An Ancient Greek Taxation System Could Reverse Unsustainable Wealth Inequality in America
Walk like an Egyptian, tax like a Grecian
The wisdom of Ancient Greece extended beyond odometers, maps, medicine and democracy; it included a tax system structured to benefit all citizens and the entire community. Shocking. Humanity has come a long way since those days, but a return to Grecian tax practices would be a powerful way to address wealth inequality and improve the lives of Americans across the country.
Grecian ethics were baked into their tax structure, and the social contract played a large role in maintaining it. The practice of liturgy (origin, leitourgia [Greek] — “public service” or “work of the people.”) incorporated a balancing act between wealth and societal obligation that seems pretty reasonable and fair — especially through the lens of today’s out of control wealth gap.
The gracious consequences of obscene wealth
Since the wealthy had scooped up more of the community’s resources, they were expected to uphold their obligation to society and support important festivals, architecture projects, defense etc, and you know what? They were honored to do so. Since there were only 300–1200 liturgists at a given time, it was a privilege to be among this elite group, bestowed with the honor of investing in and supporting their community. Many wealthy Grecians actually gave more than their required payments and felt grateful they had the means to do so. Imagine Jeff Bezos actually stepping up and volunteering to pay tax to fund his country instead of playing ‘the floor is lava’ with the IRS.
This structure was the norm in ancient Greece and it was by no means provocative. Today’s politicians can’t even argue that this tax system would stifle capitalism because it encouraged innovation, as businesspeople strived to increase their earnings so that they could have the distinct honor of supporting their community. Under this taxation system, the rich actually wanted the privilege of paying taxes and sharing their resources with the community that enriched them.
The social contract upholds the system
I know all too well that much of our culture worships and defends the wealthy because too many of us Americans erroneously believe we will someday secure billionaire status. In reality, the average American would need to work over 21,000 years and save every single penny to accumulate $1 billion. So while an exciting aspiration… yeah-nah, probably not worth counting on that option. Ancient Greeks acknowledged becoming wealthy wasn’t possible for most people, so their system was structured to take everyday citizens into account. Those who could afford to pay taxes did, and the majority of people were never obligated to pay income taxes.
It’s clear that the social cost of being rich has shifted in our culture. Today, the masses expect nothing and exert no pressure on the 1%. Even when the complete nonsense of trickle down economics was invoked to justify huge tax breaks for wealthy citizens, but yet, repeatedly proven ineffective. Well here we are, and no benevolent billionaires have stepped in to save our democracy from tyranny, protect us against a pandemic, buy clean water for Flint or even donate substantial amounts to charity.
In ancient Greece, the social contract was upheld by the community, and if a wealthy citizen wasn’t upholding their societal obligations, there were consequences like public scorn and derision. The social cost of being a cheap rich person was too steep to bear and citizens demanded those holding the majority of the community’s resources perform their expected duties. With great wealth did come great responsibility.
Power to the people
Being wealthy comes with certain obligations, and it’s up to the people to enforce it. Instead of protecting billionaires and folks earning over $400,000 a year, we ought to demand they pay their fair share or suffer the consequences. I recently had firsthand experience with this when my coach became incensed by my own relationship with taxes — unfortunately, resulting from admittedly, a lack of financial literacy on my part. I’m very clear on reiterating the importance of people in certain tax brackets doing their fair share to support and invest in society — although I’d argue that $400K is miles away from being ‘wealthy.’
If our culture can wake up to reality, we’ll have a fighting chance of bettering society as a whole if we hold the wealthy accountable to the community at large. There needs to be a renegotiation of the social contract and the responsibilities of the fortunate few must be upheld and enforced by all of us (the 99%) if we wish to address the staggering wealth gap in America.
Aristotle famously declared that “poverty is the parent of revolution and crime.” Look around — we can see that his immortal words ring true, especially today in America.