Ancient Greece & The First Truly “Progressive” Tax Policy
While surveying the literature on prominent tax rebellions, I encountered this remarkable entry on the tax policy of Ancient Greece. Although the entry is assuredly glowing, there is cause to agree with the authors that the tax policy was relatively enlightened.
A minor bit of explanation is needed in order to set the stage for the passage. The “liturgy” was a form of tax farming in the ancient world where wealthy landed estate could be afforded titles in exchange for raising tax funds for the state.
Greece revolutionized this “liturgical” system of servitude to the state, and made patronage a purely voluntary matter. It was social prestige that drove wealthy patrons to compete with one another to construct public works projects. As David Burg explains in A World History of Tax Rebellions (available online):
The “liturgy” took a somewhat different form in fifth century BC Athens and other Greek cities. The Greek democracies, says Alfred E.Zimmern in The Greek Commonwealth, resisted the levying of any kind of direct taxes because such taxes were “regarded as derogatory to the dignity of a free citizen. Resident aliens and freedmen might pay a poll-tax and be thankful for the privilege; but the citizen must be left free to help the city in his own way. Every kind of indirect tax he was indeed willing to pay…; but the only direct contribution he made as a citizen to the State’s resources was by preference a free gift, or what was called at Athens and elsewhere a ‘liturgy’ or ‘public work.’ ”
Thus, under this “liturgy” system large portions of the public expenditures for producing plays; equipping ships; staging games, festivals, and musical contests; organizing chariot and horse races; and fostering other endeavors “were defrayed by private citizens, who came forward voluntarily, and took pride in vying with their predecessors or with a crowd of rivals in their performance of the task.” In such a context, Zimmern concludes, “To talk of taxes…is a blunder as well as a sacrilege, for a tax is a payment which leaves a man poorer: a ‘liturgy’ leaves him richer.” He is richer for having freely and generously helped the entire community while preserving his status as a free citizen. The wealthy man also assisted his community by paying the eisphora, a periodic tax assessed as a percentage of capital to cover military expenses (most often payments to troops), obliging the rich to finance wars.” (xi)
Granted that even relatively enlightened Athens had slaves [ed.] during this period, one cannot fail to note that such a tax policy of voluntary contribution to the polis coincided with The Greek Golden Age – an era when philosophical speculation soared, magnificent monuments were erected, and civilization flourished.
What brought Greece low? Stasis brought about by democratic clamoring, demagoguery, and adventurist wars. As with individuals, the same goes with civilizations. Concentrate on oneself, and one’s competitiveness versus rivals, and prosper; concentrate “outward” and engage in envious confiscation, redistribution, socially disruptive behavior, and war, and decline.