Emperor Diocletian’s Palace at Nicomedia
Officials close to Emperor Diocletian announced today that developing economic conditions, which may result in an unparalleled crisis, have made it necessary for the Emperor to take drastic steps to save the Empire.
With unusual candor the Emperor’s spokesman stated that between today and December 10, 301 AD an Edict of Wage and Price Controls will be issued which will effectively bring stability and "renewed vigor" to the empire’s markets.
When pressed for further information the spokesman said all the "particulars had not been finalized" but that he had been informed that the controls would encompass all sectors of the Roman Empire’s economy. However, he was at liberty to release the edict’s preamble, which had been approved by Emperor Diocletian and his co-regents, Maximian, Constantius, and Galerius which would help explain the necessity for the Emperors’ actions.
Worded curtly in the Emperors’ statement is the reasoning behind the coming harsh law. "If the excesses perpetrated by persons of unlimited and frenzied avarice could be checked by some self-restraint — this avarice which rushes for gain and profit with no thought for mankind…; or if the general welfare could endure without harm this riotous license by which, in its unfortunate state, it is being very seriously injured every day, the situation could perhaps be faced with… silence, with the hope that human tolerance might alleviate the cruel and pitiable situation…"
Government economists applaud wage and price controls stating that the time has come, in the words of Emperor Diocletian, to stop the "unscrupulous, the immoderate, and… avaricious" madmen of the market places "from plundering the wealth of all…"
Every official interviewed echoed the sentiments of the Emperor that the state should hasten to apply "the remedies long demanded by the situation…" While being equally sure that "no one can complain that our intervention with regulations is untimely or unnecessary, trivial or unimportant."
These same officials are equally quick to point out what everyone knows, which is that "uncontrolled prices are widespread in the sales taking place in the markets and in the daily life of the cities. Nor is the uncurbed passion for profiteering lessened either by abundant supplies or by fruitful years…."
However, these same officials point out that this is uncharted territory and "we don’t know what the future will bring but we know that for this bold stance, taken by the Emperor, to work requires everyone’s cooperation and loyalty."
This undoubtedly is the logic behind the government’s proclamation that: "It is our pleasure that anyone who resists the measures of this statute shall be subject to the capital penalty (death) for daring to do so. And let no one consider the statute harsh, since there is at hand a ready protection from danger in the observance…" of the law.
While among bureaucrats and government economists there is an unbridled and almost universal enthusiasm for the Emperor’s Wage and Price edict; there is by no means the same joy exhibited among economists or business men in the private sector.
When asked, many business owners simply replied, "You can’t run an economy with the point of the sword." Others were more forthcoming and wondered how it was that "one of such humble birth, and lowly education was qualified to micromanage an economy as large and complex as that of the Roman Empire."
One business owner was far more direct, pointing out that, "This will mean an explosion in government payroll. The state will have to increase the number of inspectors and bureaucrats to monitor all production and distribution, along with retail sales. That in turn will mean an increase in taxes. Just who will be left to pay these taxes to support an eternally bloating bureaucracy? Especially when shops, mills, and factories close, farms are left fallow and commerce disappears?"
"Furthermore," he continued, "it was just a little over 20 years ago, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius that the plague completely wiped out many towns and villages from Persia to the Rhine. With a decimated population the empire’s economy teetered on ruin, yet taxes were increased to support greater military spending and an overstuffed bureaucracy. Huge u2018donations’ of grain were stolen from farmers to support the troops along with the hungry in the large population centers, including Rome. We were saddled with land taxes, every imaginable property tax, occupation taxes, and poll taxes. It seems that any attempt to be a productive citizen of the Roman Empire is penalized."
"Now we are being told by an emperor, who has never managed so much as a shoe store, what wages we can pay or what prices we can charge for goods or services? What next? Will the Emperor take it upon himself to hire or discharge factory managers? Maybe we are to be killed for making a profit or going out of business?"
When we pointed out that there was a strong likelihood of both since the preamble expressly states: "we decree that if anyone should, in his boldness, strive against the form of this statute, he shall undergo a capital penalty." He threw up his hands and said, "I am taking my family and going to go live with the Huns!"
Others business owners predict "that before long there would be a huge underground market, much like what was happening among the Christians, which would operate outside the control of the Roman state and starve it of taxes."
In response to Emperor Diocletian’s taking the title "Iovius" and claiming to be the gods’ representative, another business owner opined: "So this is the gods’ will to make us all beggars! The emperor has become an Oriental despot!"
Contacts among economists of the private sector — who wish to have their names withheld — sought to shed some light on the likely outcome of Diocletian’s wage and price controls.
Historically, they claim, wage and price controls equal scarcities of goods and services, and ultimately political chaos.
In Egypt, the economists point out, as early as the 3rd century BC the Pharaoh and his hoards of inspectors tried to control grain production and distribution through a law which fixed the price of grain at all levels. While it seemed necessary at the time the results were not what were desired.
Angered by the harshness of the law and the governments intrusion into their lives many Egyptian farmers simply deserted their farms. So great was this impact on the Egyptian economy that by the end of the century both the economy and the political system of Egypt were in tatters and on the verge of collapse.
It should also be noted that 2300 years prior to Diocletian the powerful Babylonian ruler, Hammurabi, had a long list of wage and price controls. The results were that as long as Hammurabi’s laws were in force the people of that empire suffered brutal economic stagnation. However, it was only after those ancient codes were relaxed or nullified that the people of Babylon saw their fortunes reverse.
Equally important is the lesson to be learned from the Athenian Greeks, who like the Egyptians thought to impose "just" price controls on grain with a swarm of inspectors and government officials. As with the Babylonians, and Egyptians it wasn’t long before grain shortages were so severe that starvation was a problem among the people. If it hadn’t been for those brave souls who, despite the threat of death, traded their grain through the underground market, many in Athens would have died of starvation.
The economists are also quick to point out that the present economic woes of the Roman Empire are not due to the "greedy, unprincipled and licentious" business owners who seek a return on their investments. Instead, they argue, that the fault should be placed where it belongs; on excessive government with its spending, and Diocletian who 17 years earlier had created inflation by allowing too much money to be placed in circulation.
The economists are equally adamant that, even Diocletian’s Edict on Coinage, issued September 1 of this year, with its attempt to maintain the current price of gold and maintain the empire’s coinage base in silver, won’t help but will further the empire’s inflationary problems.
Asked what would change the course of the Empire’s economic downturn, to a man the economist’s stated that only reduction in the size of government, less government spending, lower taxes, little or no regulation of business and allowing the free market to right itself would cure the Empire’s economic ills.
When the Empire’s economists and bureaucrats were presented with the history of price controls among the Babylonians, Egyptians and Athenians, the responses were predictable. All acknowledge the history was correct but were equally sure that the mistakes of those ancient civilizations were not repeatable due to the superior Roman intellect.
"Besides," a spokesman for the imperial treasury said, "we are dealing with complex interrelated issues of a modern economy. Not the simple backward economies of the ancient Egyptians or Babylonians. As such we need to take steps which have not been dealt with before and have no precedence in history. We are making history; we are setting a model for future generations to follow, not reliving the mistakes of the past."
In the hopes of getting a religious viewpoint to Diocletian’s wage and price control plans we contacted the renowned Christian apologist, Lactantius. Lactantius refused a prolonged interview due, he said, to his lack of economic knowledge. However, he did think wage and price controls would portend disaster but refused to elucidate further. Then with an esoteric smile and a wave of the hand in dismissal he stated: "Even the Sibyls openly say that Rome is doomed to perish."
— End of Report —
The results of Diocletian’s Edict of Wage and Price controls were almost immediate; the insane rush to "fix" the failing Roman economy ignored the law of supply and demand. Nowhere does it take into account the variances of prices between regions or even seasons, and certainly not the cost of transporting goods and raw materials.
Lactantius tells us the Edict drove goods off the market. Historians relate that businesses closed, Roman farms became idle, while some people fled to regions controlled by "barbarians" to find safety and justice.
As history had related, the Roman government in an attempt to create jobs increased its own payroll with petty bureaucrats and "inspectors," meanwhile tax revenues continued to decline while the Roman economy persisted in suffering the effects of inflation.
For those who "played by the rules" there were food riots, with a plummeting standard of living until, "For merest trifles blood was shed and, out of fear, nothing was offered for sale and the scarcity grew much worse until, after the death of many persons, the law was repealed from mere necessity."
Those who resisted or ignored the edict; many became wealthy by supplying the needs of the people, as they could, through the underground economy (AKA Black Market). Among those who defied the state were the Christians who were later persecuted under the "official" guise of subverting Diocletian’s and Maximian’s claim of being the gods’ (Jupiter and Hercules) special representatives on earth, when the likelihood is that these "criminals" held wealth that would be irresistible to a desperate state. After all, Rome had a long history of gaining wealth through plunder, why should they stop now?
As we watch another hapless crew of self-deluded morons, in Washington DC, trot out the same old failed polices disguised by different words and catch phases, one has to wonder how long before we suffer the same fate as those ancient Romans.
Tim Case [send him mail] is a 30-year student of the ancient histories who agrees with the first-century stoic Epictetus on this one point: u201COnly the educated are free.u201D