Taxing the Rich: What We Can Learn from Ancient Athens
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.
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