Sunday, November 7, 2010

6th November 2010

Last week, Livy was invoked to rally the top 15% of earners to a bit of wholesome belt-tightening. Not that Livy had anything against the filthy rich. Far from it. But he did expect them to use their wealth wisely—no showing off, no power-grabbing—and if the state did interfere with it, he expected there to be an acceptable quid pro quo.

According to tradition, Servius Tullius (the sixth king of Rome, 578-534 BC) divided the Roman people up into classes (same word as ours) by property. One of its purposes was to rank your ability to serve in the army. The top classis was the equestres, rich enough to provide a horse for the cavalry (a bit like owning a Ferrari or two); then came those able to provide a full suit of armour and weapons, each subsequent classis providing less and less till the sixth, with nothing to offer except children—proletarii (Latin proles ‘child’).

The second purpose was to divide the people into ‘colleges’ for voting purposes. The top two classes, divided into 88 voting blocks, therefore commanded 88 votes; the whole of the rest of the people, divided into 105 blocks, commanded 105! And the third aim was to determine your tributum, an irregular levy on property, decided annually. The higher your status, the more you paid.

Livy found this last demand baffling. He could not understand why the rich were willing to pay tax as a proportion of their wealth, and therefore much more than anyone else. His explanation was that it was a quid pro quo for the voting system. This gave the elite almost complete control over the decisions on what the state should spend public money. So not one man, one vote, but one (poor) man, one vote, one (rich) man, the equivalent of many votes. ‘No tax without representation’, we say. Livy might emend that to ‘No more-than-anyone-else’s-tax without more representation’.

Which raises the question: does the state offer the seriously rich anything in return for their vast taxes? And if they avoid them, what might encourage them not to?

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