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All Roads Lead to (Ancient) Rome

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« on: November 08, 2011, 06:41:30 pm »

All Roads Lead to (Ancient) Rome

Nov 6, 2011 10:00 AM EST

 The old empire could teach us a thing or two about the euro and its flaws.

Europe enjoyed a common currency regime 2,000 years ago. Back then, as today, there was no single common language, rather limited workforce mobility, and quite an active trade network. The Roman Empire brought relative internal peace to a wide area never to be united again. And it brought the sestertius—or, to be more accurate, a coinage of gold, silver, and bronze of which the bronze sestertius became the most commonly spread denomination. It certainly lacked a central bank, but it lasted for many centuries.

As a severe and predictable European debt crisis is slowly unfolding, it seems unlikely that the euro will achieve anything approaching the success or longevity of its distant predecessor. What went wrong, beyond the lack of political vision that is the only thing European governments seem to share?

Europe’s fundamental sin is actually simple. The Maastricht Treaty of 1992, in creating a single legal tender and monopolistic currency for the countries that ratified it, fundamentally undermined the very founding principle it ostensibly enshrined: that of “subsidiarity,” or the principle that holds it is always better for a matter to be handled at a local level than by a centralized authority.

The peculiarity of the Roman political system was indeed its taste for subsidiarity. The imperial government was usually quite happy to restrict itself to the essentials—mainly military defense and the rule of law—while devolving to local civic authorities most of the burden of managing their own issues. As such, the cities and regions, notably in the Greek or Syriac-speaking East, struck their own lower-value bronze coins as a complement to the usually higher-value imperial coins, leading to specific monetary zones.

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The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity, but the one that removes awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside. --Allan Bloom

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