Sunday, November 20, 2011

12th November 2011

It seems most odd to become so agitated about the (very few) filthy rich when the (large numbers) of very poor should be the centre of the welfare state’s concerns. But if one wants to fleece the rich, a quid pro quo always helps, as the ancient Greeks knew.

Every year in Athens, the richest 300 citizens could be instructed to carry out a leitourgia, lit. ‘work for the people’, i.e. a personal obligation in service of the state (origin of our ‘liturgy’). The wealth in property that qualified a man for such a duty was 3-4 talents (18-24,000 drachmas). This duty could involve anything from equipping a trireme for a year to underwriting dramatic productions. These did not come cheap. A working man’s wage was 1 dr. a day. One of the cheapest liturgies was staging a choral show at 300 dr.; putting on a stage production could cost 3,000 dr.; and running a trireme for a year 5,000 dr. and more.

The rich, however, are a hard-headed lot, and Athenians were no different. What if old X down the road had more money than Y, but Y was landed with the leitourgia? Y could choose to challenge X to an antidosis, an exchange of property. If X agreed, Y would carry it out; if not, X would carry it out (if, that is, he lost the court-case he would bring, disputing Y’s claim).

But there was a competing, even more powerful, emotion involved: desire for public acclaim, with all the kudos and political benefit that brought. Greek literature is full of examples of the rich citing the number of leitourgiai they had carried out, and at what expense, to demonstrate the fine service they had done for the community.

If the adult male citizen population was 60,000, the top 300 would account for one 1 in 200. Today’s taxpayers number 30 million. The top 300 would equal 1 in 100,000 — about right for the really stinking rich? And what endless hilarity the antidoseis (pl.) would provide! But, as an ancient orator said, ‘The greatest leitourgia that one can perform for the city is to live, day by day, a life of orderly self-restraint’. Or fund Classics for All...

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