Satyagraha

Cultural Psychology

Archive for November 2012

Taxing the Rich: What We Can Learn from Ancient Athens

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The ancient city-state of Athens employed means of ‘taxing the rich’, the principles of which modern Americans might well consider.

One of these was a special tax called the eisphora.  It was levied on rich Athenians in wartime.  In effect, a wealthy person might be required to provide and equip a warship for the Athenian navy.  In modern terms, it would be like the US government requiring wealthy citizens to pay for an Apache helicopter ($15 million) or Predator drone ($4 million); someone like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett might have to pay for a destroyer ($1.5 billion).

One advantage of such a system today is that it would supply a powerful incentive for the wealthy to lobby against war.  Rather than pay the eisphora tax, the Koch brothers might prefer to subsidize an anti-war Super-PAC or a world peace think-tank!

Ancient Athenians also required the wealthiest citizens to underwrite religious and cultural events.  For example, the famous tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were written for performance at an Athenian religious festival called the Dionysia.  Each year several rich Athenians were selected and matched with a playwright.  The rich person paid for the cost of producing the writer’s plays (each writer produced four plays).

Under this scheme a rich person was taxed, yet in compensation they received public recognition and praise.  It’s a fair trade, don’t you think?  At present, our attitude is more, “you pay money, because we demand it.”  But then the attitude was, “Let’s make a deal.  You pay a lot of your money for civic benefit, but in return we hail you as a benefactor.”  This is a marvelous custom — virtually a win-win scenario.  Instead of encouraging mutual resentment between rich and non-rich, it fosters good-will all the way around.

Again in modern terms this would be like, instead of simply taxing billionaires and placing the money in an anonymous coffer where it indiscriminately pays for all manner of government programs (many of which, it must be admitted, do little to improve the quality of life of Americans),  they would be asked to pay for museums, parks, civic beautification programs, etc.  Have Bill Gates build a new museum of art in Seattle.  Then write on the entrance, “Dedicated to the People of Seattle by Bill Gates”, and put a statue of him in front.

Everybody’s happy.  You tax the rich, while at the same time promote love and harmony.

The Lions and the Tigers (A Political Parties Fable)

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Long ago in olden times, the human beings were oppressed by a tribe of lions.  The people fought back bravely; they made spears and learned how to keep the lions at bay and to protect their village and children.  Then the lions got together to reconsider their plans. “I have an idea”, said one crafty lion.  “Let us divide ourselves into two bands, calling one the ‘lions’ and the other the ‘tigers’.  Each group will then approach the humans saying, ‘Those evil tigers/lions are a terrible threat to you.  We propose to protect you from them. Naturally you would need to pay for our protection;  but whereas without our protection the other cats would eat 10 of your children each year, we would only ask that you feed us one or two a year in payment.'”  This plan met with great approval among the lions, and they decided to pursue it.

And so each of the newly formed bands of ‘lions’ and ‘tigers’ alternately approached groups of villagers, offering protection against the other band of cats. The villagers surprised the cats by agreeing rather readily; being basically lazy, the humans much preferred relegating their protection to someone else.

And so the ‘lions’ and ‘tigers’ each struck a bargain with roughly half the villagers, and this arrangement continued for some time. Periodically, representatives from each group would visit their sponsoring villagers, reminding them of how evil the other cats were, and how necessary it was for the protection to continue.

As the villagers began to feel completely dependent on this protection, the cats raised the ante.  “Our work is so difficult,” they said, “and the lions/tigers we protect you from are more dangerous than ever!  We must therefore ask for more compensation.  We now request you sacrifice 5 children a year to us.”   And the villagers complied with scarcely a complaint.  And this continued until eventually the ‘lions’ and ‘tigers’ each demanded 10 children a year — twice in total what the cats had originally taken.

At any time the villagers could have ended this tragedy, if only they had once again taken their up spears and confronted the animals directly.  But by now they had become completely dependent on their external ‘protection’, and had even forgotten how to make or use spears.  Much worse, they also forgot how to act together.  The ‘lions’ and ‘tigers’ had poisoned their minds completely, turning one group of villagers (the ‘lions protect us from tigers’, or LPT party) against the other (the ‘tigers protect us from lions’ party, or TPL).  The entire political attention of the people revolved around disputes between these two parties.  Each party printed a newspaper to keep its members well informed of all the evils perpetrated by the opposing party.  Eventually nobody paid any attention at all to the lions and the tigers, or the many children they ate each year.  The only thing people cared about was expressing hatred and contempt of the members of the opposing party.

Eventually the village ceased to exist, though precisely what happened is not clear.  Some say they were conquered by a neighboring tribe; others say they died in a famine or some environmental catastrophe.  All we know for certain is that this once strong and happy people vanished from the face of the earth.

Now every fable must have a moral, and the moral here is this:  never place your protection in the hands of lions.

Written by John Uebersax

November 5, 2012 at 5:25 pm

The Founding Fathers on Party Strife (Quotes)

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Here are some Founding Fathers’ quotes that address the spirit of faction and animosity that characterize a radically polarized two-party system.  See especially George Washington’s “solemn warning” against this great danger to our individual and national happiness.

George Washington

Let me … warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party.
~ George Washington, Farewell Address, September 19, 1796.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.
~ George Washington, Farewell Address, September 19, 1796.

The alternate triumphs of different parties … make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels.
~ George Washington, Farewell Address, September 19, 1796.

The common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.
~ George Washington, Farewell Address, September 19, 1796.

[The spirit of party] serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another.
~ George Washington, Farewell Address, September 19, 1796.

[The spirit of party] opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.
~ George Washington, Farewell Address, September 19, 1796.

All combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community.
~ George Washington, Farewell Address, September 19, 1796.

However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.
~ George Washington, Farewell Address, September 19, 1796.

The unity of government which constitutes you one people is … a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But … it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; … this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed.
~ George Washington, Farewell Address, September 19, 1796.

It is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.
~ George Washington, Farewell Address, September 19, 1796.

John Adams

There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.
~ John Adams, Letter to Jonathan Jackson (October 2, 1780).  In: Charles Francis Adams (ed.), The Works of John Adams, Vol. 9,  Boston, 1854.  pp. 510-11.

Abuse of words has been the great instrument of sophistry and chicanery, of party, faction, and division of society.
~ John Adams, Letter to J. H. Tiffany (March 31, 1819). In: Charles Francis Adams (ed.), The Works of John Adams, Vol. 10,  Boston, 1856.  pp. 377-8.

Thomas Jefferson

I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever, in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else, where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent.
~ Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Francis Hopkinson (March 13, 1789).  In: Merrill D. Peterson (ed.), Letters of Thomas Jefferson, New York, 1984, pp. 940-42.  [PL Ford, Writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 5, pp. 75-78].

The happiness of society depends so much on preventing party spirit from infecting the common intercourse of life, that nothing should be spared to harmonize and amalgamate the two parties in social circles.
~ Thomas Jefferson, To William C. Claiborne, July 1801

You will soon find that so inveterate is the rancor of party spirit among us, that nothing ought to be credited but what we hear with our own ears. If you are less on your guard than we are here, at this moment, the designs of the mischief-makers will not fail to be accomplished, and brethren and friends will be made strangers and enemies to each other,
~ Thomas Jefferson, To James Monroe, March 1808

I deplore with you the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed, and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them. … This has in a great degree been produced by the violence and malignity of party spirit.
~ Thomas Jefferson, To Walter Jones, Jan. 1814

If we can once more get social intercourse restored to its pristine harmony, I shall believe we have not lived in vain.
~ Thomas Jefferson, To Thomas Lomax, Feb. 25, 1801

Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.
~ Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801

Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.
~ Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801

It will be a great blessing to our country if we can once more restore harmony and social love among its citizens. I confess, as to myself, it is almost the first object of my heart, and one to which I would sacrifice everything but principle.
~ Jefferson, To Elbridge Gerry, March 29, 1801

A difference in politics should never be permitted to enter into social intercourse, or to disturb its friendships, its charities or justice.
~ Thomas Jefferson, To Henry Lee, Aug. 10, 1824

Alexander Hamilton

Nothing could be more ill-judged than that intolerant spirit which has, at all times, characterized political parties.
~ Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist #1, October 27, 1787.

We are attempting, by this Constitution, to abolish factions, and to unite all parties for the general welfare.
~ Alexander Hamilton, Debates in the Convention of the State of New York on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, Tuesday, June 25, 1788. In: Henry Cabot Lodge, ed., The Works of Alexander Hamilton (Federal Edition), Vol. 2, New York, 1904, p. 57.

James Madison

A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.
~ James Madison, The Federalist #10, November 22, 1787

So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.
~ James Madison, The Federalist #10, November 22, 1787

 

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Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.
~ James Madison, The Federalist #10, November 22, 1787
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Written by John Uebersax

November 2, 2012 at 6:12 pm