
in dishing out all these goodies, were in a position to manipulate public
opinion. As Alexander Hamilton observed, "[A] power over a man's subsistence
amounts to a power over his will."
By the second century, many cities had spent themselves deeply
into debt. Beginning with the Emperor Hadrian, municipalities which got
themselves into financial difficulties lost their independence as the central
government placed them under the authority of imperial curators. Local
authority was increasingly replaced by the power of the central government.
Taxes & Regulations
Civil wars and conflict of all sorts increased as faction
fought against faction to seize control of the huge state apparatus and all its
public loot. Of 27 emperors or would-be emperors between A.D. 180 and 285, all
but two met violent deaths.
High taxes and burdensome
regulations were the order of the day. Business enterprise was called upon to
support the growing body of public parasites.
By the time of Emperor Antoninus Pius, who ruled from A.D. 138
to 161, the Roman bureaucracy was as all-embracing as that of modern times. The
historian Trever wrote that by the third century, "the relentless system of
taxation, requisition and compulsory labor was administered by an army of
military bureaucrats. ... Everywhere were the ubiquitous personal agents of the
emperors to spy out any remotest case of attempted strikes or evasion of
Another writer, W.G. Hardy, said several years ago that in
later Rome, "What the soldiers or the barbarians spared, the emperors took in
taxes." The crushing cost of the military, the top-heavy bureaucracy and the
public programs taxed the middle class out of existence.
Clearly, the state gradually became the prime source of income
for an increasing number of Romans. The high taxes needed to finance this drove
business into bankruptcy and then nationalization. Whole sectors of the economy
came under government domination in this manner. The first industry in Rome to
be taken over was transportation, shipping in particular. Interestingly, the
first industry in America to suffer comprehensive control was also
transportation — specifically, railroads.
Emperor Nero may have been the original architect of urban
renewal legislation. In the 10th year of his reign (A.D. 64), a great fire left
more than half of Rome in ashes. It was rumored then, and many historians now
believe, that Nero had ordered the conflagration to be lighted to clear the
ground for a rebuilding of the city.
In A.D. 91, the government became deeply involved in the
business of agriculture. Emperor Domitian, to reduce the production and raise
the price of wine, ordered the destruction of half the provincial vineyards.
As the old virtue of self-reliance gave way to political
redistribution of income, priests, teachers and intellectuals extolled the
virtues of the almighty emperor, the provider of all things. The interests of
the individual were considered a distant second to the interests of the emperor
and his legions. A spiritual vacuum ensued, which was filled partly by the rise
of cults and partly by worship of the emperor. The latter reached its zenith
under Emperor Diocletian in A.D. 285. No one could approach him without
prostrating himself on the ground and kissing the hem of his garment. Formerly,
the proud, free citizens of Rome had refused to render such servile adoration
to any of their magistrates and rulers.
The Roman Empire, amid this
sickening spectacle of moral decay, fell victim to an unfortunate series of
natural disasters and plagues. Earthquakes, volcanoes and harsh storms caused
great damage. By A.D. 200, at least one-fourth of the population of the whole
empire, both civilian and military, had perished by a plague brought from the
East. A later one, from 252 to 267, was nearly as bad. A morally righteous and
strong people might have recovered and rebuilt, but these disasters only
reinforced the growing despair of a desperate people. The fabric of Roman
society was rotting away under the influence of government paternalism,
bureaucracy and spiritual malaise.
Rome also suffered from the bane of all welfare states:
inflation. The massive demands on the government to spend for everything
created pressures for the multiplication of money. The Roman coin, the
denarius, was cheapened and debased by one emperor after another to help pay
for the expensive programs. Once almost pure silver, the denarius by A.D. 268
was little more than a piece of junk containing only .02 percent silver.
American dimes, quarters and half dollars, incidentally, contained 90 percent
silver as recently as 1964; today, they contain no silver at all.
Flooding the economy with all this new and cheapened money had
predictable results: Prices skyrocketed; savings were eroded; and the people
became angry and frustrated. Businessmen were often blamed for the rising
prices even as government continued its spendthrift ways.
The easy money policies
produced periodic crises in the economy. The panic of A.D. 86 and a severe
economic contraction of a few years later are examples. The government
responded by imposing penalties for trading in gold, especially for exporting
it, much as Franklin Roosevelt did in 1933.
Demanding relief from economic disorder, the people of Rome
cried out for a strongman. He arrived in the person of Diocletian who, in the
year 301, imposed his famous "Edict of 301." This law established a system of
comprehensive wage and price controls, to be enforced by a penalty of death.
The chaos that followed inspired the contemporary historian Lactantius to write
in 314: "After the many oppressions which he put into practice had brought a
general dearth upon the empire, he then set himself to regulate the prices of
all vendible things. There was much bloodshed upon very slight and trifling
accounts, and the people brought provisions no more to market, since they could
not get a reasonable price for them; and this increased the dearth so much that
at last after many had died by it, the law itself was laid aside."
From Welfarism to Despotism
Diocletian also ordered that
all offices, trades and professions, as far as possible, were to be made
hereditary. Young men were forced to carry on in the trades of their fathers.
There was no escape from this regimentation. The welfare state had become a despotism.
This tyrant left his mark on
history in other ways, too. It was during his reign that fully half the men of
the Empire were on the government payroll. Not only did he impose
across-the-board wage and price controls in relative peacetime, but he also
resigned from office in the year 305. Nearly 17 centuries later, Richard Nixon
would become the first American president to impose peacetime wage and price
controls and also our first chief executive to resign from office.
All this robbery and tyranny by the state was a reflection of
the breakdown of moral law in Roman society. The people had lost all respect
for the sanctity of private property. This author is reminded of the New York
City blackout of 1977, when all it took was the lights to go out for hundreds
to go on a looting spree.
The Christians were the last
to resist the tyranny of the Roman welfare state. Until A.D. 313, they had been
persecuted because of their faith and their unwillingness to worship the
emperor. Under Diocletian, Christians were cast into dungeons, thrown to the
wild beasts in the amphitheater and put to early death by every other mode of
torture that ingenious cruelty could devise. In this year, Emperor Constantine
granted them toleration in exchange for their acquiescence to his authority.
Constantine himself professed Christianity, but his personal
morality belied his word. Within three years of his announced conversion, he
put a nephew to death, drowned his wife in a bath and murdered his son.
Meanwhile, Constantine showered the Church with land, gifts and
patronage at taxpayer expense. Thus corrupted, the Church lost its old
simplicity and high moral standards. It, too, had jumped aboard the gravy
In the year 380, a sadly perverted Christianity became the
official state religion under Emperor Theodosius. Rome's decline was like a
falling rock from this point on.
In another arena, the foreign policy of Rome in the third,
fourth and fifth centuries had become one of weakness and appeasement.
Politicians, too busy buying votes at home with pie-in-the-sky programs,
ignored the Empire's defense. Barbarian "converts," whose loyalty was still
suspect, were even permitted to hold important posts in the Roman military
In 410, Alaric the Goth and his primitive Germanic tribesmen
assaulted the city and sacked its treasures. For three days, Rome was
plundered. Palaces and temples were stripped and Roman citizens were raped and
killed by the thousands. The once-proud Roman army, which had always repelled
the barbarians before, now wilted in the face of opposition. Why risk life and
limb to defend a corrupt and decaying society?
The end came rather anti-climactically in 476, when the German
chieftain Odoacer pushed aside the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, and
installed himself as the new authority.
Some might say that Rome fell because of the attack by these
foreigners. Such a claim overlooks what the Romans had done to themselves. When
the Vandals, Goths, Huns and others reached Rome, many citizens actually
welcomed them in the belief that anything was better than their own tax
collectors and regulators. It is more accurate to say that Rome committed
suicide. Like the wild hogs, Romans first lost their freedom, and then they
lost their lives.
History does seem to have an uncanny knack of repeating itself now and then.
America, by elevating government power at the expense of individual
responsibility, has made some of the same mistakes that Rome made centuries
ago. In a famous statement, philosopher George Santayana warned that those who
ignore history are condemned to repeat it.
No one reading this, however, should despair for the future.
The growing intrusiveness of government in America is not inevitable; it is not
something beyond the control of the American people. It is, rather, the
consequence of faulty ideas, which can change if only this message is carried
forth by those who cherish liberty. Indeed, there are very promising
indications that the intellectual battles these days are being won — often
decisively won — by the friends of freedom and limited government, not by those
who foolishly seek to put government in the driver's seat.
Most people who cherish freedom oppose the welfare state for
moral, philosophical, spiritual and economic reasons. We would do well to add
another reason: the lessons of history! As we work to restore and preserve
those ideas and institutions which made our nation both free and great, let's
keep these lessons in mind.