Welfare in the Roman Empire: Deja Vu All Over Again

The New Deal in Old RomeLots of people know that the Roman empire lasted for a 1000 years, then fell precipitously into decline in the West. Some know that the decline can be partially attributed to economic issues in the empire. But very few know that many of the policies implemented by the Roman government have very distinct echoes in 20th and 21st-century American politics.

Corporate and personal welfare in the Roman empire was very real, rather common, and, compared to current history, extremely surprising.

This somewhat arcane but exceptionally relevant topic is covered in the book The New Deal in Old Rome: How Government in the Ancient World Tried to Deal with Modern Problems. It was published in 1938 by newspaper journalist H.J. Haskell (and updated in 1946 to reflect what had happened since WWII).

You can download a PDF or Epub for free at the Ludwig Von Mises Institute (or pay $15 for a hard copy).

I’m about halfway through it and have found it fascinating reading. I would highly encourage anyone interested either in Roman history or modern economics (or both) to download a copy and jump into it. It’s easy reading and moves pretty quickly.

Haskell does a nice job painting a picture of what the Roman world was like during the 1000 year period from 500AD to 500BC, specifically talking about the life of the average person and their social/economic setting. He then begins to cite economic and political policies chapter and verse which sound remarkably similar to policies that have been tried (and normally failed) from FDR to Obama. If you want to prove the history repeats itself, here’s an easy way to do it.

Of course, one of the more useful things that can come from reading it is to see how these policies ultimately play themselves out over many generations. It is a somewhat sobering picture, to say the least. Haskell explains the basic premise in his preface:

The failure of the Roman system to furnish decent minimum standards of living for the mass of the people was a fundamental cause of instability, both political and economic. The decay of character that attended the sudden rush of great wealth undermined the Republic even before it was submerged by civil wars. Later, in a society unstable through social bitterness, extravagant public spending proved fatal. A British commentator, Professor F. E. Adcock of Cambridge University, remarks on the price the world finally had to pay for ” the gilding of the Golden Age of the Antonines.” The spending for non-productive public works, for the bureaucracy, and for the army, led to excessive taxation, inflation, and the ruin of the essential middle class and its leaders. It destroyed the men whom Leon Homo, French historian, calls, in a brilliant phrase, “the general staff of civilization.” These facts have implications that may be pertinent today.

I would encourage this book as reading for high school students to adults. It’s a great introduction to some key economic principles from an ancient perspective.

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