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