To strengthen defence, cut taxes and balance the budget is very difficult.
Ronald Reagan managed the first two tasks, but failed in the third. President Bush made no effort to control nondefence spending in his first term and is only now trying to do so – we shall see how how well he does (he does not have President Reagan’s defence of the Democrats being in control of the House of Representatives)
However, it is not impossible to achieve all three tasks. Perhaps the most important example in history is that of the Emperor Anastasius.
When Anastasius became Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire in 491 AD (the Senate allowed the choice of Emperor to rest with the Empress Ariadne) the Western Roman Empire had already collapsed. Here and there (such as in the Province of Britian) there were local leaders who continued to fight against the Germanic peoples, but the vast majority of the old empire in the west was under various Germanic kings.
The Eastern Roman Empire (which evolved into what we call the Byzantine Empire) was not in a good state. As with the Western Empire taxes were crushing, and yet the treasury was empty and the defences of the Empire were falling apart.
Anastasius fought many wars, both against invaders and against domestic rebels (mostly Chalcedonian Christians who objected to his austere Monophysite variety of Christianity – although I am not claiming that all Monophysites were austere, and it should also be remembered that Anastasius did not tend to persecute other sorts of Christians – not even Arians, the religion of the most of the barbarian rulers in the West and a religion whose doctrines were further from the “one divine nature of Christ-God” of the Monophysites, than were the “two natures of Jesus” view of the Chalcedonians from which the vast majority of modern Christians get their doctrines), and yet he greatly reduced taxes. Anastasius abolished the “chrysargyon” (a major tax on the urban population) and reduced the “capitatio” – one of the great taxes on the peasantry. It must never be forgotten that most citizens of the Empire were and had always been country people (the concentration of the written records with city matters misleads us). And it was the demands for ever greater taxation that had led the Emperor Diocletian to tie peasants to the soil – i.e. to turn the bulk of the population into what would in later times be called serfs.
Anastasius was working to a plan to abolish the capitatio (although the land tax would remain – and it had to be paid in gold), but sadly the Emperor elected by the Senate after him (Justin) and the real man of power (Justinian) had other plans. Also if provinces were devasted by war Anastasius would grant remission of their taxes. An obvious policy perhaps – but not every Emperor did this, too often a province might be almost destoyed by war, only for the tax collectors to come along afterwards and finish the job.
At the same time Anastasius rebuilt the army, so whilst it did not become as good as the great Roman army of old, it avoided becomming the sick joke that the Western army had turned into. The army with which the Generals of Justinian won so many victories in their efforts to retake the West was at least in part the work of Anastasius.
Such defences as the great fortress city of Dara (built to guard against the Persians) were also the creation of Anastasius. As was the Long Wall of Thrace – part of the complex of defences that protected Constaninople. A city that withstood siege after siege – not falling till the Forth Crusade of the early 13th century, hundreds of years after Anastasius died (of course, after the Frankish occupation the Byzantines made a recovery of sorts – which was not to end till the capture of Constaniople by the Turks in 1453).
Anastasius also reformed the coinage (the actual minister in charge was named John the Paphlagonian – why should such folk be forgotten), so the East remained a money economy (not collapsing into barter) with coins in the denominations useful to the citizens, and Byzantine coins remained a normally undebased system of exchange for many centuries.
And as for “balancing the budget” – Anastasius left a reserve of 320,000 pounds (weight) of gold in the treasury when he died in 518.
Well “how did he do it”?
There was no magic, just the hard slog of careful cuts in wasteful spending (such as shows to amuse the urban mob – although even Anastasius dare not touch the chariot racing, whatever the of truth or otherwise of the claim that he had the support of the Green faction from the chariot races). And the endless work against corruption (the ways that officials found to get money in their pockets rather than in supplying the army).
The efforts of Anastasius and his ministers (such as Polycarp and Marinus) to reform administrative structures, cut spending and root out corruption have a history among Roman financial managers of the better sort all the way back to Sulla in the days of the Republic (Sulla abolished the Corn Dole, and he smashed the tax farmers [folk who demanded X for the state and X plus for themselves] who had looted the provinces – this made Sulla very popular with folk away from Rome regardless of how many Popularies he killed in the city).
Indeed only half a century before the time of Anastasius the Senate elected Marcian as Emperor – and he abolished a few taxes and charges upon Senators, which he was able to do partly by the bold move of refusing the pay any more protection money to Attila the Hun, and partly by just hard control of spending.
However, in recent centuries only Anastasius had cut taxes for the great mass of people, whilst rebuilding defence, and balancing the budget (indeed building up a directly held reserve that would have made Martin Van Buren proud).
The Republic was centuries dead. Under the Empire “liberty” sometimes seemed to mean a picture of free bread on the coins (part of the destruction of liberty being hailed as liberty itself – a very modern touch), And the ideology of the late Roman Empire was collectivist to the core, yet Anastasius was able to good – indeed vast amounts of good. Individuals do matter in history.
But what is the relevance of me ranting on about ancient history? What an Emperor can do can not be matched by the democatic politics of modern nations. Why even the old Republican Sulla did not get his reforms into practice by constitutional means – he cut down his Popular party (“party” in a loose sense of course) enemies like pork (although the round of political killings in Sulla’s time was actually started by the Popularies – a point that many history text books seem to oddly forget) and his reforms did not last long after his retirement.
This is where the example of Philadephia comes in. In the 1930’s the United States was fully democratic (yes there were some Poll taxes and blacks in the South could not vote – but by ancient standards northern cities like Philadephia had an almost unthinkable proportion of their population with the right to vote – no slaves, few resident aliens, and even voting rights for women).
In the days of the early Republic democrats (whether the political party was Jefferson’s Republicans or later Jackson’s Democrats – and whether the various democrats happened to like each other or not) had been small government men (Jefferson with his abolition of all internal federal taxes, Jackson and Van Buren with the paying off of the national debt…..). But by the 1930’s the people who viewed themselves as “progressive” or “democatic” (whether they were in the Democratic party or not) were deeply collectivist. Also the popular culture was collectivist – in books or films the bad guy was normally a rich man of business (just like today – with a few brave exceptions), and (of course) the 1930s was the period of the Great Depression with up to a quarter of the workforce unemployed and the economy in chaos.
In this period the budget of the city of Philadelphia went from a revenue of 133 million dollars and spending of 163.4 million Dollars in 1930, to a revenue of 127 million Dollars and spending of 127.6 million Dollars in 1940. Indeed in many years of the 1930’s Philadelphia balanced the budget – and all without the special “help” of the new hand outs from President Roosevelt’s federal government.
In short Philadelphia did not expand government – in the teeth of the supposedly inevitable spendthrift nature of democracy, and in spite of the intense collectivism of the 1930’s, the temptation of money from Washington and the longest depression of American history.
For those who may think that there may be special factors involved in the stats I gave above (and prices did fall in the first couple of years of the 1930’s) compare Philadelphia’s stats with those of New York City:
In 1930 New York City government had revenue of 725.6 million Dollars and spending of 681.8 billion Dollars. In 1940 New York had revenue of 896.7 million Dollars and spending of 1327.5 million Dollars.
In short, spending about doubled in New York city in the 1930’s (whereas it fell in Philadelphia) and by 1940 New York city government was spending more than ten times what Philadelphia city government was spending (and no, Philadelphia’s population was not only a tenth of the population of New York).
Yes the Philadelphia that had Conservative black newspapers as late as the 1960s is long gone (indeed perhaps it was really killed by the new City Charter just after World War II), and yes Philadelphia did not provide for its own defence (it was not a classical city – for all its Greek name). But it is one example that shows that even in the most difficult of circumstances polticians do not have to be collectivists – they choose to be. Political leaders can fight the growth of statism if they really wish to do this.
It is not “inevitable social trends”, the “historical period” or any other factor. Polticians are government growers because they choose to be so, they do not have to be so.
For some of the facts above I made use of the work of the late AHM Jones (on Anastasius his short work “The Decline of the Ancient World”, Longman 1966, is still all one needs) and of Bruce Allen Hardy (on Philadelphia). I came upon Dr Hardy’s thesis (Wayne State University 1977) recently and it gave me the stats to support something that I had long known (that Philadelphia resisted the growth of statism in the 1930s).
Of course I am certainly not claiming that either the late AHM Jones or Dr Hardy would support any of my political opinions.