How Ancient Athens Convinced Its Wealthiest to Love Paying Taxes
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because ancient Athens provides lessons for how to incentivize the wealthiest to contribute to the public good.
By Nick Fouriezos
If you walk near the Acropolis of Athens, you can still see it — a circular, almost pillarlike structure with a sculpture depicting a myth by Homer. The inscription tells us that Lysicrates, a wealthy fan of the arts, had sponsored an award-winning religious performance back around 335 B.C.
The Choragic Monument, as it is called, has essentially immortalized Lysicrates, whose financial contribution is now known to scholars more than two millennia later. And it’s just one example of the ways ancient Athens incentivized public contributions from its wealthiest citizens, who took great pride in helping pay for their society — in stark contrast to the efforts of many rich Americans today, who work as hard as possible to avoid being taxed. In fact, unlike in most nations today, only the absolute wealthiest citizens in Athens — the “1 percent,” if you will — paid direct taxes.
They were asked to contribute funds in two major ways. They could sponsor a religious ceremony as “chorus leader,” as Lysicrates did, which involved paying months’ worth of lodging, food, costumes and wages for a troupe of entertainers. Or they might be asked to serve as a “trireme commander,” funding the operating costs for one of the warships that served essentially as massive maritime rams, as well as the living costs of the soldiers manning them.
The latter was particularly costly: Sponsoring a trireme for a year could cost “up to, or even more than, a decent day’s wage for a skilled worker working 6,000 days,” or, roughly, 16 years, says Thomas Martin, a classics professor at College of the Holy Cross.
“There was a strong sense that ‘we need each other if we’re going to survive and flourish — both as communities and as individuals.'”
Thomas Martin, classics professor at College of the Holy Cross
Yet rather than run from that responsibility, most Athenians embraced it, even boasting about paying more than their fair share on occasion. Why?
There were a number of ways Athenian culture encouraged citizens to contribute to the public good. The biggest one, Martin says, was that they lived in a precarious time in which everybody realized that their existence relied on collective support. “There was a strong sense that ‘we need each other if we’re going to survive and flourish — both as communities and as individuals.'”
That sentiment permeated Athenian society. While most Athenians didn’t pay direct taxes, they served in other ways. A middle-class farmer who earned enough income, for example, was expected to take up the arms of heavy infantrymen and serve in the military in times of war. Poorer citizens who couldn’t afford such equipment could instead be rowers in the navy, which became more crucial as Athens’ economy relied on international trade routes around the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.
Everybody served their role, according to the “talents” they had (in ancient Greece, a talent was a form of Athenian currency, later informing both our common understanding of the term and the well-known biblical story that has become a parable for maximizing your abilities). “It wasn’t just that the rich are keeping this community going so that everybody else won’t run a pitchfork through them,” Martin says. They were basically saying: “Everybody is supposed to fulfill their responsibilities.” In fact, that belief infiltrated American culture for a short time too, when George Washington wrote in a 1790 letter that being “useful” was an invaluable part of the divine plan for the United States.
Of course, there were other reasons why well-to-do Athenians wanted to do their fair share. Social capital could be worth more than its weight in gold in Athenian society. After all, the Athenian form of direct democracy essentially turned the justice system into a giant popularity contest in which several hundred or a thousand randomly selected citizens would judge your case. If a neighbor accused you of something serious, whether it be not contributing your fair share financially or an even worse crime, you could appeal to the audience based on the merits of your past giving.
Ancient court documents, recovered by scholars, describe exactly this scenario. “We know there are times where someone was charged with some other crime, and as part of their evidence of innocence, they argued they weren’t that type of person — that they had paid more than their required share of taxes, that they came from a family known for doing so,” says Josiah Ober, a classics professor at Stanford University.
Meanwhile, if you were stingy with your funds and tried to get out of your obligation, you were mocked with some of the worst insults an Athenian could throw your way: a “greedy man” who “borrows from guests staying in his house,” and “when he sells wine to a friend, he sells it watered!” So eagerly paying your taxes could earn you protection, both spiritually and militarily, as well as the social good graces that might just keep you out of prison — and, in the case of Lysicrates, the right to build a statue that kept him in history books forever.
But even in Athens, that communal sense of civic duty didn’t last. In 2011, a survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranked Greece as one of the worst rich countries in the world at collecting taxes: Doctors, lawyers, engineers and media members there are major tax evaders. The problem is now so bad that the Greek government has flown helicopters over ritzy Athenian suburbs to take pictures of backyard swimming pools as proof of unreported wealth, with some Greek politicians calling tax evasion “a national sport.”
That may be discouraging for some who hope to create a nation of Americans more understanding of the need to fund programs that help their neighbors. Still, Ober argues that the degradation of Greek culture is actually a sign that cultures can change … for the worse, sure, but also for the better.
“It’s not something that’s genetic,” Ober says. “I guess I’m an optimist. It’s possible to push people in the direction of understanding that they have reciprocal duties that are ultimately in their own interests too.”