All Commentary
Tuesday, January 1, 1963

Bureaucracy Kills: A Lesson from Rome

Mr. Chamberlin is a skilled observer and re­porter of economic and political conditions at home and abroad. He has written a number of books, has lectured widely, and is a con­tributor to The Wall Street Journal and many nationally known magazines.


The greatest collapse of a mighty state, a large human so­ciety and a fruitful civilization of which we possess a reasonably ac­curate record, has been immortal­ized by Edward Gibbon’s histori­cal classic, The Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire. Henry Adams remarked that Gibbon did not really explain the fall; but this criticism is not altogether just. As the following excerpts from The Decline and Fall show, the philosophic historian offered a number of reflections on the symp­toms and causes of the drama which he set out to describe:

“This long peace and the uni­form government of the Romans introduced a slow and secret poi­son into the vitals of the empire. The minds of men were gradually reduced to the same level, the fire of genius was extinguished, and even the military spirit evapo­rated…. They received laws and governors from the will of their sovereign and trusted for their de­fense to a mercenary army….

“The rougher trade of arms was abandoned to the peasants and barbarians of the frontiers, who knew no country but their camp, no science but that of war, no civil laws, and scarcely those of mili­tary discipline. With bloody hands, savage manners, and des­perate resolutions, they sometimes guarded, but much oftener sub­verted the throne of the em­perors.”

The Form Remains

Commenting on huge public spectacles which were instituted by the Emperor Philip (244-249 A.D.) Gibbon observes:

“To the undiscerning eye of the vulgar, Philip appeared a monarch no less powerful than Hadrian or Augustus had formerly been. The form was still the same, but the animating health and vigor were fled. The industry of the people was discouraged and exhausted by a long series of oppression.” (Italics supplied.)

And, describing a later phase of the decline, the reign of Diocletian (284-305 A.D.), Gibbon spells out this reference to oppression as the product of twin evils which always go together: a swollen bu­reaucracy and excessive taxation. To quote his account:

“The number of ministers, of magistrates, of officers, and of servants, who filled the different departments of the state, was mul­tiplied beyond the example of for­mer times; and (if we may bor­row the warm expression of a con­temporary) ‘when the proportion of those who received exceeded the proportion of those who con­tributed the provinces were op­pressed by the weight of tributes.’ From this period to the extinction of the empire it would be easy to deduce an uninterrupted series of clamors and complaints. Accord­ing to his religion and situation, each writer chooses either Diocle­tian or Constantine or Valens or Theodosius, for the object of his invectives; but they unanimously agree in representing the burden of the public impositions, and par­ticularly the land-tax and capita­tion, as the intolerable and in­creasing grievance of their own times.”

The same effect of the same taxation system in the sixth-cen­tury Byzantine Empire, under the rule of Justinian, is described as follows by another historian (George Finley, Greece under the Romans, pp. 221, 222):

“At last the whole wealth of the empire was drawn into the im­perial treasury; fruit trees were cut down and free men were sold to pay taxes; vineyards were rooted out, and buildings were de­stroyed to escape taxation….

“The increase of the public bur­dens at last proceeded so far that every year brought with it a failure in the taxes of some province, and consequently the confiscation of the private property of the wealthiest citizens of the insolvent dis­trict, until at last all the rich proprietors were ruined and the law became nugatory.”

Process of Degeneration

The pattern of Roman history is one of rise from a small pas­toral community to build-up of a vast Mediterranean empire during centuries when there was a bal­ance of ordered freedom, when the republican administration was simple and frugal, in contrast to the luxurious and corrupt despot­isms which it overthrew, when patriotism was second nature to the Roman citizen, when the Ro­mans did their own fighting and avoided the use of mercenaries. Then, after a summit of power had been reached, a process of degeneration set in.

Absolute imperial power re­placed the complex check-and-bal­ance system of the republic. The famous Senate declined from a vigorous state council, filled with civilian and military executives, into an ornamental rich men’s club. The Roman populace was no longer in a mood to fight for its constitutional liberties; it was lulled to sleep by the time-honored method: Panem et circenses. So long as it received free food at public expense, and elaborate games and spectacles, it ceased to concern itself with public affairs.

Private initiative disappeared; more and more the all-powerful imperial government was expected to look after everyone and attend to everything. This was beyond the power even of such a noble fig­ure as the philosopher on the throne, Marcus Aurelius; and few Emperors approached Marcus Au­relius in virtue and wisdom. The Decline and Fall may be inter­preted as a process of the atrophy of the individual creative faculty under the enervating influence of a state which went the inevitable way of unlimited power and be­came constantly more absolutist.

Three Centuries Later

The first Emperor, Augustus, was careful to maintain a show of preserving the old republican forms. Bit by bit despotism be­came more open in its outward manifestations; three centuries after Augustus, Diocletian, al­though himself a soldier who had risen from humble origin, intro­duced the whole ceremony of Ori­ental monarchy, including the use of the diadem, and required the most abject obeisance from all who approached him.

Incidentally, Diocletian may be remembered as a pioneer in wage and price fixing. The silver denar­ius, the standard Roman coin, had steadily declined in value dur­ing the barbarian incursions and the civil strife of the preceding century, and Diocletian decreed a devaluation of about 98 per cent. And in 301 A.D. he issued an edict which might have made him the patron saint of the OPA and all other agencies set up to substitute governmental fiat for the working of the free market.

Prices were set for all articles of daily use, and wages were fixed for all crafts and professions. The penalty for disobedience was ban­ishment or death. Occupations were made hereditary; the son had to follow the father’s trade. But these attempts at regimenta­tion did not succeed; the edict, after causing much harmful con­fusion, fell into abeyance and was no longer enforced. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Beginning with Diocletian local autonomy practically disappears, and Diocletian and his successors saved it [the Empire] at the price of practically destroying its eco­nomic and political life.”

The saving at such a price proved temporary and illusory. With the final breakdown in the fifth century the “grandeur that was Rome” had departed. The northern barbarians, who had al­ready achieved a considerable in­filtration as migrant settlers and mercenary soldiers, swarmed over the western provinces of the em­pire and set up their own kingdoms in what had formerly been Roman provinces.

The Fatal Symptoms

The Fall of Rome cannot be identified with any single battle or revolution. It was a slow proc­ess, extending to all fields of life, including literature and art; and it is intimately associated with the substitution of a centralized op­pressive imperial bureaucracy for the former local autonomy and di­versity, with its wider scope and opportunity for individual initia­tive and accomplishment.

Even in the period which Gib­bon, perhaps a little rashly, desig­nated as the most prosperous and happiest in human experience—the time of the so-called five Good Emperors (96-180 A.D.)—symp­toms of the dry rot had set in. There was general peace, except for an occasional border campaign against the barbarians; and the Emperors ruled with justice and intelligence. But there were al­ready symptoms of decay.

Taxation was mounting to a point where wealthy citizens of provincial municipalities were in­clined to dodge the expensive honor of becoming chief magis­trate and finding themselves obli­gated to provide feasts and games for the public benefit. When pro­vincial cities, formerly free in matters of local administration, got into financial difficulties, the omni competent Imperial govern­ment proceeded to bail them out and appoint official directors of their affairs.

Subsidized Softness

A welfare state system taught the people of Rome and other big cities the ease of idleness. By the time of Marcus Aurelius there was a daily distribution of bread, pork, and oil to the populace. Expenses for gladiatorial combats and other public spectacles mounted until an estimated figure of $100 million a year was reached. The descendants of the sturdy original Romans showed more inclination to spend their days in the coliseum and less in serving their country. The army—necessary to guard the long frontiers against restless tribes of barbarians—had to be recruited more and more on a mercenary basis and became, as a result of this process, less disci­plined and less reliable politically. At one time the office of Emperor was actually put up at auction by the Praetorian Guards who domi­nated the capital city of Rome. In the opinion of the Canadian classi­cal scholar, W. G. Hardy, the di­vorce between the barbarized army and the civilized but soft civilians was the immediate cause of the collapse.

Professor Hardy mentions a plague, originating in the East, perhaps something like the Black Death of the Middle Ages, as a contributory cause of Rome’s de­cline; but adds significantly (The Greek and Roman World, pp. 103, 104):

“Even before the plague the Roman world was rotting from within. Government paternalism, bureaucracy, inflation, an ever-in­creasing taste for the brutal and brutalizing spectacles of the am­phitheatre and the circus were symptoms of a spiritual malaise which had begun when political freedom was tossed away in the interests of peace, security, and materialism. There was the canker of slavery and the equally dan­gerous practice of keeping a seg­ment of the population perma­nently on the dole. There was free labor subsisting on starvation wages because of the competition of slavery. At the other end of the scale lolled a group of multimil­lionaires for whom no luxury was too extravagant. Nor did anyone perceive that inflation and rising taxation must ultimately squeeze the middle class out of being.”

Easy Prey for Barbarians

The example of the fall of Rome is a severe blow to theorists who see historical development as an upward curve of continuous and inevitable progress. Many centuries of darkness, of confused strife and pitiful ignorance and poverty would pass before Roman stand­ards of law, administration, and culture were regained, before fig­ures of the stature of Cicero and Virgil and Horace and Juvenal and Tacitus would again appear in the countries of what had once been the Roman world, before new works of sculpture comparable with those of Greece and Rome would again be created. But Rome’s fall, as historians are more and more inclined to agree, came about not so much from any overwhelming pressure from with­out as from weaknesses and dry rot within, which finally made the decayed empire easy prey for the onrushing barbarians of the North.

Lessons for Our Time

Because of this, the process of decline and fall has real and ur­gent lessons for America and for the European nations which are heirs of Roman culture and civili­zation. One may be sure that the Founding Fathers of the Ameri­can Republic, if they were alive today, would be quick to note with alarm certain parallels between American and later Roman devel­opments, notably the willingness to sell out individual rights and freedom and local autonomy for a mess of centralized statist pottage.

For most of the Founding Fath­ers were among the most learned men of their time. The Federalist Papers and the preserved letters of Jefferson and John Adams, Franklin, and Madison are full of references to the events and de­velopments of classical times and to the lessons which should be drawn from these happenings of the past. Perhaps the most im­pressive of these lessons is the fatal folly of letting all power be­come concentrated in a single state authority. The rule even of a “good” Emperor—a Nerva, a Trajan, a Marcus Aurelius—had an enervating, soporific effect, be­cause it was not associated, for the citizen, with a lively sense of personal responsibility. It was what Alexis de Tocqueville had in mind in his remarkable prophetic forecast of what would be the end result of an advanced form of wel­fare state:

“Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, prov­ident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood; it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government will­ingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and sup­plies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures… what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

“Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupe­fies a people, till each nation is re­duced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious ani­mals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

And, of course, there were few “good” Emperors. The history of the Roman Empire offered many vivid examples of how absolute power could corrupt absolutely.

Ever higher taxes, an ever-in­creasing bureaucracy, an evermore absolutist state power, a paralysis of local initiative, a growing reli­ance on a central authority that started with some aspects of a welfare state and ended in full-fledged totalitarianism, with such features as prescribing occupa­tions and fixing wages and prices—such was the unhappy story of Rome’s Decline and Fall.

Does it take much exercise of the imagination to recognize in our own country and our own time some germs, at least, of the politi­cal, social, and economic diseases that first sapped and finally de­stroyed “the grandeur that was Rome “?



Ideas on Liberty

Government Housing

The advocates of the welfare state generally point to Sweden as the model we should follow in the United States, especially for housing. But, according to The New York Times of October 21, 1962, this awkward fact still remains:

“…. the waiting time for an apartment in Stockholm contin­ues to be six to seven years.”

  • William Henry Chamberlin (1897-1969) was an American historian and journalist. He was the author of several books about the Cold War, Communism, and US foreign policy, including The Russian Revolution 1917-1921 (1935) which was written in Russia between 1922-34 when he was the Moscow correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor.