“There is nothing new under the sun,” according to a proverb in Ecclesiastes, which still rings true today.
In fact, after Congress approved the largest relief package in history – totaling some $2 trillion in COVID-19’s wake – we have heard the same dissatisfying refrain that’s as old as Rome, where increasingly massive relief projects eventually became commonplace.
Lessons from these ancient programs demonstrate that hulking public assistance projects, while often nobly intentioned, are virtually impossible to fairly administer, sometimes lead to even grander proposals and ultimately hamstring governments with debt.
We are seeing the same here in the United States too. Not long after the most recent relief package’s enactment, Congressional Democrats introduced a bill that would expand the assistance payments to Americans to $2,000 a month until the economy fully rebounds. While this measure ultimately failed to move forward, Trump is now claiming that an even more “generous” batch of stimulus checks could be on the way, and Senator Martha McSally, R-Arizona, has proposed giving taxpayers $4,000 each for vacations, according to Bloomberg’s Steven Dennis.
While few know it, many public assistance programs can be traced to the second century BC when the Gracchus brothers – in the face of stiff opposition – largely became the architects of the Roman welfare system.
One such program was the grain dole. It was originally a subsidized food program, and when the younger Gracchus decided to marvel at the bread lines that he had created, he noticed a politician named Piso waiting in line for a handout. Not only was Piso massively wealthy, but he also was a staunch opponent of the grain dole. When Gracchus asked him why he was there, Piso responded that if his wealth was going to be redistributed, then he intended on getting his fair share. However, while Piso wanted his cut, others demanded even larger benefits.
In time, the dole exploded as politicians sought to ingratiate themselves with voters. At its peak, over 300,000 Romans were on the dole, and sometimes pork, wine and salt were even included. Yet this wasn’t the limit of the Roman welfare system. The state periodically offered free tracts of land and tools to the poor so that they could become self-sufficient farmers. Although, too often the recipients sold these properties and returned to Rome where they likely went back on the dole. At times, Roman politicians went even further and made grandiose promises of total debt forgiveness.
More than 2,000 years later, these are familiar themes. Following the arrival of Trump’s stimulus checks, many grumbled that they weren’t large enough. Meanwhile, others complained that they didn’t receive any stimulus money. For many, it was because they earned too much to qualify, but they understandably pointed out that they are paying a larger share of taxes and virtually funding the relief package. As such, why shouldn’t they get their fair share, some asked. Nevertheless, from then on, plans for continued relief packages became ever grander, and talks of certain kinds of debt forgiveness have grown more popular.
Whether you support public assistance programs or not, these shortcomings are just their nature. It is impossible to fairly distribute the government’s largesse in a manner that pleases everyone. Further, if not properly guarded, assistance projects will spiral out of control as they incrementally become larger to the point of ridiculousness, and they risk becoming permanent – or at least regularly occurring – costly fixtures of society.
While not a perfect apples-to-apples comparison, ancient Rome presents a cautionary tale on this topic. Their programs began somewhat modestly and often occurred irregularly. But eventually, the Romans’ programs became more or less permanent and massively expensive. And they weighed the Empire down, greatly weakening it. Despite the great costs, the programs never entirely pleased the Romans.
There is a good case to be made for Trump’s $1,200 relief checks, given that the government essentially forced millions into temporary unemployment. As a result of the unique fiscal situation, it was the best response out of a list of proposals to deal with the economic downturn.
However, Americans need to be wary of making such proposals larger, regularly occurring or even permanent. After all, they could unfairly redistribute wealth and bankrupt the country.
Marc Hyden is the director of State Government Affairs at the R Street Institute, and he is a long-time Georgia resident. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.