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Are we Rome yet?

| Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Unfortunately, the fall of Rome is a pattern repeated by empires throughout history ... including ours?

Libertarians who gathered recently for a Las Vegas event called FreedomFest debated that.

Historian Carl Richard said the Roman Republic had a constitution, but Roman leaders often ignored it: “Marius was elected consul six years in a row, even though under the constitution (he) was term-limited to one year.” Sounds like New York City's Mayor Bloomberg.

“We have presidents of both parties legislating by executive order, saying, ‘I'm not going to enforce certain laws because I don't like them.' ... That open flouting of the law is dangerous because law ceases to have meaning. ... Congress passes huge laws they haven't even read (as well as) overspending, overtaxing and devaluing the currency.”

The Romans were worse. I object to President Obama's $100 million trip, but Nero traveled with 1,000 carriages.

To pay for their excesses, emperors devalued the currency. (Doesn't our Fed do that by buying $2 trillion of government debt?) Nero reduced coins' silver content to 95 percent, then Trajan reduced it to 85 percent, and so on. By the year 300, wheat that once cost eight Roman dollars cost 120,000 Roman dollars.

The president of the Foundation for Economic Education, Lawrence Reed, warned that Rome, like America, had an expanding welfare state. It started with “subsidized grain. The government gave it away at half price. But the problem was that they couldn't stop there.”

Soon, to appease angry voters, emperors gave away or subsidized olive oil, salt and pork. Rome's government, much like ours, wasn't good at making sure subsidies flowed only to the poor, said Reed: “Anybody could line up to get these goods, which contributed to the ultimate bankruptcy of the Roman state.”

As inflation increased, Rome, much like the U.S. under President Nixon, imposed wage and price controls. When people objected, Emperor Diocletian denounced their “greed,” saying, “Shared humanity urges us to set a limit.” Doesn't that sound like today's anti-capitalist politicians?

“The parallels are quite ominous — the debt, the expansionist foreign policy, the arrogance of executive power taking over our country,” Matt Kibbe, president of tea-party group FreedomWorks, said at FreedomFest. “But I do think we have a chance to stop it.”

That's a big difference: We have movements like the tea party and libertarianism and events like FreedomFest that alert people to the danger in imperial Washington and try to fight it. If they can wake the public, we have hope. The triumph of liberty is not inevitable, though. And empires do crumble.

We've accomplished amazing things but shouldn't take our continued success for granted.

Freedom and prosperity are not natural. In human history, they're rare.

John Stossel is host of “Stossel” on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of “No They Can't: Why Government Fails, but Individuals Succeed.”

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