Brig, Soren and Reidar, you can read the PDF here
No people who have lost their character have kept their liberties.…
By Lawrence W. Reed at Foundation for Economic Freedom
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. As demonstrated
by the historian Thomas Madden in his 2008 book,Empires of Trust,
the closest parallels between Roman and American civilizations are to
be found in Rome’s first half-millennium as a republic. We in our day
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.
The paramount lesson of the Roman experience is actually not peculiar
to Rome. It may be, in fact, the most universal lesson of all history: No
people who have lost their character have kept their liberties.
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.
No one should claim that Romans fostered a libertarian society. They
took liberty to new heights in many ways by limiting the power of the
State, but shortcomings were plentiful. This much is clear: The liberties
The paramount lesson of the Roman experience is actually not
peculiar to Rome. It may be, in fact, the most universal lesson
of all history: No people who have lost their character have
kept their liberties.
they achieved were made possible and sustained for centuries by traits
of character on which liberty always depends: courage, hard work,
personal independence, and self-reliance.
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 it was gone,
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, Romans regarded
themselves as their chief source of income. By that I mean 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.
Rome rose to greatness on the pillars of strong personal character. It
foundered when its people sacrificed character for less noble things
like power and the false, temporary “security” of a handout.
When Romans abandoned self-responsibility and self-reliance, and
began to vote themselves benefits, to use government to rob Peter
and pay Paul, to put their hands into other people’s pockets, to envy
and covet the productive and their wealth, they turned down a fateful,
destructive path. As the late Dr. Howard E. Kershner put it, “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. But as Henry David
Thoreau wrote, “If I knew for certain that a man was coming to my
house to do me good, I would 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.
In the waning years of the Roman republic, a rogue named Clodius ran
for the office of 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.
When Romans abandoned self-responsibility and selfreliance, and began to vote themselves benefits, to use
government to rob Peter and pay Paul, to put their hands
into other people’s pockets, to envy and covet the productive
and their wealth, they turned down a fateful,
The historian H. J. Haskell describes this tragic turn of ideas and events:
“Less than a century after the Republic had faded into the autocracy of
the Empire, the people had lost all taste for democratic institutions. On
the death of an emperor the Senate debated the question of restoring
the Republic. But the commons preferred the rule of an extravagant
despot who would continue the dole and furnish them free shows. The
mob outside clamored for ‘one ruler’ of the world.”
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.
Speaking of the emperor Augustus, who ruled from 27 B.C. to 14 A.D.
and who tried to reduce the free wheat program by briefly introducing a
means test, Haskell cites the emperor’s biographer and contemporary:
“[H]e was inclined to abolish forever the public distribution of grain,
for the people had come to rely upon it and had ceased to till the fields;
but he had not proceeded further in the matter because he was sure
that, from a desire to please the people, it would be revived at one time
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.
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. Beginning with Emperor Hadrian 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.
Under Emperor Antoninus Pius, who ruled from 138 to 161 A.D., the
Roman bureaucracy reached mammoth proportions. Eventually,
Romans first lost their character. Then, as a consequence, they
lost their liberties and ultimately their civilization.
according to the historian Albert Trever, “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” employed to crush tax evaders.
There were plenty of taxes to evade. Emperor Nero is said by Roman
historian Gaius Suetonius in De Vitae Caesarum to have once rubbed his
hands together and declared, “Let us tax and tax again! Let us see to it
that no one owns anything!” Taxation ultimately destroyed the wealthy
first, followed by the middle and lower classes. “What the soldiers
or the barbarians spared, the emperors took in taxes,” according to
historian W. G. Hardy.
Late in the Third Century, Emperor Aurelian declared government relief
payments to be a hereditary right. He provided recipients governmentbaked 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.
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.
I close with an old story whose relevance to the Roman one will be clear
in a moment. It’s about a band of wild hogs which lived along a river in
a secluded area of Georgia. These hogs were a stubborn, ornery, and
independent bunch. They had survived floods, fires, freezes, droughts,
hunters, dogs, and everything else. No one thought they could ever be
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 axe, 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 axe. 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 roots and acorns on their own.”
“About that time, the stranger continued, “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 corrupt them enough to depend on me for a free handout!”
I’ll say it one more time for emphasis: No people who have lost their
character have kept their liberties.