Who is… so devoid of human feeling as not to see that immoderate prices are widespread in the markets of our cities, and that the passion for gain is lessened neither by plentiful supplies nor by fruitful years?- so that… evil men reckon it their loss if abundance comes. There are men whose aim it is to restrain general prosperity… to seek usurious and ruinous returns…. Avarice rages throughout the world…. Wherever our armies are compelled to go for the common safety, profiteers extort prices not merely four or eight times the normal, but beyond any words to describe. Sometimes the soldier must exhaust his salary and his bonus in one purchase, so that the contributions of the whole world to support the armies fall to the abominable profits of thieves.
The Edict was until our time the most famous example of an attempt to replace economic laws by governmental decrees. Its failure was rapid and complete. Tradesmen concealed their commodities, scarcities became more acute than before, Diocletian himself was accused of conniving at a rise in prices, riots occurred, and the Edict had to be relaxed to restore production and distribution. it was finally revoked by Constantine. The weakness of this managed economy lay in its administrative cost. The required bureaucracy was so extensive that Lactantius, doubtless with political license, estimated it at half the population. The bureaucrats found their task too great for human integrity, their surveillance too sporadic for the evasive ingenuity of men. To support the bureaucracy, the court, the army, the building program, and the dole, taxation rose to unprecedented peaks of ubiquitous continuity. As the state had not yet discovered the plan of public borrowing to conceal its wastefulness and postpone its reckoning, the cost of each year’s operations had to be met from each year’s revenue. To avoid returns in depreciating currencies, Diocletian directed that, where possible, taxes should be collected in kind: taxpayers were required to transport their tax quotas to governmental warehouses, and a laborious organization was built up to get the goods thence to their final destination. In each municipality the decuriones or municipal officials were held financially responsible for any shortage in the payment of the taxes assessed upon their communities. Since every taxpayer sought to evade taxes, the state organized a special force of revenue police to examine every man’s property and income; torture was used upon wives, children, and slaves to make them reveal the hidden wealth or earnings of the household; and severe penalties were enacted for evasion. Towards the end of the third century, and still more in the fourth, flight from taxes became almost epidemic in the Empire. The well to do concealed their riches, local aristocrats had themselves reclassified as humiliores to escape election to municipal office, artisans deserted their trades, peasant proprietors left their overtaxed holdings to become hired men, many villages and some towns (e.g., Tiberias in Palestine) were abandoned because of high assessments; at last, in the fourth century, thousands of citizens fled over the border to seek refuge among the barbarians. It was probably to check this costly mobility, to ensure a proper flow of food to armies and cities, and of taxes to the state, that Diocletian resorted to measures that in effect established serfdom in fields, factories, and guilds. Having made the landowner responsible, through tax quotas in kind, for the productivity of his tenants, the government ruled that a tenant must remain on his land till his arrears of debt or tithes should be paid. We do not know the date of this historic decree; but in 332 a law of Constantine assumed and confirmed it, and made the tenant adscriptitius, “bound in writing” to the soil he tilled; he could not leave it without the consent of the owner; and when it was sold, he and his household were sold with it.” He made no protest that has come down to us; perhaps the law was presented to him as a guarantee of security, as in Germany today. In this and other ways agriculture passed in the third century from slavery through freedom to serfdom, and entered the Middle Ages.