Ancient and modern

How the Ancient Greeks did wealth taxes

(Hint: more cleverly than Thomas Piketty)

31 May 2014

9:00 AM

31 May 2014

9:00 AM

After 685 tightly argued pages, the ‘superstar’ economist Thomas Piketty unfolds his master-plan for closing the gap between the rich and poor: you take money away from the rich. Novel. Ancient Greeks realised you had to try a little harder.

The culture of benefaction was deeply rooted in Greek society, even more so when the Romans made Greece a province in the 2nd century BC and removed their direct power of taxation. The quid pro quo lay in the prospect of eternal honour for the donors. The services which the wealthy provided for the city included paying for baths, gymnasia and food supply. Where harbour facilities and commercial districts needed renewal, they would stump up. As for festivals and games, they would provide animals for sacrifice, prizes for competitions and banquets to celebrate the winners, with stars of the acting and musical worlds to entertain the crowds.

Here is Mendora, from the unknown Greek city of Sillyon. She was one of a group of ten rich citizens who met any shortfall in the collection of the city’s tax liabilities. She set up a foundation for poor children. She distributed cash in commemoration of her and her children’s service in public office: recipients ranged from the members of the town council at the top to ex-slaves and outsiders who had settled in the city at the bottom.

The theory behind this was that wealth was a matter of luck. In the absence of industry and big business, it tended to be inherited, usually within a family rich in land and rental income. So aristocrats were under pressure to show they were worth their inheritance by what they did for their city. Further, their reputation was on the line in the quality of the services they provided. They could not be seen to have subsidised e.g. a colonnaded street that promptly fell down. Get it right, however, and statues and honorific inscriptions would celebrate them. Many survive to this day.

Piketty has another equally radical recommendation to close the gap: increasing the minimum wage. Such brilliance.

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