Are We Rome? Ben Powell Compares the U.S. with the Roman Empire

"If we continue down the misguided path that the government is taking us, then the future does not look good," says Free Market Institute's Ben Powell.

Reason's Nick Gillespie caught up with Powell to discuss the theme of this year's Freedom Fest, "Are We Rome?" and whether America is following in Rome's footsteps towards decline.

"Our economic freedom has been plummeting the last ten years," Powell says, "and this isn't a product of Obama. It's Bush [and] Obama consistently. More than half of our decline in economic freedoms happened under Bush. It's just the rate of decline is happening more under Obama."

Held each July in Las Vegas, Freedom Fest is attended by around 2,000 limited-government enthusiasts and libertarians. Reason TV spoke with over two dozen speakers and attendees and will be releasing interviews over the coming weeks. Go here for an ever-growing playlist of this year's interviews.

About 5 minutes.

Produced by Tracy Oppenheimer. Camera by Paul Detrick and Oppenheimer.

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  • Almanian!||

    Are we Rome? No.


  • Rufus J. Firefly||

    America is Rudy.

  • CE||

    Is this the part where we sit on the bench for 3 years, or the part where we get in the game in garbage time and make a few good plays?

  • niallt||

    Start working at home with Google. It’s the most-financialy rewarding I've ever done. On tuesday I got a gorgeous BMW after having earned $7439 this last month. I actually started five months/ago and practically straight away was bringin in at least $74, per-hour. visit this site right here

  • ||

    We are Farmers.
    Ba da ba da ba ba buh!

  • ||

    We are the Borg.

  • RannedPall||


  • Rufus J. Firefly||

    Fuck yeah!

  • sarcasmic||

  • Rufus J. Firefly||

    'We are the world.' Then they wonder why 'they hate our freedoms.'

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    You know, the guy who ran for and lost the election for last emperor of Rome complained about how 47% of Romans weren't rendering unto Caesar anything at all. True story.

  • Paul.||

    aequam partem

  • CE||

    You know who else complained about the 47%?

  • Gorilla tactics||

    pol pot?

  • VG Zaytsev||

    A better analogy is between the US today and the late Roman Republic ca 80 bce. They had acquired a foreign empire but were still a republic. The wealth flowing into specific sectors of Rome, from the empire, were exacerbating class tensions that ultimately tore the republic apart in a series of civil wars that only ended with the tyranny of the emperors.

    The question for America is whether our Empire is worth the effort and whether democratic government is compatible with empire.

  • Drake||

    And there were plenty class warrior politicians willing to exploit and exacerbate for their own gain. The scum always rises to the top.

  • newshutz||

    I agree, the end of the Roman Republic is much more pertinent to the US.

    Certainly, the traditional American character is not suited to empire, and thus the need to fundamentally change the nation.

    One big difference is that Roman plutocrats bought votes with their own money. The modern "improvement" of buying votes with other people's money is new.

  • Square||

    The US has always identified with Rome because Gibbon's _Decline and Fall_ was being published as the revolution was brewing and happening. Much of the Founding Fathers' theorizing was based on their understanding of political history they gained from Gibbon, and the narrative of Republic-Empire-Fall was very much in the forefront of their minds as they were drafting the Constitution.

    That said, the actual similarities are few and far between. The Roman Republic was not a free and democratic society. 90-95% of the population were slaves. They didn't vote. Only land-owning nobility voted.

    The land-owning nobility didn't amass their fortunes through innovation and hard work in a free market, their ancestors seized it and they held it through military force funded by the fruits of the labor of the enslaved conquered.

    When Caeser confiscated the wealth of certain old Senatorial families, he didn't distribute it to the slaves - he distributed it to the soldiers. He was not buying votes, he was buying loyalty in his troops.

    One could go on and on and on, but in the end the US has always had a fondness for comparing itself to Rome, and Americans have never felt particularly constrained by history in making the comparison fit.

  • The Heresiarch||

    90 - 95% slaves? Where are you getting that number?

    From the infallible Wikipedia:

    Estimates for the prevalence of slavery in the Roman Empire vary. Estimates of the percentage of the population of Italy who were slaves range from 30 to 40 percent in the 1st century BC, upwards of two to three million slaves in Italy by the end of the 1st century BC, about 35% to 40% of Italy's population.[27] For the Empire as a whole, the slave population has been estimated at just under five million, representing 10 - 15% of the total population. An estimated 49% of all slaves were owned by the elite, who made up less than 1.5% of the Empire's population. About half of all slaves worked in the countryside, the remainder in towns and cities.

  • Square||

    I don't recall - the number came either from _A History of Private Life_ or _The World of Late Antiquity_.

    The most salient point from Wikipedia is "Estimates for the prevalence of slavery in the Roman Empire vary."

    I believe, though, that at least 90% of the population worked directly on farms, and none of those people were free. Don't know what Wiki's source is.

  • Edwin||

    You think the rich in America amassed their wealth through production and hard work? Haven't you heard Reason repeatedly throw out the fact that DC is the only section of this country that is booming?

    Our rich people are only rich because of a college/licensure cartel that rewards only the people who are pliant and compliant enough to go through the 7+ years of learning NOTHING in college to get the exclusive right to do some special job, which is propped up directly by susbsidies or shitty policy. In a free market, there'd be far more doctors and lawyers and such and they'd actually have to be competent, and each one would make a lot less.

    The actual productive people, contractors, manufacturers, and other STEM people, don't have that kind of protectionism, and their lower earnings reflect more what a free market is actually like. A free market ends up actually being very egalitarian

  • Square||

    You're talking about the parasites that attach themselves to existing wealth, which is what I'm arguing the Romans largely were. In order to have a privileged minority class "qualifying" itself to consume the fruits of other people's labor those fruits have to be there.

    I also don't believe I ever said that Americans amassed their wealth through production and hard labor - I merely said that the Roman aristocracy largely didn't. They seized it from others by force without the sense that there was anything about that to apologize for.

    And not the "we're going to assess some stiff penalties and maybe send you to jail" kind of force, but the "we're going to burn down your village, slaughter your family, and salt your fields" kind of force.

  • CE||

    BCE? You mean BC?

  • Square||

    The new fashion among historians is to use BCE - "Before the Common Era." It's perceived as less Euro-Centric, because it doesn't actually name Christ while imposing the Christian dating system on everyone else.

  • Silly ol' Bear||

    It PC stupidity, don't worry about it, doesn't mean a thing!

  • Drake||

    There are many parallels between us and Rome. The one I find most distressing - how thoroughly they taxed the middle class out of existence by the end.

  • Square||

    At what point did Rome have a middle class?

  • CE||

    I think their taxes were a lot lower than ours.

  • Gorilla tactics||

    very low actually

  • Rufus J. Firefly||

    I applaud the effort and appreciate the interview, but the subject is way too massive to even get a taste in a five minute interview.

    America is Rome just like it's London and Paris for it's just the latest power to represent Western civilization.

  • mtrueman||

    Never understood this American obsession with the Roman empire. The British empire is so much more apt a comparison. England is a non-Latin, English speaking nation that ran her own empire a scant century back in time. Her empire was, like the American counterpart, more of a commercial venture than anything else.

    If pressed, I'd say the reason why America is so obsessed with Rome is celebrity culture. Those who ran the British Empire were dour, colourless bureaucrats. Those who ran the Roman empire seem tailor made for today's press, TV and celebrity gossip mills.

  • fish||

    Are we Rome...?

    We are the Globo Gym Purple Cobras....and we will, we will rock you!

  • meta||

    we also have mullets where the true power lies until the hair gets cut.

  • Alien Invader||

    This has been a foolish comparison for well over 100 years now. The Romans were (usually) pragmatic about war. They didn't apologize for their belief in themselves, and they didn't get guilt hangovers when they conquered new territory.

    The Romans, in short, believed in themselves, even through their own decadence if I recall the history books right.

    The US stopped believing in itself somewhere during the late 19th century.

  • Rufus J. Firefly||

    Except in 1980 in Lake Placid!

  • Paul.||

    So we're not even good enough to be the Facsimile of Rome's decaying empire. Good to know.

  • Square||

    The Romans didn't apologize for their belief in rule by brute force.

    The US, in theory, is not about rule by brute force. Manifest Destiny was supposed to be a voluntary spreading of freedom and democracy, not US troops rolling over the countryside subjugating all in their way.

    The Romans never had even the whisp of an intention to make their ever-expanding pool of foreign subjects equal citizens of Rome.

    The Romans didn't "believe" anything other than "I kicked your ass, now do what I say." The US pretends to have ideals, hence the beginning of a perception of deep and fundamental hypocrisy in how the US has approached foreigners since the late 19th centery.

  • CE||

    The Romans didn't apologize for keeping slaves (who they saw as the spoils of war), although maybe Spartacus made them doubt the practical benefits for a while.

    Hopefully we've progressed some since then.

  • The Heresiarch||

    "The Romans never had even the whisp of an intention to make their ever-expanding pool of foreign subjects equal citizens of Rome."

    Except when they made all Italian freemen citizens after the Social Wars, and then all freemen in the extended empire citizens during the reign of Caracalla.

    And I think it's rather simplistic to say that the Romans only believed in "might makes right." I imagine quite a few thought they were improving the lot of those whom they conquered, by bringing civilization and order to what they perceived as unruly, barbarous peoples.

  • Square||

    Absolutely - one by nature has to oversimplify in the medium of internet postings.

    However, while it's simplistic to say that the Romans ONLY believed in "might makes right," it is perfectly legitimate to point out that the Romans were far more comfortable with the idea than modern Americans.

    The Romans extended citizenship when it served particular political purposes, but their intent in conquering foreign kingdoms was decidedly not to liberate them and teach them republican ideals of freedom.

    Did they consider foreigners to be inferiors who needed to be governed by civilized people? Yes. Did they have a concept of inalienable human rights? Absolultely, resolutely, unambiguously and shamelessly "NO!"

    The US, as an entity, exists BECAUSE of its ideals, even if we commonly forget them. Rome had ideals that sometimes superficially resemble our own, but the Roman state was no ideological construct - the Senate was essentially a cartel of small-scale monarchs.

    America = Rome is a fun intellectual game, and a nice talking point, but the US has as much in common with medieval Iceland as it has with Ancient Rome.

  • The Heresiarch||

    Did the Romans have a concept of human rights that used the same language and had the same philosophical basis as the Founder's? No, as they were a product of a different time. But did they have an idea of "rights," using the term in a broad capacity (viz., of certain things that the state may not inflict on individuals or deprive them of without due process)? Absolutely. Hence the "civis Romanus sum" of Gaius Servilius (In Verrem II.V.147). At least during the Republic, Roman citizens could not be tortured unless found guilty of treason, and they had a right of trial at Rome. They enjoyed a variety of other rights, such as the right of contract and the right of travel. These are all intellectual antecedents of the modern concept of rights.

  • Square||

    "Roman citizens could not be tortured unless found guilty of treason, and they had a right of trial at Rome."

    Roman citizens, yes. Everybody else in the world, not so much. That's the exact opposite of "human rights" - that's "WE have rights, you don't."

    I think the American "don't tread on me" sense of individual rights has a lot more to do with Germano-Celtic individualism that any heritage of "Roman Exceptionalism."

  • Hyperion||

    I saw this this guy on Stossel a few nights ago.

    There are definitely some similarities between us and Roman empire.

    The best part of that show was when Powell said that the Roman citizens rebelled against excess tax collection and killed like 800 tax collectors and the audience broke into applause. And then Stossel said, 'wait, we don't endorse killing tax collectors on this show!'.

  • Paul.||

    Well, not on this show...

  • OldMexican||

    Re: Hyperion,

    I saw this this guy on Stossel a few nights ago.

    There are definitely some similarities between us and Roman empire.

    Somehow, I feel like there should be something connecting these two statements....

    ... Nah, I'm just messing with you! I saw the same show. But I have to tell you, the best part in that show (in front of a Freedom Fest audience) is when Powell scolded those that use "greed" as their catch-all. Is it that the oil companies become less greedy when oil prices come down?

  • CE||

    When the tax collector is your employer, it's tough to rebel.

  • AlmightyJB||

    Needs moar orgies. Toga! Toga! Toga!

  • grey||

    Anarchy is cooperation. Anarchy is sex. And yes, we need more orgies.

  • Jahfre Fire Eater||

    The difference is that the Romans didn't know any better.

  • gaoxiaen||

    And they didn't have nukes.

  • XM||

    Nothing can be great forever. The only difference between the USA and the Roman empire, Mongolian empire, and the Ming dynasty is that we won't lose our land as we decline.

    Did you ever talk to someone who thinks it's "economic justice" for retailers and such to pay 15 dollars in minimum wage? Not on the internet, but talking to a real person, whose faith in borderline socialism is genuine and unshakable. This country is so finished, it's not even funny.

  • Rufus J. Firefly||

    There's no way to begin to explain the madness of thinking that way about wages. It doesn't help that the leader of one of the great business societies pimped out as much at the state of the union speech. More flippantly silly than Obama's showcasing his ignorance of business you can't really get I reckon.

    America is a 'financial empire' more than anything. I think The Economist quite a few years back looked at how many military bases Rome and Washington had, and relative to American power the U.S. had less bases. Point of interest.

  • grey||

    Our pointy sticks can kill more people, much more efficiently. We don't need as many bases to project power.

  • Deep Lurker||

    Actually it's fairly easy to understand that way of thinking about wages. Depressing, but easy. It's based on an economic-theory equivalent of creationism. Possibly with a touch of "spontaneous generation" thrown in.

    Under this theory, wealth isn't created by human action, but by divine and demonic forces: Government and corporate bureaucrats and "the 1%" are not human beings, but angels and demons, creating wealth via their supernatural powers. The angles (mostly government bureaucrats) create wealth under the aegis of God, aka the Government, and then distribute the wealth they create wisely and lovingly. The demons, OTOH are in rebellion against God. They create wealth using stolen godly power and then hoard that wealth, simply to be evil. In fact, they are sitting on enough wealth to pay for every program the leftists propose, and more besides.

    And if any ordinary, mortal human being claims to have created wealth, that's a lie, or a delusion: "You didn't build that."

  • wwhorton||

    I have a friend who actually tried to tell me that Rand Paul and John Boehner were essentially the same ideologically and politically in that, as Republicans, they represent a "reactionary element" in the government motivated primarily by racism.

    It breaks my heart, because he's always been a smidgeon socialist, but ten years ago we could have had a legitimate discussion based on commonly accepted facts. Now, it's like talking to a schizophrenic.

    We're living in a time where the Progressives are using language from the Cultural Revolution, and the main party of opposition is unable to agree on things like not spying wholesale on American citizens, whether or not the federal government should prohibit gay people from getting married, and whether or not it's a good idea to start a proxy war with Russia and Iran by invading Syria.

    The Republicans have no plan, no platform, nothing that would give you confidence in electing them to office. The Democrats at least have a reasonably consistent policy platform. Granted, it amounts to "Eat the rich, eliminate dissent, and promise the plebs enough shinies to convince them to keep us in office," but it's a plan. They look like professionals. Insane, diabolical professionals, but professionals.

  • CE||

    I have a friend who actually tried to tell me that Rand Paul and John Boehner were essentially the same ideologically and politically in that, as Republicans, they represent a "reactionary element" in the government motivated primarily by racism.

    Well, he got it half right. They're not racists, but they're both anarchists who want to chop away the essential functions of government. I read it on Slate.

  • CE||

    We won't lose our land? Wanna bet?

  • Almanian!||

    Oh, and what I meant to say was, "What's this 'we' stuff, Kemosabe?"

  • bassjoe||

    "If we continue down the misguided path that the government is taking us, then the future does not look good," says Free Market Institute's Ben Powell.
    I really really really hate statements like this. It assumes that whatever country the government is in charge of would last [insert arbitrary time period] longer if ONLY it did something (or a set of somethings) different. A few things:

    1) hindsight is 20/20.

    2) nobody has a monopoly on good ideas (yet most people think their ideas are the only ones to follow and refuse to even acknowledge when somebody else's ideas yield good results by claiming it was not actually that person's ideas that led to the good results but just "circumstances" or "luck" or by claiming "it would have been even better if...").

    3) countries -- even the best governed -- don't last forever.

  • Square||

    The thing that annoys me about comparisons to Rome is that usually they're based on a couple of random pieces of information followed by "and that's why American society is about to collapse."

    Stossel did an article on this a few weeks back where he didn't even seem to understand the difference between the "Fall of the Republic" and the "Fall of the Empire," talking about Marius and Diocletian as if they were somehow part of the same sequence of events.

    Then comes the shell game - "no what we mean is, it's like our Democracy is crumbling while we turn into an Empire," except that life for the vast majority of people only got BETTER as Rome became an Empire.

    Even during the famously "troubled" third century, there is considerable evidence that life for the slave class actually improved, and a number of outright peasants and former slaves were actually able to work their way up through the system of the military dictatorship to become emperors.

    Most people also tend to neglect Gibbon's England-and-France centered perspective on Roman history and forget that the loss of the Western Empire in the fifth century was far from a devastating blow to the Empire, which lasted another thousand years.

    In fact, if you ask a Turk I think he'll tell you the Empire fell in 1918.

    The US may not be having its grandest moment right now, but we are far from collapse.

  • GregMax||

    In my opinion, the fundamental problem our economy is experiencing is that as useful productivity expands to meed demand, populations increase and demand continues to expand. But the economy reaches a point where it can't produce enough to support the population. It's a natural pattern that has probably been working on economies (or ecosystems) for eons.
    It's less important whether we are like the Romans or the Tahitians or the Latvians or the Babylonians in superficial ways than the basic human nature expressed (however imperfectly) by Malthus.
    This is the natural life-cycle of an economy. The question is whether we will stop worrying about the irrelevancies of style and color and start addressing the question of how we increase useful productivity while keeping our population under the level of productivity. Prosperity is higher productivity to population.
    I submit that all the ugly shit we see in history and today stem from population stress - too many people, not enough productivity.

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