Ancient and modern

How ancient Athens beat tax avoidance

HMRC’s pre-payment plan has good classical precedents

21 June 2014

8:00 AM

21 June 2014

8:00 AM

The taxman will soon be ordering those planning dodgy tax avoidance schemes to declare them beforehand and pay the full tax on them up front. Only if HMRC finally decides the scheme is legal will the tax rebate be allowed. This is a very Greek principle, which could help with the problem of bankers’ bonuses.

The 4th century bc Athenian tax system was very progressive: only the richest paid any at all. In times of war, those with a certain value of declared property were liable for an emergency tax (eisphora), levied at 1 or 2 per cent. These wealthy Athenians — numbered in the thousands — were grouped into ‘tax partnerships’, and the state assessed what each partnership had to contribute.

As one might imagine, it was not easy to get the money out of them, especially since a number of reliefs against paying the tax was allowed. So the state devised a duty called proeisphora — ‘prepayment of the eisphora’ — which it imposed on the richest 300 Athenians. These would, of course, already be in a tax partnership, and the state decreed that the three richest in each partnership should pay up front what the whole partnership owed, claiming the money back from the other partners as best they could.

This caused some grief. The Athenian bank owner Apollodorus reminisced in a case brought after the event: ‘I never did recover the funds I had advanced because I was serving on a trireme, and when I got back I found that others had taken the funds of those with money and those left had nothing.’

But why not apply the system to bankers’ bonuses? The (say) three directors with the biggest bonuses have to pay up front the full tax owed by themselves and all the other directors, and then recover it. They can sort out legitimate claims for rebates between themselves and HMRC. But would they then equalise the bonuses so that no one got more than anyone else? No chance. That would threaten the pecking order and their hallowed self-importance.

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