Monday, November 19, 2007

Wealth Along the Road to Serfdom: Lessons from the Roman Empire

As I (slowly) read Will Durant's The Story of Civilization, I have made it to Caesar and Christ, his thorough and entirely entertaining treatise on the rise and fall of Rome. Given that so much of Christian history takes place in the shadows of the Roman Empire, and the history itself is quite fascinating, I knew I needed to learn much more about the era. And especially because so many academics are quick to point out the way America has become the "new Rome", I knew I could only engage such a claim of American imperialism honestly with more knowledge about Rome itself. Suffice to say, there are vast differences between the Roman Empire and American dominance, mainly in that much of America's influence is voluntary, i.e. no one forces a young Chinese boy to wear a Nike t-shirt. Militarily, American global superiority would have surprised Americans even as late as the early 1940s, as America struggled to remain neutral in its second straight world war. But there is much to learn regarding Rome's civilization, the struggles it went through, and the changes Romans experienced as Rome became more affluent and powerful.

It's golden age was begun by the affable Augustus, who ruled from 30 B.C. - 14 A.D. Augustus was by all accounts a happy emperor, and the empire was happy with him at the helm. That is, until he imposed laws based on his growing taste for ancient virtues. Augustus saw that what constituted a Roman citizenry was harder and harder to define. He noticed that in an age of affluence, women were freer than ever to explore their sexuality, and people found a growing sense of individuality growing within them. Family became more of a luxury than an expectation, and people wanted a taste of the "good life." Durant summarizes it this way:

"The decay of the ancient faith among the upper classes had washed away the supernatural supports of marriage, fidelity, and parentage; the passage from farm to city had made children less of an asset, more of a liability and a toy; women wished to be sexually rather than maternally beautiful; in general the desire for individual freedom seemed to be running counter to the needs of the race."

Consequently, Roman families began to wane, and the numbers of imported slaves and quickly-reproducing non-Romans were increasing. Durant writes of the Roman family, "Of those who married, a majority appear to have limited their families by abortion, infanticide...and contraception." Augustus, probably nothing short of a believer in a "master race" by our standards, sought to reverse the trend.

Several of his "Julian laws" heavily penalized adultery and rewarded those who had large families. One law in particular gave women of three children "the right to wear a special garment, and freedom fromt he power of her husband." One woman who had quadruplets was heavily rewarded by Augustus for her "patriotism." Marriage was mandatory for men under sixty and women under fifty, and "spinsters and childless wives could not inherit after fifty." Whether or not these laws are justifiable (they aren't, from our modern understanding of human rights) or they worked (they didn't as there were plenty of loopholes and ways to resist) is not what I aim to debate. Instead, what is remarkable is why they were necessary to begin with. What is it about wealth and affluence that causes us to forget the lessons that created and preserved the wealth and affluence to begin with?

I am in no way advocating similar laws, but Augustus' critique against his own people is worth us hearing. He saw within his empire, at the height of its power, the moral degradation that would help lead to its downfall in years to come. They way in which they wanted to selfishly keep the good life for themselves, but in no way share it with children, the way that they lacked the foresight to see that their philandering and promiscuity would turn on itself reminds me very much of western culture. It has achieved such great heights, but in an effort to keep those heights for themselves and not share it with future generations, consider the following consequences:

* Most western nations have not have enough children to pay for current generations health and retirement benefits.
* Most western nations are not having enough children to keep up with immigrant demand on social programs.
* While it is hard to quantify, virtue or lack thereof as measured by adultery, divorce, abortion and violence seem to be slowly slipping away.

Rome experienced very similar tensions. When Augustus' laws did not work, he realized that merely changing the law could not change hearts. Durant writes, "In the end Augustus, skeptic and realist, became convinced that moral reform awaited a religious renaissance." Well, here is something I have in common with Augustus. While I hope that some Republican or Libertarian will be able to address some of these social/political problems, I know that only a return to virtue will ensure a better future economically, politically, and morally. Why is it so hard for us wealthy to realize that in order to keep things good, we must remember the values and experiences that got us here to begin with?

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