It is quite apparent to everyone by now that the Bush administration has very closely followed in the Hoover administration’s footsteps, and that the Obama administration is almost certainly going to continue doing so as well. But what even some of the more sophisticated observers may not realize is how even the Hoover-Roosevelt response to economic contraction was little more than an echo of much older attempts at economic stabilization by the central state.
“When Diocletian came to the throne in 284, he found three great problems before him… The third and hardest was mainly economic – to restore the dwindled agriculture, commerce, and population of the Empire. On this Diocletian and Constantine went wrong together. They not only failed to cure the evil, but greatly increased it. Not much was gained by remitting taxes that could not be paid, and settling barbarian colonists and barbarian serfs in the wasted provinces. Serious economic difficulties have moral causes, and there was no radical cure short of a complete change in the temper of society. Yet much might have been done by a permanent reduction of taxation and a reform of its incidence and of the methods of collection. Instead of this, the machinery of government (and its expense) was greatly increased. The army had to be held in check by courts of Oriental splendour and a vast establishment of corrupt officials. We can see the growth of officialism even in the language, if we compare the Latin words in Athanasius with those in the New Testament. So heavier taxes had to be levied from a smaller and poorer population. Taxation under the Empire had never been light ; in the third century it grew heavy, under Diocletian it was crushing, and in the later years of Constantine the burden was further increased by the enormous expenditure which built up the new capital like the city in a fairy tale. We are within sight of the time when the whole policy of the government was dictated by dire financial need.”
– The Cambridge Medieval History, Vol. I p. 20 (1911)
Immigration, higher taxes, larger government, vast public works, increased government spending, and even currency devaluations didn’t suffice to get the economy back on track in Constantine’s day. Depending upon your perspective, it’s either fascinating or depressing to note that central government’s response to economic crisis has changed so little in 1,700 years. The jargon and the justifications may differ, but the fundamental actions remain the same.
Chapter 12: The Close of the Hoover Term, for next week. A 25-question final covering the entire book will be posted the following week.