In what had once been a land of opportunity and progress, the state had grown large and oppressive. Its leaders lost their way. Its people nearly lost their freedom.
How oppressive had the state become? No matter how you chose to make your living, government officials made constant demands on you. Every major transaction was taxed, at escalating rates. If you couldn’t pay the taxes, your goods and property were seized. In many cases, you had to have special permission from the state to enter your chosen occupation.
How did the government grow to be so oppressive? It didn’t happen overnight. Instead, the encroachments were gradual, each one too small on its own to provoke large-scale opposition. Many of the taxes were originally enacted as “temporary” measures, in response to emergencies, but then lingered on in seeming perpetuity.
It was a great deal for the political class — at first. In earlier times, state revenues had been used primarily to fund critical infrastructure and maintain law and order. But as the money poured in, bureaucrats hired other bureaucrats, which boosted their power and stature. Government didn’t just pay them directly. Precisely because government had become so burdensome, corruption was rampant. It was cheaper for merchants to pay off public officials than to comply fully with the taxes and regulations.
Over time, however, the abuses of the political class proved counterproductive. To the extent land confiscation moved taxable property into government ownership, the tax base shrank. To the extent government made it harder to start and run businesses, there were fewer businesses generating revenues and employing people — which led to financial problems for the state as well as idleness and discontent among the population.
Finally, a new leader emerged. He was honest and ethical. Most importantly, he was observant. He recognized that the expansion of government had discouraged private enterprise and bred public contempt. He resolved to fix the problem.
The new leader slashed taxes. He eliminated regulations, and the jobs of regulators who had enforced them. He ended abusive confiscations of land, reserving that power for parcels the state truly needed for infrastructure. He fought public corruption and ensured that rich, powerful interests did not receive special treatment when the state adjudicated legal disputes.
The government didn’t wither away. Instead, the new leader refocused its attention on law and order. He codified and simplified the legal code. He increased penalties, particularly for violent offenses. Crime rates dropped, which made existing residents feel more secure about starting new businesses and encouraged new people to immigrate to the area.
Care to hazard a guess about the identity of this political reformer and the state he led? No, I’m not talking about an American state, or recent events in a foreign land. The leader’s name was Urukagina. He ruled the Sumerian state of Lagash, which included a capital and several nearby towns, more than 2000 years before the birth of Christ. The site is in what is now southern Iraq.
The official chronicle of Urukagina’s reforms contains the first use of the word “freedom” in recorded history. The Sumerian term was “amargi,” literally “a return to the mother.” The idea being conveyed was that human beings were naturally born into a state of freedom, not a state of subservience. Another way of saying that, I guess, is that humans are endowed by their Creator with certain rights that are not lost — alienated from them — just because they live in societies with governments.
Urukagina returned his people’s birthright to them, their freedom. It worked for a time. Unfortunately, he didn’t tend sufficiently to a core function of government, national defense, and Lagash fell prey to invaders. But his tale wasn’t forgotten, then or now. In 1960, the founders of the Liberty Fund in Indianapolis chose the cuneiform version of “amargi” as the centerpiece of their logo.
When it comes to protecting and expanding freedom, there have been plenty of modern innovations. But there’s nothing new about the underlying concept. It’s ancient, and essential.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “NC SPIN.” You can follow him @JohnHoodNC.