People say that every civilization must finally fall into ruin and disintegrate. There are eminent supporters of this idea. One was a German teacher, Spengler, and another one, much better known, was the English historian, Toynbee. They tell us that our civilization is now old. Spengler compared civilizations to plants which grow and grow, but whose life finally comes to an end. The same, he says, is true for civilizations. The metaphorical likening of a civilization to a plant is completely arbitrary.
First of all, it is within the history of mankind very difficult to distinguish between different, independent civilizations. Civilizations are not independent; they are interdependent, they constantly influence each other. One cannot speak of the decline of a particular civilization, therefore, in the same way that one can speak of the death of a particular plant.
But even if you refute the doctrines of Spengler and Toynbee, a very popular comparison still remains: the comparison of decaying civilizations. It is certainly true that in the second century A.D., the Roman Empire nurtured a very flourishing civilization, that in those parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa in which the Roman Empire ruled, there was a very high civilization. There was also a very high economic civilization, based on a certain degree of division of labor. Although it appears quite primitive when compared with our conditions today, it certainly was remarkable. It reached the highest degree of the division of labor ever attained before modern capitalism. It is no less true that this civilization disintegrated, especially in the third century. This disintegration within the Roman Empire made it impossible for the Romans to resist aggression from without. Although the aggression was no worse than that which the Romans had resisted again and again in the preceding centuries, they could withstand it no longer after what had taken place within the Roman Empire.
What had taken place? What was the problem? What was it that caused the disintegration of an empire which, in every regard, had attained the highest civilization ever achieved before the eighteenth century? The truth is that what destroyed this ancient civilization was something similar, almost identical to the dangers that threaten our civilization today: on the one hand it was interventionism, and on the other hand, inflation. The interventionism of the Roman Empire consisted in the fact that the Roman Empire, following the preceding Greek policy, did not abstain from price control. This price control was mild, practically without any consequences, because for centuries it did not try to reduce prices below the market level.
But when inflation began in the third century, the poor Romans did not yet have our technical means for inflation. They could not print money; they had to debase the coinage, and this was a much inferior system of inflation compared to the present system, which–through the use of the modern printing press-can so easily destroy the value of money. But it was efficient enough, and it brought about the same result as price control, for the prices which the authorities tolerated were now below the potential price to which inflation had brought the prices of the various commodities.
The result, of course, was that the supply of foodstuffs in the cities declined. The people in the cities were forced to go back to the country and to return to agricultural life. The Romans never realized what was happening. They did not understand it. They had not developed the mental tools to interpret the problems of the division of labor and the consequences of inflation upon market prices. That this currency inflation, currency debasement, was bad, this they knew of course very well.
Consequently, the emperors made laws against this movement. There were laws preventing the city dweller from moving to the country, but such laws were ineffective. As the people did not have anything to eat in the city, as they were starving, no law could keep them from leaving the city and going back into agriculture. The city dweller could no longer work in the processing industries of the cities as an artisan. And, with the loss of the markets in the cities, no one could buy anything there anymore.
Thus we see that, from the third century on, the cities of the Roman Empire were declining and that the division of labor became less intensive than it had been before. Finally, the medieval system of the self-sufficient household, of the “villa,” as it was called in later laws, emerged.
Therefore, if people compare our conditions with those of the Roman Empire and say: “We will go the same way,” they have some reasons for saying so. They can find some facts which are similar. But there are also enormous differences. These differences are not in the political structure which prevailed in the second part of the third century. Then, on the average of every three years, an emperor was assassinated, and the man who killed him or had caused his death became his successor. After three years, on the average, the same happened to the new emperor. When Diocletian, in the year 284, became emperor, he tried for some time to oppose the decay, but without success.
There are enormous differences between present-day conditions and those that prevailed in Rome, in that the measures that caused the disintegration of the Roman Empire were not premeditated. They were not, I would say, the result of reprehensible formalized doctrines.
This article is serialized from Economic Policy: Thoughts for Today and Tomorrow, a book based on six lectures delivered in Buenos Aires in 1959 on Capitalism, Socialism, Interventionism, Inflation, Foreign Investment, and Politics and Ideas by the great 20th century economist who was too good to receive a Noble Prize: Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973). Copyright 1995 by Bettina Bien Greaves. All rights reserved.