The Roman Empire maintained strong top down control. The Roman Empire came into contact with the religious beliefs of major cultures, and was happy to assimilate any deities they encountered. With the passing of the Roman Republic into an Imperial system, the nature of the Roman religion expanded to include the Emperor themselves. The Imperial cult that developed was inseparable from Roman deities. This included a top down favoritism of the Roman gods, which began with the emperor and trickled down, if only feebly, to the lowest of society. The divinized emperor was seated in splendor at the high point of the patronage system, and he distributed power and privilege down the system. Rites and ceremonies integrating patriotism and religion legitimized this trickle down system. Christians were persecuted for refusing to recognize this imperial divinity.
When Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, it had the power to suppress dissention and heretics, and organize wealth. The church took on the authoritarian qualities of the Roman imperial culture – a powerful central hierarchy, a judicial system to enforce obedience from church members and its effective enforcement formalized rituals and institutionalized sacraments, a defense against any divergence from accepted ideology. Richard Tarnas noted, “leading early Christians concluded that the beliefs of the faithful must be established, disseminated, and sustained by an authoritarian church structure.”1 With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, the Catholic Church was the only organized force in Western Europe.
The Medieval church became the most dominant institution in western Europe. It was one of the largest landowners of the time and collected rents and many fees for offices and services. The church did not pay taxes. Its top down structure facilitated control of information and the creation of wealth, ultimately ensuring the abuse of power. The power of the church was challenged with new ways of thinking ushered in during the Renaissance. In 1512, Colet, a student of the Renaissance, preached a sermon on the most burning question of the day – how to reform the church. Hunt Janin notes, “[Colet] argued that if the high officials of the church began to reform themselves, this would have a trickle down effect and would soon improve the lower clergy and the laity as well. No new laws or onerous regulations would be needed. His sermon had a dramatic impact on the public because it used specific examples of the luxury, covetness, sloth and simony of the bishops and senior clergy of England.” In response, the Bishop of London brought forward charges of heresy against Colet, which were subsequently dismissed.2
In the 21st century the top down system of control is about cheap money and power staying concentrated with a small group at the top of the economic pyramid. The most dominant institution of the day, the corporation, is specifically designed to create wealth and avoid paying taxes. In addition, billionaires (at the top) can purchase instruments from Wall Street to ensure that they pay no taxes. This system is perpetuated by proxies who control information and communication supporting laissez-faire capitalism. The trickle down economic theory was rebranded in the 1970s to an ideology – supply side economics – the doctrine that tax cuts could be had for free (incentive effects would generate new activity hence more revenue) without causing budget deficits. Its creators never believed supply side economics worked – it was an ideology that was created to unite the right. However, anyone who challenges that this thinking contributes greatly to economic inequality is declared a dangerous heretic, and a threat to freedom and prosperity of the free market system.
1 Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View. p (118, 158-160).
2 Janin, Hunt. The University in Medieval Life 1179-1499. p (154).