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photo credit to learnaboutancientrome.weebly.com.

Below is a guest post from Lawrence Reed, president of the Foundation for Economic Education. The Foundation for Economic Education, founded in 1946, is the leader in education, publishing, and the production of ideas related to the economic, ethical and legal principles of a free society. Republished with permission.

More than 2,000 years before America’s bailouts and entitlement programs, the ancient Romans experimented with similar schemes. The Roman government rescued failing institutions, canceled personal debts, and spent huge sums on welfare programs. The result wasn’t pretty.

Roman politicians picked winners and losers, generally favoring the politically well connected — a practice that’s central to the welfare state of modern times, too. As numerous writers have noted, these expensive rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul efforts were major factors in bankrupting Roman society. They inevitably led to even more destructive interventions. Rome wasn’t built in a day, as the old saying goes — and it took a while to tear it down as well. Eventually, when the republic faded into an imperial autocracy, the emperors attempted to control the entire economy.

Debt forgiveness in ancient Rome was a contentious issue that was enacted multiple times. One of the earliest Roman populist reformers, the tribune Licinius Stolo, passed a bill that was essentially a moratorium on debt around 367 BC, a time of economic uncertainty. The legislation enabled debtors to subtract the interest paid from the principal owed if the remainder was paid off within a three-year window. By 352 BC, the financial situation in Rome was still bleak, and the state treasury paid many defaulted private debts owed to the unfortunate lenders. It was assumed that the debtors would eventually repay the state, but if you think they did, then you probably think Greece is a good credit risk today.

In 357 BC, the maximum permissible interest rate on loans was roughly 8 percent. Ten years later, this was considered insufficient, so Roman administrators lowered the cap to 4 percent. By 342, the successive reductions apparently failed to mollify the debtors or satisfactorily ease economic tensions, so interest on loans was abolished altogether. To no one’s surprise, creditors began to refuse to loan money. The law banning interest became completely ignored in time.

By 133 BC, the up-and-coming politician Tiberius Gracchus decided that Licinius’s measures were not enough. Tiberius passed a bill granting free tracts of state-owned farmland to the poor. Additionally, the government funded the erection of their new homes and the purchase of their faming tools. It’s been estimated that 75,000 families received free land because of this legislation. This was a government program that provided complimentary land, housing, and even a small business, all likely charged to the taxpayers or plundered from newly conquered nations. However, as soon as it was permissible, many settlers thanklessly sold their farms and returned to the city. Tiberius didn’t live to see these beneficiaries reject Roman generosity, because a group of senators murdered him in 133 BC, but his younger brother Gaius Gracchus took up his populist mantle and furthered his reforms.

Tiberius, incidentally, also passed Rome’s first subsidized food program, which provided discounted grain to many citizens. Initially, Romans dedicated to the ideal of self-reliance were shocked at the concept of mandated welfare, but before long, tens of thousands were receiving subsidized food, and not just the needy. Any Roman citizen who stood in the grain lines was entitled to assistance. One rich consul named Piso, who opposed the grain dole, was spotted waiting for the discounted food. He stated that if his wealth was going to be redistributed, then he intended on getting his share of grain.

By the third century AD, the food program had been amended multiple times. Discounted grain was replaced with entirely free grain, and at its peak, a third of Rome took advantage of the program. It became a hereditary privilege, passed down from parent to child. Other foodstuffs, including olive oil, pork, and salt, were regularly incorporated into the dole. The program ballooned until it was the second-largest expenditure in the imperial budget, behind the military.It failed to serve as a temporary safety net; like many government programs, it became perpetual assistance for a permanent constituency who felt entitled to its benefits.

In 88 BC, Rome was reeling from the Social War, a debilitating conflict with its former allies in the Italian peninsula. One victorious commander was a man named Sulla, who that year became consul (the top political position in the days of the republic) and later ruled as a dictator. To ease the economic catastrophe, Sulla canceled portions of citizens’ private debt, perhaps up to 10 percent,leaving lenders in a difficult position. He also revived and enforced a maximum interest rate on loans, likely similar to the law of 357 BC. The crisis continually worsened, and to address the situation in 86 BC, a measure was passed that reduced private debts by another 75 percent under the consulships of Cinna and Marius.

Less than two decades after Sulla, Catiline, the infamous populist radical and foe of Cicero, campaigned for the consulship on a platform of total debt forgiveness. Somehow, he was defeated, likely with bankers and Romans who actually repaid their debts opposing his candidacy. His life ended shortly thereafter in a failed coup attempt.

In 60 BC, the rising patrician Julius Caesar was elected consul, and he continued the policies of many of his populist predecessors with a few innovations of his own. Once again, Rome was in the midst of a crisis. In this period, private contractors called tax farmers collected taxes owed to the state. These tax collectors would bid on tax-farming contracts and were permitted to keep any surplus over the contract price as payment. In 59 BC, the tax-farmer industry was on the brink of collapse. Caesar forgave as much as one-third of their debt to the state. The bailout of the tax-farming market must have greatly affected Roman budgets and perhaps even taxpayers, but the catalyst for the relief measure was that Caesar and his crony Crassus had heavily invested in the struggling sector.

In 33 AD, half a century after the collapse of the republic, Emperor Tiberius faced a panic in the banking industry. He responded by providing a massive bailout of interest-free loans to bankers in an attempt to stabilize the market. Over 80 years later, Emperor Hadrian unilaterally forgave 225 million denarii in back taxes for many Romans, fostering resentment among others who had painstakingly paid their tax burdens in full.

Emperor Trajan conquered Dacia (modern Romania) early in the second century AD, flooding state coffers with booty. With this treasure trove, he funded a social program, the alimenta, which competed with private banking institutions by providing low-interest loans to landowners while the interest benefited underprivileged children. Trajan’s successors continued this programuntil the devaluation of the denarius, the Roman currency, rendered the alimenta defunct.

By 301 AD, while Emperor Diocletian was restructuring the government, the military, and the economy, he issued the famous Edict of Maximum Prices. Rome had become a totalitarian state that blamed many of its economic woes on supposed greedy profiteers. The edict defined the maximum prices and wages for goods and services. Failure to obey was punishable by death. Again, to no one’s surprise, many vendors refused to sell their goods at the set prices, and within a few years, Romans were ignoring the edict.

Enormous entitlement programs also became the norm in old Rome. At its height, the largest state expenditure was an army of 300,000–600,000 legionaries. The soldiers realized their role and necessity in Roman politics, and consequently their demands increased. They required exorbitant retirement packages in the form of free tracts of farmland or large bonuses of gold equal to more than a decade’s worth of their salary. They also expected enormous and periodic bonuses in order to prevent uprisings.

The Roman experience teaches important lessons. As the 20th-century economist Howard 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.” Putting one’s livelihood in the hands of vote-buying politicians compromises not just one’s personal independence, but the financial integrity of society as well. The welfare state, once begun, is difficult to reverse and never ends well.

Rome fell to invaders in 476 AD, but who the real barbarians were is an open question. The Roman people who supported the welfare state and the politicians who administered it so weakened society that the Western Roman Empire fell like a ripe plum that year. Maybe the real barbarians were those Romans who had effectively committed a slow-motion financial suicide.

read the original post at the FEE website here

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This article is based off a column originally published in FEE

If this was yours, would you complain? nauticexpo.com

The presidential race is heating up and both major political parties have populist candidates- that means candidates who are running on the kind of anti-establishment, anti-greed platform the left, middle, and right generally agree on.

One of these candidates, the avowed Socialist Bernie Sanders, believes the world is a zero-sum game: If I have, then you don’t, and vic-versa. He does not see the potential for us both to have, but sees the possibility that I can take from you and vice -versa. In a recent speech, Sanders lamented that people are spending money on deodorant or sneakers when children are hungry. He literally said:

“You don’t necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers when children are hungry in this country. I don’t think the media appreciates the kind of stress that ordinary Americans are working on.”

Not to be outside, a comedian named Louis C.K. followed up with a joke on a similar note:

“My life is really evil.

There are people who are starving in the world, and I drive an Infiniti. That’s really evil…. There are people who are like born and then they go, “Oh, I’m hungry,” and then they just die, and that’s all they ever got to do.

And, meanwhile, I’m in my car — boom boom, brrr! — like having a great time, and I sleep like a baby…. I could trade my Infiniti for like a really good car, like a nice Ford Focus… and I’d get back like twenty thousand dollars, and I could save hundreds of people from dying of starvation with that money.

 And every day, I don’t do it.

Louis C.K’s joke reflects a common complaint about markets—that markets enable people to purchase luxury goods while other people starve.”

This article is about debating whether it’s bad to purchase big-ticket items, especially when roughly 47 millions Americans are receiving SNAP benefits (aka food stamps), when so many young people live in crime-ridden areas and have parents who cannot afford to move their child to a safer school, 93 million-plus working-age Americans do not have a job, and median household incomes have fallen since 2008. When you look at the hundreds of millions of us struggling in this economy, it’s easy to get disgusted with the wealthy, some of whom probably don’t deserve their wealth (like if they earned it illicitly or obtained it by some other means than honest work), and who go drink $900 a bottle wines in restaurants in the swanky parts of Manhattan or who fly around in private jets that the rest of us can only see from the ground.

But what is a “luxury good”, and why are we taxing it? Most people would not argue that a private jet is “luxury”. What about deodorant? Most of us need that! And if one deodorant is $5 and one is $50, is the $50 deodorant “luxury”, how about Hermes belts, some of which run into the four digits. Are these luxury, or necessity, since all of us who wear pants need belts?

The reason classical liberal economic policies, such as the ones CRI advocates for, work is because the true value of an item is determined by those who buy it, not by society at large, and not by government officials who are taking guesses. There is no one item everyone in America owns, not by brand, and not by type. Most people have cars and car insurance, but not everyone does. Certainly there is no book or movie everyone’s seen or dog/cat food all dog/cat owners use, if they use it at all. Those who use or consume a particular product figure out what the value is and pay accordingly. if the collective value becomes too high for us, and we determine we don’t need or want that product or service anymore, we just say no (unless the government mandates it). If Hermes wasn’t making money selling belts for thousands of bucks, they’d stop doing it. Clearly, some are willing to pay for that, so they keep making it, and thus keep their workers employed.

Those goods and services we value more will end up having more people working in those industries, and the industries will less support lose ground. This is why there are lots of gun manufacturers, but far fewer bow and arrow makers. Or, more car manufacturing plants, but fewer horse and buggy plants. Why some people decide to fly first-class as opposed to economy on the same airplane, or even choose one airline over another, or to fly or not to fly. Market forces generally determine that the lower something costs, the more it will be purchased. For the same reason those of you who buy books on your book reader might stock up on paid books under $5, but if books were all $25, you’d buy far fewer of them (we assume you aren’t addicted to ‘free-books). When goods and services are cheap, we can consume more of them, building more industries and making more people prosperous. This is why keeping tax rates as low as possible is so important- the more cost you add, the less people can and will purchase something. This is how a person with just a two hundred dollars can buy a DVD Player, two six-packs, chips and dip, and still have enough for a month’s electric and water bill while $200 wasn’t enough to buy a DVD player when they first came out. So if you managed to buy one, you didn’t have left-over for anything else.

Therefore, it’s unreasonable to suggest that buying luxury goods is somehow bad. Yes, a millionaire could give $25,000 to a charity, or to the government, to feed, clothe, or house poor families. But if that millionaire purchased a new car at $25,000, that would help keep the auto workers, the truck drivers, and the car dealer owner and his/her employees employed. Diffusing the money among them is no different than diffusing money among the millions of hungry kids. Yes, some businesses don’t always pay or treat their workers fairly, but these businesses are absolutely in the minority.

So the next time a politician tries to tell you that luxury items are evil because they are expensive,and redistributing the wealth is the only logical solution, walk away.

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