The evidence is strong that at the root of Rome’s decline was a shift in ideas and attitudes away from respect for life, property, free enterprise, and representative government and toward the redistributive welfare state.
When the Romans abandoned self-responsibility and self-reliance and began to vote themselves benefits, use government to rob Peter to pay Paul, put their hands into other people’s pockets, and 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.”
In the early days of the Roman republic, which gave way to political dictatorship with Julius Caesar’s ascendancy in 49 B.C., Roman society employed substantial elements of a market economy and a public policy that encouraged entrepreneurship.
Modestly at first, but with increasing generosity, tribunes, senators, and, later, emperors promised the people free wheat and other staples. In the city of Rome alone, Julius Caesar found 320,000 of its 2 million people on government grain relief.
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 $100 million per year in the city of Rome alone is one modern historian’s estimate of what was poured out on the games.
In effect, 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, “Control of a man’s subsistence is control of a man’s will.” Not even the act of Emperor Constantine in granting tolerance to Christians for the first time saved the decaying empire from the consequences of its disastrous economic policies. Indeed, the church itself was corrupted by joining everyone else at the public trough.
When the barbarians entered Rome in 476 A.D. and swept aside the last of the Roman emperors, Rome was a shell of its former self. The barbarians didn’t kill Rome; Romans committed economic and moral suicide.
Most of this is from the author below.
Lawrence W. Reed, an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan.