All Commentary
Saturday, December 1, 1990

The Taproots of Political Corruption

Dr. Peterson, Heritage Foundation adjunct scholar, holds the Lundy Chair of Business Philosophy at Campbell University, Buies Creek, North Carolina.

How prevalent has political corruption been over recorded history—and how did it originate? Quite an inkling as to its prevalence and origin can be found in a book written by H. J. Haskell and published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1939. The book is The New Deal in Old Rome.

Haskell, a newspaperman with the Kansas City Star, was both puzzled and inspired in the late 1930s when he and his wife drove across the Pont du Gard, the stone bridge and aqueduct that soars 165 feet above the river bed near Avignon in southern France. This triumph of engineering and architecture was built by the Romans some two millennia earlier. It still stands, mute testimony to the genius of Rome. Yet it raises the question: What happened to the glory that was Rome?

The magnificent Pont du Gard cast a spell on Haskell. Perhaps the spell was of the same sort that fascinated Edward Gibbon when he walked along Hadrian’s Wall, which demarcates the northern boundary and defense line of Roman Britain. Gibbon went on to write The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the first volume appearing in 1776.

Back to Haskell. He reflected on the possible meaning of the Pont du Gard and asked himself: Just what kind of a civilization had created such an awesome, durable, and most beautiful structure, survived a thousand years, and then disappeared? And, pondered the American journalist further, why the disappearance? Back in the United States, Haskell discussed these questions with Katharine Dayton, a friend and playwright.

The time was the Great Depression, the heyday of the New Deal, of massive interventionist measures following in the wake of Federal Reserve expansion and contraction of the money supply in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and of failed Hoover Administration programs—most notably the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1929, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930, and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation of 1932. But now a num ber of New Deal programs had also backfired. The depression dragged on, even though FDR and his New Deal won in 1936 by a larger majority than in 1932. Severe unemployment persisted year after year and even escalated in 1938.

Miss Dayton told Haskell of her conversation with eminent antiquity historian and archeologist James Breasted shortly before he died. She had inquired if he had discovered any New Deals in the ancient world. He responded: “Yes, my dear, I’ve dug up at least a dozen.”

Hence the reference to the New Deal in the title of Haskell’s book. In it he argued, as had Gibbon, that it was not the strength of the Germanic invaders that sank Rome but the Eternal City’s moral and economic corruption. The corruption arose, Haskell held, from a pattern of majoritarianism (popularism) and interventionism (widespread government interference in a market system).

Such interference is seen in the Roman equivalents of, in New Deal terms, a Farm Debt Conciliation Committee, a Resettlement Administration, a Public Works Administration, a Food Relief Administration, a Home Owners Loan Corporation, an Ever-Normal Granary, and so on.

This potpourri of interventionist measures is frequently shorthanded by historians of Rome as “bread and circuses.” It pushed Rome, Haskell held, into amorality, further intervention, more corruption, bouts of inflation, and eventually into a totalitarian state—all contributing to Rome’s decline and fall.

Amorality? Note how Mises similarly plays on “the standards of morality” in commenting on Rome in Human Action:

The marvelous civilization of antiquity perished because it did not adjust its moral code and its legal system to the requirements of the market economy. A social order is doomed if the actions which its normal functioning requires are rejected by the standards of morality, are declared illegal by the laws of the country, and are prosecuted as criminal by the courts and the police. The Roman Empire crumbled to dust because it lacked the spirit of liberalism and free enterprise. The policy of intervention-ism and its political corollary, the Fuhrer principle, decomposed the mighty empire as they will by necessity always disintegrate and destroy any social entity.

A Tuneless How-to Message

Newspaperman Haskell observed that much amorality if not immorality was involved in Roman majoritarianism and interventionism. In this vein, see his references to the Handbook on Politics by Quintus Cicero, younger brother of the great Marcus Cicero (B.C. 106-43), leader in the Roman Senate. Marcus was running for the Roman consulship in the latter days of the Roman Republic, and Quintus evidently figured his brother was too principled, too unschooled in the devious ways of politics, to make a winning race. Hence while his blunt handbook was dedicated to Marcus Cicero (just as Machiavelli later dedicated his similar handbook on politics, The Prince, to Lorenzo de Medici of Florence), its how-to message seems timeless—relevant to machine politicians today, some 2,000 years later—as well as conducive to corruption.

Look, said Quintus to his brother. As a senator and leading attorney, with many successful cases to your credit, remind your clients of your brilliant services and collect your political I.O.U.’s. Too, since citizens in outlying districts also vote, best swing around the circuit, greet your rural constituents, wish them happiness, caring families, long lives, good health, good crops, and, of course, urge them to vote.

And, of course, with urban citizens as well, kiss babies, embrace old ladies, smile in public, shake hands, slap backs, tell stories, and, above all (or underneath all), gather votes—the politician’s raison d’être. Tell the citizens, in the city and in the outlying regions, that they are the salt of the earth, the strength of the country, God’s chosen people. Tell them anything.

Let them personally know, Marcus, how highly you admire them and value their counsel, their friendship, their affection—and their vote. That is, fawn on the voters, butter them up, play the game. As Quintus wrote for his brother, as quoted by Haskell: “One has great need of a flattering manner, which, wrong and discreditable though it may be in other walks of life, is indispensable in seeking office.”

Another thing, Quintus went on, don’t be overly conscientious or careful in your electioneering. Be generous, even lavish, with pledges of booty, bounty, jobs, contracts, public works—f favors you can bestow once in office. “Human nature being what it is, all men prefer a false promise to a flat refusal. At the worst the man to whom you have lied may be angry. That risk, if you make a promise, is uncertain and deferred, and it affects only a few. But if you refuse you are sure to offend many, and that at once.”

Quintus covered all the angles. He wrote: Again, dear Brother Marcus, no need to be reserved or above questioning the honesty and integrity of your opposition. Your rivals for office are certain to resort to bribery and other underhanded tricks. Right? Hence fight fire with fire, Quintus counseled. Try bribery yourself, buy off your enemies, convert them into allies. Too, why not try scandal? “Contrive, if possible,” said Quintus, “to get some new scandal started against your rivals for crime or immorality or corruption, according to their characters.”

This last idea struck home. Catiline, the key rival of Marcus Cicero in the election, was apparently making illicit payments to voters and key officials. But in Senate speeches Cicero went beyond such peccadilloes and accused Catiline of crime after crime, outrage after outrage, including murder, adultery, attempted massacre, attempted incest, and marriage to a daughter whom he had fathered with a mistress. Demanded Cicero: “Quo usque, Catilina, abutere patientia nostra? [How long, Catiline, will you abuse our patience?]” The accusations, however wild, fell on receptive ears. Catiline lost the election.

The More Things Change . . .

Now, what was really going on here two millennia ago of relevance to us in our own age of political corruption and rather unlimited government? Consider. Cicero’s election campaign was all part of a universal game that goes to this hour, a bidding war, a slander war between rival parties and candidates, with each party and candidate trying to out-promise and out-denigrate the other, while the wooed and all-too-frequently- grasping voters swoon over the adoration and public loot showered or to be showered on them.

Historically parties and candidates have long resorted to a campaign strategy of half-truths if not calculated deceptions, artifices, illusions, and other stratagems that many voters, then and now, only half understand and half suspect of hood-winkery. But many if not most of the electorate are nonetheless tantalized and corrupted by an election campaign—political gladiators skewering the reputations of their opponents, the temptation of something for nothing, the longing for certainty in an uncertain existence, the wish for security in an insecure world. Many a voter echoes the thought of Oscar Wilde: “I can resist everything except temptation.”

So today’s campaign tantalizers and tantalizees are part and parcel of the story of corruption. They are not basically different from political contests of yesteryear. Fanfare and knowing winks persist, accompanied by standard political charisma and oratorical flair, by cascades of rhetoric and bombast, by political conventions complete with campaign buttons, ribbons, flags, bunting, and balloons, by parades of marching bands and shiny open cars topped off with the smiling candidates waving at adoring multitudes along a parade route.

All this classic showmanship is at once benumbing and mesmerizing, if not confusing, to the electorate. But it is also, on the whole, enthralling, persuasive, and enveloping. As are the political slogans: “Carthage Must Be Destroyed.” “A Chicken in .Every Pot.” “Death to the Huns.” “Reunite the Two Germanies.” “Peace and Prosperity.” “Veni, Vidi, Vici.” “Workers of the World, Unite.” “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” “A New Deal.” “The Square Deal.” “The New Freedom.” “The European Community.” “The Worker’s Paradise.” “A New Beginning.” “Greater Asia’s Co-Prosper-ity Sphere.”

For then in the time of Cicero and now on the eve of a millennium, do candidates tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Do the voters themselves really believe all that campaign rhetoric and bombast? Many, perhaps most, obviously do. But quite a few of them nudge each other in the ribs and wink an eye. As Haskell commented on the electioneering goings-on in Ancient Rome: “Probably Cicero would have been sur prised to know that his election charges [against Catiline] would be taken seriously by posterity.”

Haskell concluded his book with an appendix of interventions, of campaign promises, and ploys that went wrong. He called it a “Chronology of Roman New Deal Measures and Other Economic Experiments.” Some highlights:

367 B.C.—Licinius Stolo: moratorium on debts.

357 B.C.—Maximum interest rate set at 81/3 percent.

342 B.C.—Interest abolished to favor debtors; law soon ignored.

217 B.C.—Monetary devaluation to meet financial stringency in second war with Carthage.

133-121 B.C.—The Gracchi: Resettlement Administration; Public Works Administration; Ever-Normal Granary; two-price system for wheat, sold by the government at 32 cents a bushel (1939 equivalent), well below the market price, to those willing to stand in line.

58 B.C.—Wheat furnished free as a dole. 49-44 B.C.—Julius Caesar: panic in Rome when Caesar crosses Rubicon; flight of capital; collapse in real estate. Remedies: debts scaled down on basis of prewar values; Resettlement Administration, 80,000 taken off relief and settled away from Rome; relief rolls cut in half with means test (320,000 to 150,000); anti-hoarding measures, with compulsory investment in Italian land; Public Works Administration, work on roads, public buildings, reclamation projects.

29-9 B.C.—Augustus: more extensive Public Works Administration projects; large soldier bonuses; easy- money policy from spoils of Egypt and large coinage of gold and silver from government mines; rising prices; relief rolls, which had expanded after Julius Caesar’s death, cut from 320,000 to 200,000.

9 A.D.—Domitian: Agricultural Adjustment Administration, half of provincial vineyards destroyed to stop overproduction of wine.

97-106 A.D.—Nerva and Trajan: Farm Credit Administration, with loans to farmers at half the market rate; government aid to children of poor families; senators required to invest one-third of their wealth in Italian land.

117-211 A.D.—Hadrian and successors: extravagant spending on public works by central government and cities, followed later by heavy expenditures for wars, exhausting both reserves and tax resources.

212-273 A.D.—Heavy taxation and inflation, demoralization of business, breakdown of the middle class.

27 A.D.—Aurelian: relief extended, with bread substituted for wheat and addition of free pork, olive oil, and salt; right to relief made hereditary. Ruinous taxes; galloping inflation.

284-476 A.D.—Diocletian and successors: spiraling taxation; inflation from overvalued currency with skyrocketing prices; Diocletian’s ill-fated edict of 301 A.D. mandating wage and price controls under pain of death; totalitarian state; collapse of agricultural production; invasion of Germanic tribes; relocation of capital; end of Western Empire.

The push of Roman intervention and corruption is matched by the surge of Roman inflation. And that surge is reflected in the decline of silver content in the Roman coin of circulation, the denarius, from practically pure silver (save for a hardening agent) in the rule of Augustus (44 B.C.-14 A.D.) to practically pure copper (with just a wash of silver) by the role of Diocletian (284-305 A.D.)

Quod Erat Demonstrandum: Majoritarianism, interventionism, corruption. As simple as one, two, three. Majoritarianism and interventionism make up the taproots of corruption.

  • William H. Peterson (1921-2012) was an economist, businessman and author who wrote extensively on Austrian Economics. He completed his PhD at New York University in 1952 under the supervision of Ludwig von Mises.