Big Government Destroyed Rome

In trawling the internet for material for a post (that I decided not to write – don’t ask) I found a little gem entitled How Excessive Government Killed Ancient Rome on the Cato Institute’s website. For those who don’t know what the Cato Institute is, it is a US-based think-tank beloved of libertarians and anyone who hates big government. It’s intriguing that a libertarian institute should be named after one of the most pigheaded Romans that ever lived, but that is probably just coincidental.

The work is quite old (1994), but still eyebrow-raising.

The analysis is an extremely daring one, putting the fall of Rome solely down to the demands of excessive taxation, regulation and high inflation.

Followers of ancient history will also be most surprised to learn that Antony and Cleopatra were socialists at heart.

But the denouement is truly breathtaking.

In conclusion, the fall of Rome was fundamentally due to economic deterioration resulting from excessive taxation, inflation, and over-regulation. Higher and higher taxes failed to raise additional revenues because wealthier taxpayers could evade such taxes while the middle class–and its taxpaying capacity–were exterminated. Although the final demise of the Roman Empire in the West (its Eastern half continued on as the Byzantine Empire) was an event of great historical importance, for most Romans it was a relief.

So Rome’s fall had nothing to do with any of the following:

  • the enormous strain to Rome’s frontiers caused by vast population migrations and powerful incursions by tribes from the north and east
  • a political class in Rome that was corrupt, venal and deeply dysfunctional
  • political institutions that were unrepresentative and inflexible
  • the rise of Christianity
  • the lack of government institutions capable of keeping generals and governors in check
  • the fact that as the dangers to Rome’s frontiers increased, the army became all-powerful and generals decided who was to be emperor, thus leading to civil wars between rival generals.

There are probably a dozen or more other contributing factors. Some people have even suggested lead poisoning as a contributing factor.

Many examples in Roman history exist of extortionate taxes destroying communities or causing revolts. But in many cases the problem was not that the tax burden on the average citizen was too much, but that the burden was borne unevenly.

It is also a bold claim to make that for most Romans the fall of Rome was a relief. The disintegration of Rome led to chaos throughout Western Europe for centuries afterwards. For example, Italy became a backwater as Rome weakened, its population ravaged by one enemy incursion after another. We don’t refer to them as the Dark Ages for no reason. Some may have been better off, but most?

So the Romans fail the libertarian test. Thankfully there are many great figures in ancient history for libertarians to admire. Attila the Hun, one of Rome’s greatest enemies, was very effective at cutting through red tape. And necks too. He got things done, and wasn’t constrained by excessive regulation. If Mr The Hun wanted to undertake a new business activity (say conquering a territory, enslaving or slaughtering its entire population), all he had to do was jump on his horse and get on with it.

Actually, Attila sounds more like an objectivist than a pure libertarian.