Posted by: ken98 | September 30, 2009

Death and Taxes

Day 18 – Ken Here

(continued apology) and yes, I’m posting this very late – I was out of town, but kept up with the reading – sans-blogging – so I apologize.

Death

well… not so much on death – but much more on citizenship and taxes

Taxes

Chapter 6 ends with a long digression on the relationship between taxes and citizenship. I’ll be very brief, although I personally found it fascinating, and a treasure-trove of parallelisms? with our current financial situation in the U.S..

Rome was an economy powered by conquest: slaves and tribute. Because of the large volume of wealth pouring in from external sources, taxes were discontinued in the late Republic. Thus the difference between various classes in the later Empire, citizen or provincial, not only had judicial implications (for ex. Paul’s appeal to Rome in the New Testament), but financial implications also (citizens were not taxed exactly, provincials were). As the coinage was debased, and the powers of the various client city-states decreased (as they became mere city corporations within the empire), economic power shifted from the citizens of Rome to the wealthy landed citizens of Rome.

Inherited landed wealth became the mark of a new class of citizen, and the old distinctions of citizen versus provincial became more and more meaningless. By the time of Caracalla, so many people in the Empire were citizens, that giving citizenship to all just meant an increase in net taxation, and so it was done. The new distinction – between the nobili (noble) and humiliores (humble) would strengthen during the years of the Crisis of the Third Century (200’s)(235-285), and in the end, Diocletian would freeze the entire social and political world into the rich and free (nobili) and the poor and en-serfed(enslaved). Occupations became heriditary, prices were fixed in public price fixing, the empire came to resemble the Soviet system.

What does that have to do with us? I don’t think its the obvious knee-jerk reaction that “taxes are evil.” Taxes are uncomfortable, but not evil in and of themselves. I think the real lesson – and the lesson the Roman Empire learned to its despair – is that if you gradually create a class of people that become hereditarily poor and disenfranchised, they don’t revolt, they just begin to stop working as hard. Eventually, by ceding all the power and wealth to the rich and powerful, the rich and powerful end up with nothing.

Of course, this takes centuries.

And people hardly think of months anymore, let alone years and centuries. But I think the real lesson in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is forgetting about your own infrastructure and your greatest resource: your population, in order to get short-term gains.

Survival is hard work and levelling the social landscape, not allowing wild accumulations of wealth in certain places and ridiculously thin scarcities of wealth in other places. How to do it? That’s a very good question – the next question we should be asking ourselves, in my opinion.

until tomorrow

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