Rome & Central Planning

Central planning — like war — never changes. It has always been a powerful and effective way of achieving an explicit objective (e.g. building a bridge, or a road), but one that has has always come with detrimental side-effects. And the more central planners try to minimise the side-effects, the more side-effects appear. And so the whack-a-mole goes on.

This was true in the days of Rome, too.

From Dennis Gartman:

Rome had its socialist interlude under Diocletian. Faced with increasing poverty and restlessness among the masses, and with the imminent danger of barbarian invasion, he issued in A.D. 301 an edictum de pretiis, which denounced monopolists for keeping goods from the market to raise prices, and set maximum prices and wages for all important articles and services. Extensive public works were undertaken to put the unemployed to work, and food was distributed gratis, or at reduced prices, to the poor. The government – which already owned most mines, quarries, and salt deposits – brought nearly all major industries and guilds under detailed control. “In every large town,” we are told, “the state became a powerful employer, standing head and shoulders above the private industrialists, who were in any case crushed by taxation.” When businessmen predicted ruin, Diocletian explained that the barbarians were at the gate, and that individual liberty had to be shelved until collective liberty could be made secure. The socialism of Diocletian was a war economy, made possible by fear of foreign attack. Other factors equal, internal liberty varies inversely with external danger.

The task of controlling men in economic detail proved too much for Diocletian’s expanding, expensive, and corrupt bureaucracy. To support this officialdom – the army, the courts, public works, and the dole – taxation rose to such heights that people lost the incentive to work or earn, and an erosive contest began between lawyers finding devices to evade taxes and lawyers formulating laws to prevent evasion. Thousands of Romans, to escape the tax gatherer, fled over the frontiers to seek refuge among the barbarians. Seeking to check this elusive mobility and to facilitate regulation and taxation, the government issued decrees binding the peasant to his field and the worker to his shop until all their debts and taxes had been paid. In this and other ways medieval serfdom began.

So much for the view that increasing aggregate demand is the recipe for wider prosperity; Diocletian surely raised it a lot. But that didn’t really accomplish much, either in terms of wider prosperity, or in terms of the sustainability of the Roman civilisation. Raised aggregate demand is only useful if it contributes to creating and producing things that society needs and wants. And as Hayek brutally demonstrated, central planning is notoriously useless at determining what people actually want.

Of course, no modern centralist (e.g. Krugman) explicitly endorses price controls although, I am sure some of the more Hayekian or Paulian-minded among us will point out among other things that the minimum wage and the setting of interest rates are both kinds of price control. Diocletian however, was far more expansive.

From Wiki:

The first two-thirds of the Edict doubled the value of the copper and bronze coins, and set the death penalty for profiteers and speculators, who were blamed for the inflation and who were compared to the barbarian tribes attacking the empire. Merchants were forbidden to take their goods elsewhere and charge a higher price, and transport costs could not be used as an excuse to raise prices.

The last third of the Edict, divided into 32 sections, imposed a price ceiling – a maxima – for over a thousand products. These products included various food items (beef, grain, wine, beer, sausages, etc), clothing (shoes, cloaks, etc), freight charges for sea travel, and weekly wages. The highest limit was on one pound of purple-dyed silk, which was set at 150,000 denarii (the price of a lion was set at the same price).

And how did it work out?

The Edict did not solve all of the problems in the economy. Diocletian’s mass minting of coins of low metallic value continued to increase inflation, and the maximum prices in the Edict were apparently too low.

Merchants either stopped producing goods, sold their goods illegally, or used barter. The Edict tended to disrupt trade and commerce, especially among merchants. It is safe to assume that a gray market economy evolved out of the edict at least between merchants.

Bernanke of course is much more sophisticated; he uses the facility of the primary dealer banks to hide the currency inflation necessary to monetise government debt. Central planning wins again? No; central planning always comes with unpredictable boomerang side effects.

I suppose, though, that it is comforting that history is repeating itself. After the horrors of mediaeval feudalism, we pulled ourselves up anew from the wastes of history.