Instances of government relief to the poor can be found from the earliest times. Though the records are vague in important particuÂlars, we do know a good deal about what happened in ancient Rome. A study of that case may enable us to draw a few lessons for our own day.
Roman “social reform” appears to have begun in the period of the Republic, under the rule of the Gracchi. Tiberius Gracchus (c. 163-133 B.C.) brought forward an agrarian law providing that no person should own more than 500 jugera of land (about 300 acres), except the father of two sons, who might hold an additional 250 jugera for each. At about the same time that this bill was passed, Attalus III of Pergamum beÂqueathed his kingdom and all his property to the Roman people. On the proposal of Gracchus, part of this legacy was divided among the poor, to help them buy farm impleÂments and the like. The new agrarÂian law was popular, and even survived Tiberiusâ€™s public assassiÂnation.
He was succeeded by his younger brother Gaius Gracchus (158-122 B.C.). In the ancient world transport difficulties were responsible for famines and for wild fluctuations in wheat prices. Among the reforms that Gaius proposed was that the government procure an adequate supply of wheat to be sold at a low and fixed price to everyone who was willing, to stand in line for his allotment once a month at one of the public granaries that Gaius had ordered to be built. The wheat was sold beÂlow the normal priceâ€”historians have rather generally guessed at about half-price.
The record is not clear concernÂing precisely who paid for this generosity, but the burden was apÂparently shifted as time went on. Part of the cost seems to have been borne by Romeâ€˜s richer citiÂzens, more of it seems to have been raised by taxes levied in kind on the provinces, or by forced sales to the state at the lower prices, or eventually by outright seizures.
Though Gaius Gracchus met a fate similar to his brotherâ€™sâ€”he was slain in a riot with 3,000 of his followersâ€””the custom of feeding the Roman mob at the cost of the provinces,” as the historian Rostovtzeff sums it up, “survived not only Gracchus but the RepubÂlic itself, though,” as he adds ironÂically, “perhaps Gracchus himself looked upon the law as a temporary weapon in the strife, which would secure him the support of the lower classes, his main source of strength.”[ref]History of the Ancient World, Vol. 2, p. 112. [/ref]
Bread and Circuses: The New Deal in Old Rome
An excellent account of the subÂsequent history of the grain dole can be found in H. J. Haskellâ€™s book, The New Deal in Old Rome. I summarize this history here:
There was no means test. AnyÂone willing to stand in the bread line could take advantage of the low prices. Perhaps 50,000 applied at first, but the number kept inÂcreasing. The senate, although it had been responsible for the death of Gaius Gracchus, did not dare abolish the sale of cheap wheat. A conservative government under Sulla did withdraw the cheap wheat, but shortly afterward, in a period of great unrest, restored it, and 200,000 persons appeared as purchasers. Then a politician named Claudius ran for tribune on a free-wheat platform, and won.[ref]New York: Knopf, 1939. [/ref]
A decade later, when Julius Caesar came to power, he found 320,000 persons on grain relief. He succeeded in having the relief rolls cut to 150,000 by applying a means test. After his death the rolls climbed once again to 320,000. Augustus once more introduced a means test and reduced the numÂber to 200,000.
Thereafter during the Imperial prosperity the numbers on relief continued at about this figure. Nearly 300 years later, under the Emperor Aurelian, the dole was extended and made hereditary. Two pounds of bread were issued daily to all registered citizens who applied. In addition, pork, olive oil, and salt were distributed free at regular intervals. When ConÂstantinople was founded, the right to relief was attached to new houses in order to encourage buildÂing.
The Right to a Handout
The political lesson was plain. Mass relief, once granted, created a political pressure group that noÂbody dared to oppose. The long-run tendency of relief was to grow and grow. The historian RostovÂtzeff explains how the process worked:
“The administration of the city of Rome was a heavy burden on the Roman state. Besides the neÂcessity of making Rome a beautiÂful city, worthy of its position as the capital of the worldâ€¦ there was the enormous expense of feedÂing and amusing the population of Rome. The hundreds of thousands of Roman citizens who lived in Rome cared little for political rights. They readily acquiesced in the gradual reduction of the popuÂlar assembly under Augustus to a pure formality, they offered no protest when Tiberius suppressed even this formality, but they inÂsisted on their right, acquired durÂing the civil war, to be fed and amused by the government.
“None of the emperors, not even Caesar or Augustus, dared to enÂcroach on this sacred right of the Roman proletariat. They limited themselves to reducing and fixing the numbers of the participants in the distribution of corn and to organizing an efficient system of distribution. They fixed also the number of days on which the popÂulation of Rome was entitled to a good spectacle in the theaters, cirÂcuses, and amphitheaters. But they never attacked the institution itÂself. Not that they were afraid of the Roman rabble; they had at hand their praetorian guard to quell any rebellion that might arise. But they preferred to keep the population of Rome in good humour. By having among the Roman citizens a large group of privileged pensioners of the state numbering about 200,000 men, members of the ancient Roman tribes, the emperors secured for themselves an enthusiastic recepÂtion on the days when they apÂpeared among the crowd celebratÂing a triumph, performing sacriÂfices, presiding over the circus races or over the gladiatorial games. From time to time, howÂever, it was necessary to have a specially enthusiastic reception, and for this purpose they organÂized extraordinary shows, suppleÂmentary largesses of corn and money, banquets for hundreds of thousands, and distributions of various articles. By such devices the population was kept in good temper and the â€˜public opinionâ€™ of the city of Rome was â€˜organized.â€[ref]M, Rostovtzeff, The Social and EcoÂnomic History of the Roman Empire (Oxford: Clarendon Press, second ediÂtion, 1957), pp. 81-2. [/ref]
The Dole, Among Other Causes of the Fall of the Empire
The decline and fall of the Roman Empire has been attributed by historians to a bewildering vaÂriety of causes, from the rise of Christianity to luxurious living. We must avoid any temptation to attribute all of it to the dole. There were too many other factors at workâ€”among them, most notably, the institution of slavery. The Roman armies freely made slaves of the peoples they conquered. The economy was at length based on slave labor. Estimates of the slave population in Rome itself range all the way from one in five to three to one in the period between the conquest of Greece (146 B.c.) and the reign of Alexander SeveÂrus (A.D. 222-235).
The abundance of slaves created great and continuing unemployÂment. It checked the demand for free labor and for labor-saving deÂvices. Independent farmers could not compete with the big slave-operated estates. In practically all productive lines, slave competition kept wages close to the subsistence level.
Yet the dole became an integral part of the whole complex of ecoÂnomic causes that brought the eventual collapse of Roman civiliÂzation. It undermined the old Roman virtues of self-reliance. It schooled people to expect someÂthing for nothing. “The creation of new cities,” writes Rostovtzeff, “meant the creation of new hives of drones.” The necessity of feedÂing the soldiers and the idlers in the cities led to strangling and deÂstructive taxation. Because of the lethargy of slaves and undernourÂished free workmen, industrial progress ceased.
There were periodic exactions from the rich and frequent confisÂcations of property. The better-off inhabitants of the towns were forced to provide food, lodging, and transport for the troops. SolÂdiers were allowed to loot the disÂtricts through which they passed. Production was everywhere disÂcouraged and in some places brought to a halt.
Ruinous taxation eventually deÂstroyed the sources of revenue. It could no longer cover the stateâ€™s huge expenditures, and a raging inflation set in. There are no conÂsumer-price indexes by which we can measure this, but we can get some rough notion from the price of wheat in Egypt. This was surÂprisingly steady, Rostovtzeff tells us, in the first and second centuries, especially in the second: it amounted to 7 or 8 drachmae for one artaba (about a bushel). In the difficult times at the end of the second century it was 17 or 18 drachmae, almost a famine price, and in the first half of the third it varied between 12 and 20 drachÂmae. The depreciation of money and the rise in prices continued, with the result that in the time of the Emperor Diocletian one artaba cost 120,000 drachmae. This means that the price was about 15,000 times as high as in the second cenÂtury.
In 301 Diocletian compounded the evil by his price-fixing edict, which punished evasion with death. Out of fear, nothing was offered for sale and the scarcity grew much worse. After a dozen years and many executions, the law was repealed.
The growing burden of the dole was obviously responsible for a great part of this chain of evils, and at least two lessons can be drawn. The first, which we meet again and again in history, is that once the dole or similar relief proÂgrams are introduced, they seem almost inevitablyâ€”unless surÂrounded by the most rigid restricÂtionsâ€”to get out of hand. The secÂond lesson is that once this hapÂpens, the poor become more numÂerous and worse off than they were before, not only because they have lost self-reliance, but because the sources of wealth and production on which they depended for either doles or jobs are diminished or destroyed.