Posts tagged ‘Roman Empire’

My Five Causes of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Rocochet asks this question over the weekend:  What are your top 5 causes of the fall of the Roman Empire.  OK, I will take a shot at this from my decidedly amateur perspective:

  1. Demographic collapse, caused by a series of plagues (perhaps even an Ur version of the black death) and possibly climate change (colder) that depopulated the western half of the empire
  2. A variety of policies (e.g. grain dole) that shifted population from productive farms to the cities.  In the 19th century, this shift was to be growth-inducing as farm labor was moving into growing factories, but no such productivity revolution existed in Roman cities.  The combination of #2 with #1 left huge swaths of farmland abandoned, and the Romans dependent on grain ships from North Africa to feed the unproductive mouths in large Italian cities.  It also gutted the traditional Roman military model, which depended strongly on these local farmers for the backbone of the army.
  3. The Romans lost their ability to be innovative in including new peoples in their Empire.  The Romans had a bewildering array of citizenship and tax statuses for different peoples who joined or were conquered by the empire.  For hundreds of years, this innovation was hugely successful.   But by the 4th and 5th centuries they seemed to have lost the trick.  The evidence for this is that they could have solved multiple problems -- the barbarians at the gates and the abandonment of farm land and the need for more soldiers -- by finding a way to settle barbarians on empty farm land.  This is in fact exactly what the barbarians wanted.  That is why I do not include the barbarian invasions as one of my five, because it did not have to be barbarian invasions, it could have been barbarian immigration.  Gibson's thesis was that Christianity killed the Roman Empire by making it "soft".  I don't buy that, but it may have been that substituting the Romans' earlier incredible tolerance for other religions in their Pagan period with a more intolerant version of Christianity contributed to this loss of flexibility.
  4. Hand in hand with #3, the Roman economy became sclerotic.  This was the legacy of Diocletian and Constantine, who restructured the empire to survive several centuries more but at the cost of at least an order of magnitude more state control in every aspect of society.  Diocletian's edict of maximum prices is the best known such regulation, but in fact he fixed most every family into their then-current trades and insisted the family perform the same economic functions in all future generations.  Essentially, it was Ayn Rand's directive 10-289 for the ancient world, and the only reason these laws were not more destructive is that the information and communication technologies of the time did not allow for very careful enforcement.
  5. Splits in the governance of the empire between west and east (again going back to Diocletian) reduced the ability to fund priorities on one side of the empire with resources from the other side.  More specifically, the wealthy eastern empire had always subsidized defense of the west, and that subsidy became much harder, and effectively ended, in the century after Diocletian.

I will add, as a reminder, that to some extent this is all a trick question, because the Roman Empire really did not totally fall until the capture of Constantinople in 1453.  So I should have stated at the outset that all of the above refers to the fall of the western empire in the late 5th century, which in part explains why #5 is there in the list.

And, if you were in a room of historians of this era, you could quickly get into an argument over whether the western Roman empire really fell in the late 5th century.  For example, the Visigothic Kingdom in the area of modern southern France and Spain retained a lot of Roman practices and law.  But I have gone with tradition here and dated the "fall" of the empire to 476 when the Roman Emperor was deposed and not replaced.

What's Next -- Dreaming of Mussolini?

Violet at Reclusive Leftist writes in an article entitled, "Dreaming of Diocletian":

When the Roman Empire was broken, Diocletian fixed it. He completely revamped the imperial government, discarding centuries of tradition in favor of a new organizational structure designed to meet the challenges of the day. You can do stuff like that when you're an emperor. It was sort of a one-man Constitutional Convention.

I think of Diocletian whenever I contemplate the political mess in this country.

Let's make sure we understand what Diocletian did.  What she calls "fixing the Roman Empire" was in fact the imposition of a new level of autocracy.  The best modern equivalent would be if Putin were reunify the old Soviet Union through military force and repression.  Would we celebrate this? No?  Then why do we celebrate when it happened 18 centuries ago?

Certainly since Augustus, the Empire had been ruled autocratically, but there were checks on the Emperor's power, not the least of which was the fact that the Empire simply didn't have the bureaucracy or communications for real command and control governance.  Further, the Emperors had at least maintained a facade, and sometimes a reality, of being a servant of the people - calling themselves Princeps , or something like the "first man."

Diocletian changed all of that.  He demanded people call him Dominus and Deus, meaning Lord and God.  But Lord is a poor translation of Dominus - literally dominus meant master to a slave.  The Empire became a nation of slaves with one master, Diocletian.  Any who approached Diocletian for audience had to approach on hands and knees with face averted.  If Diocletian ruled in ones favor, he was allowed to crawl on hands and knees and kiss the hem of the Emporer's tunic.

Diocletian was faced with an enormous economic problem - the debasement of a currency by generations of emperors who spent more than they had (sounds familiar).  Instead of forcing the hard changes to re-establish a sound currency, Diocletian dealt with the rampant inflation from the debased currency by setting maximum prices for every good and service in the Empire, with violations punishable by death.

When the inevitable shortages occurred (as happen whenever the government enforces a price ceiling), Diocletian dealt with the shortages by forcing key businessmen (bakers, sausage makers, etc.) to remain in business (can you say directive 10-289?)  Further, he mandated that all children of these men must remain in the same profession perpetually.  If your father was a baker, by law you were to be one as well.  He also did this for a number of underpaid government jobs that no one wanted - making them hereditary so people of the future would be forced to fill them.

Diocletian also had a tax problem.  Much of his taxes came from property taxes on farm land.  The tax was attached as a fixed amount to certain pieces of land.  When those values got too high, the occupants abandoned the land and moved to the city, and no one was there to pay the tax.  Diocletian took a census and forced peasants to return to the land of their birthplace, and forced them to remain in perpetuity on certain plots of land and then pay the taxes on that land to the government  (eventually these taxes morphed into rents to the local government noble in charge).

If you see the origins of much of the worst of the middle ages in all of this -- serfs tied to the land, paying rents to the master, with hereditary professional guilds in the towns -- you are not far off.

When I dream of Diocletian, all I get is a nightmare.

PS- Which is really what the quoted author wants, some sort of fascism by females.

Great Moments in Progressive Taxation

Many government programs have both a stated justification as well as a second, unstated justification which is the real reason that politicians support the program.  For example, many regulations are portrayed as pro-consumer when in fact their real utility is in protecting a favored company or political donor from new competition.

The same is true for progressive taxation.  The public logic is usually about the rich paying a "fair share" or reducing income inequality (by cutting down the oaks to give the maples more sunshine).  However, progressive taxation pays rich dividends to politicians looking to increase the size of government and their own personal power.  Some time in the last 10 years, we crossed an invisible line where less than half of American families pay for effectively all government programs (leaving aside Social Security). 

This means that when any politician stands up and proposes a new program, a majority of Americans know that they are not going to pay for it.  In fact, the situation is even more obvious when you consider new programs at the margin.  If you listen to the Democratic debates, nearly every candidate is proposing to pay for his or her expensive programs via new taxes aimed solely at the top 10 or 20% of earners.  Every time they propose a program, there is an unstated but increasing clear clause "and 80% of you won't have to pay anything for this."  Already, we see many states funding new programs with surcharges on the rich.  Here is but one example:

California voters agreed to tax the rich to support public mental health
services. 

More than half of them (53.3 percent) voted last month in favor of
Proposition 63, which will impose a tax surcharge of 1 percent on the taxable
personal income above $1 million to pay for services offered through the
state's existing mental health system. The initiative will generate an
estimated $700 million a year....

Richard A. Shadoan, M.D., a past president of the CPA, wrote in Viewpoints
in the September 3 issue of Psychiatric News, "The scope of the
program and its tax-the-rich source will provoke a debate. But it's an
argument worth having to make California face the neglect of not providing
treatment to more than 1 million people with mental illness."

So what happened?  I don't know how many people make a million dollars in California, but it is certainly less than 5% of the population.  So the headline should read "53.3% of people voted to have less than 5% of the people pay for an expensive new program."  If the 53.3% thought it was so valuable, why didn't they pay for it?  Well, it is clear from the article that the populace in general has been asked to do so in the past and refused.  So only when offered the chance to approve the program if a small minority paid for it did they finally agree.  This is the real reason for progressive taxation.  (by the way, these 53.3% will now feel really good about themselves, despite the fact they will contribute nothing, and will likely piss on millionaires next chance they get, despite the fact that they are the ones who will pay for the program).

Ultimate Example of Progressive Taxation

My story today comes from the Roman Empire just after the death of Julius Caesar.   At the time, three groups vied for power:  Octavian (Augustus) Caesar, Mark Antony, and republican senators under Brutus and Cassius.   Long story short, Octavian and Antony join forces, and try to raise an army to fight the republicans, who have fled Italy.  They needed money, but worried that a general tax would turn shaky public opinion in Rome against them.  So they settled on the ultimate progressive tax:  They named about 2500 rich men and ordered them killed, with their estates confiscated by the state. 

This approach of "proscriptions" had been used before (e.g. Sulla) but never quite as obviously just for the money.  In the case of Octavian and Antony, though nominally sold to the public as a way to eliminate enemies of Rome, the purpose was very clearly to raise money.  All of their really dangerous foes had left Rome with the Republicans.  The proscriptions targeted men of wealth, some of whom had been irritants to Octavian or Antony in the past (e.g. Cicero) but many of whom had nothing to do with anything.  Proscribed men were quoted as saying "I have been killed by my estates."

I wonder how many of today's progressives would be secretly pleased by this approach?

Great Moments in Progressive Taxation

Many government programs have both a stated justification as well as a second, unstated justification which is the real reason that politicians support the program.  For example, many regulations are portrayed as pro-consumer when in fact their real utility is in protecting a favored company or political donor from new competition.

The same is true for progressive taxation.  The public logic is usually about the rich paying a "fair share" or reducing income inequality (by cutting down the oaks to give the maples more sunshine).  However, progressive taxation pays rich dividends to politicians looking to increase the size of government and their own personal power.  Some time in the last 10 years, we crossed an invisible line where less than half of American families pay for effectively all government programs (leaving aside Social Security). 

This means that when any politician stands up and proposes a new program, a majority of Americans know that they are not going to pay for it.  In fact, the situation is even more obvious when you consider new programs at the margin.  If you listen to the Democratic debates, nearly every candidate is proposing to pay for his or her expensive programs via new taxes aimed solely at the top 10 or 20% of earners.  Every time they propose a program, there is an unstated but increasing clear clause "and 80% of you won't have to pay anything for this."  Already, we see many states funding new programs with surcharges on the rich.  Here is but one example:

California voters agreed to tax the rich to support public mental health
services. 

More than half of them (53.3 percent) voted last month in favor of
Proposition 63, which will impose a tax surcharge of 1 percent on the taxable
personal income above $1 million to pay for services offered through the
state's existing mental health system. The initiative will generate an
estimated $700 million a year....

Richard A. Shadoan, M.D., a past president of the CPA, wrote in Viewpoints
in the September 3 issue of Psychiatric News, "The scope of the
program and its tax-the-rich source will provoke a debate. But it's an
argument worth having to make California face the neglect of not providing
treatment to more than 1 million people with mental illness."

So what happened?  I don't know how many people make a million dollars in California, but it is certainly less than 5% of the population.  So the headline should read "53.3% of people voted to have less than 5% of the people pay for an expensive new program."  If the 53.3% thought it was so valuable, why didn't they pay for it?  Well, it is clear from the article that the populace in general has been asked to do so in the past and refused.  So only when offered the chance to approve the program if a small minority paid for it did they finally agree.  This is the real reason for progressive taxation.  (by the way, these 53.3% will now feel really good about themselves, despite the fact they will contribute nothing, and will likely piss on millionaires next chance they get, despite the fact that they are the ones who will pay for the program).

Ultimate Example of Progressive Taxation

My story today comes from the Roman Empire just after the death of Julius Caesar.   At the time, three groups vied for power:  Octavian (Augustus) Caesar, Mark Antony, and republican senators under Brutus and Cassius.   Long story short, Octavian and Antony join forces, and try to raise an army to fight the republicans, who have fled Italy.  They needed money, but worried that a general tax would turn shaky public opinion in Rome against them.  So they settled on the ultimate progressive tax:  They named about 2500 rich men and ordered them killed, with their estates confiscated by the state. 

This approach of "proscriptions" had been used before (e.g. Sulla) but never quite as obviously just for the money.  In the case of Octavian and Antony, though nominally sold to the public as a way to eliminate enemies of Rome, the purpose was very clearly to raise money.  All of their really dangerous foes had left Rome with the Republicans.  The proscriptions targeted men of wealth, some of whom had been irritants to Octavian or Antony in the past (e.g. Cicero) but many of whom had nothing to do with anything.  Proscribed men were quoted as saying "I have been killed by my estates."

I wonder how many of today's progressives would be secretly pleased by this approach?

Great Moments in Egalitarianism

Somewhere around 20BC in the Roman Empire, the emperor Augustus Caesar wanted to to promote a bit of egalitarianism in Rome, and hoped to curb some of the conspicuous consumption of the rich.  It turned out that the most conspicuous display of wealth was the freeing of slaves, usually in one's will.  Slaves were quite valuable, and freeing a large lot of them on one's death was considered a great way to flaunt how rich one had been in life.

So, in the name of egalitarianism, Augustus set strict limits on the number of slaves that could be freed at any one time.  Thus slavery was maintained in the name of egalitarianism.