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Power Corrupts — and Incites Hypocrisy

Here’s a letter that I sent today to the Washington Post:

Reviewing Adrian Goldsworthy’s book on the fall of ancient Rome, Diana Preston notes that “Goldsworthy completed his book before the real extent of the world’s current financial crisis was known, but he quotes a complaint by the Emperor Diocletian that seems especially relevant and shows that human nature may not have changed much since Roman times: ‘There burns a raging greed, which hastens to its own growth and increase without respect for human kind.’  Goldsworthy sensibly concludes there’s nothing to suggest the United States must inevitably decline, but that it’s up to those at the top – our 21st-century emperors – to ensure it doesn’t” (“Rome Wasn’t Destroyed in a Day Either,” August 23).

How ironic for Preston to point to Goldsworthy’s quotation of Diocletian – a rapacious hypocrite whose reign serves as an ideal lesson in why bestowing power and glory on ‘leaders’ is a fool’s game.  According to the Roman philosopher Lactantius, under Diocletian “tax collectors began to outnumber taxpayers, and, after exorbitant taxation sapped their initiative, farmers abandoned their farms and plowed fields grew up into woods.  In a policy of terrorization the provinces were cut up into scraps, a multitude of governors and hordes of directors oppressed every region – almost every city; and to these were added countless collectors and secretaries and assistants to the directors. Judges seldom had civil cases before them: they tried (not frequently, but incessantly) condemnations, confiscations, and requisitions of every kind of property, and unbearable inequities in the imposition of taxes….  Diocletian’s boundless greed would never allow his own treasury to be tapped, so he constantly piled on new taxes and contributions in order to keep his personal hoard intact” [quotation found here].

Beware whenever those with power pompously decry the ‘greed’ of others.

Donald J. Boudreaux


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