The similarities are amazing and somewhat frightening. To explore this question further, we take a look at the history in an excerpted essay by Lawrence Reed, President of the Foundation for Economic Education.
“Both Rome and America were born in revolt against monarchy—Americans against the British and Romans against the Etruscans. Wary of concentrated authority, both established republics with checks and balances, separation of powers and protection of certain rights for at least certain people. Despite shortcomings, the establishment of the Roman Republic in the sixth century B.C. and the American Republic in the eighteenth century A.D. represented the greatest advances for individual liberty in the history of the world.
“The history of ancient Rome spans a thousand years—roughly 500 as a republic and 500 as an imperial autocracy, with the birth of Christ occurring during the transitional years in between. The closest parallels between Roman and American civilizations are to be found in Rome’s first half-millennium as a republic. We can derive the most instructive lessons and warnings from that period. The tyranny of the empire came after the republic crumbled—the truly awful consequences of decay, which America can yet avoid.
“Roman society at the time of the Republic’s founding 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 accelerated as people from many lands were attracted by the vibrant growth and opportunities the bustling Roman economy offered. The growing prosperity was made possible by a general climate of free enterprise, limited government, and respect for private property. Merchants and businessmen were admired and emulated.
“Rome’s remarkable achievements in sanitation, education, banking, architecture, and commerce are legendary. The city even had a stock market. With low taxes and tariffs, free trade and considerable private property, Rome became the center of the world’s wealth. All this disappeared, however, by the fifth century A.D.; when the world was plunged into darkness and despair, slavery and poverty.
“Why did Rome decline and fall? Rome collapsed because of a fundamental change in ideas on the part of the Roman people—ideas which relate primarily to personal responsibility and the source of personal income. In the early days of greatness, each individual looked to himself—what he could acquire voluntarily in the marketplace—as the source of his livelihood. Rome’s decline began when the people discovered another source of income: the political process—the State. In short, it was a character issue.
“When Romans abandoned self-reliance and began to vote themselves benefits, to use government to put their hands into other people’s pockets, to covet the productive and their wealth, they turned down a fateful, destructive path.
“The legalized plunder of the Roman welfare state was undoubtedly sanctioned by people who wishes to do good. Someone 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.
“In the waning years of the Roman republic, a rogue named Clodius ran for the office of the tribune. He bribed the electorate with promises of free grain at taxpayer expense and won. Thereafter, Romans in growing numbers embraced the notion that voting for a living could be more lucrative than working for one.
“Candidates for Roman office spent huge sums to win public favor, then plundered the population afterwards to make good on their promises to the rent-seekers who elected them. As the republic gave way to dictatorship, a succession of emperors built their power on the huge handouts they controlled. Nearly a third of the city of Rome itself received public relief payments by the time of the birth of Christ.
“It’s frightening to consider how easily a sturdy people, when they let their guard and character down, can be bought and paid for by the welfare state. And once they sell themselves for that mess of pottage from politicians, it’s not easy to turn back.
“Emperor Augustus, who ruled from 27 B.C. to 14 A.D., tried to reduce the free wheat program by briefly introducing a means test. He was inclined to abolish forever the public distribution of grain the people had come to rely upon and had ceased to till the fields. He had not proceeded further because he was sure that, from a desire to please the people, it would be revived at one time or another.’
“In response to a severe money and credit crisis in 33 A.D., the central government extended credit at zero interest on a massive scale. Government spending in the wake of the crisis soared.
“In 91 A.D., the government became deeply involved in agriculture. Emperor Domitian, to reduce the production and raise the price of wine, ordered the destruction of half the provincial vineyards.
“Following the lead of Rome, many cities within the empire spent themselves deeply into debt. Early in the Second Century, municipalities in financial difficulty received aid from Rome and lost a substantial measure of their political independence in the bargain.
“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. One modern historian estimates that Rome poured the equivalent of $100 million per year into the games.
“Late in the Third Century, Emperor Aurelian declared government relief payments to be a hereditary right. He provided recipients government-baked bread (instead of giving them wheat to bake their own bread) and added free salt, pork, and olive oil.
“Rome suffered from the bane of all welfare states, inflation. The massive demands on the government to spend and subsidize created pressures for the multiplication of money. Roman coinage was debased by one emperor after another to pay for expensive programs. Once almost pure silver, the denarius, by the year 300, was little more than a piece of junk containing less than five percent silver.
“Prices skyrocketed and savings vanished. Businessmen were vilified even as government continued its spendthrift ways. Price controls further ravaged a battered and shrinking private economy. By 476 A.D., when barbarians wiped the empire from the map, Rome had committed moral and economic suicide.
“Romans first lost their character. Then, as a consequence, they lost their liberties and ultimately their civilization.”
We can hope we have the moral courage and strength to recognize we’re on the same path as the Romans and take the difficult steps needed to avoid the same fate.