Pandemic Reading Tips

When a new book comes out, C. S. Lewis reportedly said, be sure to read an old one first. Anybody now cooped up at home might follow that advice and take up a real oldie, such as The Gallic War, by Julius Caesar. The Roman imperialist fought it out with tribes such as the Aedui, Segusiavi, Ambivareti, Aulerci, and many others, so around 50 BC Gaul was a rather diverse place. On the Iberian peninsula, Caesar encountered the Jacentani, Aurenani and Illurgavonenses, who live near the Ebro.

The Gallic War explains how Caesar built floating causeways, constructed bridges over the Rhine, and in battle sent messages by smoke signals, “according to the practice of earlier times.” As the author explains, “great is the power of fortune, in war as in all else.” Consider also its reflections on tax policy.

“Avarice devised novel kinds of imposts,” Caesar wrote. “A poll tax was imposed on slaves and children, and taxes were collected on doors, grain, soldiers, weapons, rowers, artillery, carts; anything for which a name could be found was deemed appropriate for collecting taxes on.” These taxes derived from “avarice,” which refutes the notion that when people gain power, their vices somehow disappear. Vices remain and power tends to expand them, as F. A. Hayek noted in The Road to Serfdom, a book many politicians have doubtless never read.

Another old book worth tackling is Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in 1776. The vast cast of characters includes Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths. As Gibbon explains, “the Gothic conqueror condescended to disarm the unwarlike natives of Italy, interdicting all weapons of offence, and excepting only a small knife for domestic use.”

Those who disarm the people intend to oppress the people, a lesson for the ages. “In modern times,” Gibbon noted, “debts and taxes are the secret poison which still corrodes the bosom of peace.”

Decline and Fall is long read but is ideal for those under the stay-at-home orders Gov. Gavin Newsom has imposed on Californians. Newsom’s recovery task force includes former governor Jerry Brown, who left California with the nation’s highest income and sales tax rates, a highly volatile revenue system, a swollen bureaucracy, and fathomless debt.

As veteran journalist Dan Walters of CalMatters observes, the current pandemic “lays bare some multi-billion-dollar shortcomings in state government finances that have been ignored for decades, despite many warnings.” So any recovery is likely to be a long time coming.

Happy reading, everybody.

K. Lloyd Billingsley is a Policy Fellow at the Independent Institute and a columnist at American Greatness.
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