As we consider the manifestos of today’s progressives, we should ask: What can we learn from the reign of Julius Caesar? Julius Caesar established the Roman Empire and crowned himself dictator perpetuo — “dictator for life.” Just how did he become so powerful? Caesar promised the Romans everything under the sun — everything that they would not have to pay for.
If this story rings a bell, it’s because Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and today’s progressives are doing the same thing. They are proposing Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, free college, student-debt cancellation and an ever-expanding laundry list of “free” programs. We should all ponder what Cato the Younger and Cicero pondered: How is all of this going to be paid for? As it turned out in Caesar’s case, he relied on an aggressive “squeeze-the-rich” strategy. Does this sound familiar?
Julius Caesar was Rome’s greatest popularis, a man of the people. Appian of Alexandria described Caesar as wanting to introduce “laws to better the condition of the poor,” with the goal of the gradual equalization of the classes through a broad program of redistribution. He engaged in a legislative frenzy, pushing many bills and laws. He penned a land reform bill with the goal of — as Plutarch explained — dividing land “among the poor and the needy.” He spent exorbitant sums on public works to help ease unemployment.
He remitted a whole year of rent for poor tenants and ordered — in effect — as Suetonius reckons, the cancellation of one-fourth of all outstanding debt. He instituted rent controls and gave handouts of 100 denarii to each pleb. Furthermore, public entertainment was frequent, and it was free. After crossing the Rubicon and enduring years of war, the people deserved, according to Caesar, to be rewarded for their resilience. For example, in 46 B.C., Caesar hosted enormous festivals, parades and gladiatorial games — often lasting weeks. Showered with all of these “freebies,” the public adored Caesar.
How did this “free-for-all” strategy work out? Led by Cato, opposition to Caesar’s policies was fierce in the Roman Senate from the very beginning. The Senate managed to kill Caesar’s land bill, with Cicero calling the proposed law “a plot against liberty,” warning that Caesar’s rhetoric would lead to an “an onslaught on private property … cancellation of debts … [and] plundering the well-to-do.” Even some members of the public began to question the viability of Caesar’s giveaway schemes.
To quell the Roman public’s concerns, Caesar proclaimed: “Let none of you suspect that I shall harass any man who is rich or establish new taxes; I shall be satisfied with the present revenues.” Caesar was lying. He confiscated the wealth of overseas dependencies and fleeced the lands he conquered. But, in need of evermore cash to fuel his largess, Caesar decided to squeeze the wealthy and forced the rich to empty their pockets into the public treasury. He increased duties on luxury imports, introduced Rome’s first sales tax and enforced strict sumptuary laws. In 49 B.C., he attempted to enforce a wealth cap at 15,000 silver or gold drachmas. The masses were elated. They even went so far as to demand bounties for servants who reported their masters for avoiding Caesar’s wealth tax. And, a wealth tax it was — 100 percent — on any riches over the cap. Today’s “down-with-the-rich” fever is nothing new. Indeed, it plagued Rome over two millennia ago.
But, Caesar’s revenue-raising schemes fell short. Consequently, his treasury ran up huge debts, and the tide turned. Suetonius writes how “even the commoners began to disapprove of how things were going, and no longer hid their disgust at Caesar’s tyrannical rule but openly demanded champions to protect their ancient liberties.” By then, it was too late. Cassius Dio relates how “the populace … [found] much more fault [because Caesar] had expended countless sums on all that array. In consequence a clamour was raised against him … that he had collected most of the funds unjustly.” How did the great popularis respond to this protest? He personally grabbed three of the rioters, chopped off their heads and displayed their severed skulls near the Regia.
In the end, after Caesar’s assassination, Cicero looked at the treasury and bemoaned: “our knottiest political problem is shortage of money.” Caesar’s spending had left its mark; there is no such thing as a free lunch. All of Caesar’s “free” programs were seductive, until they weren’t. The treasury was depleted, and the Roman Republic, which had endured 500 years, crumbled as a result.
• Steve H. Hanke, a professor of applied economics at the Johns Hopkins University, is the founder and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health and the Study of Business Enterprise. He is also a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. Joshua Blustein is a research associate at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health and the Study of Business Enterprise.