Plato, Pythagoras and Liturgy: The Argument for the Wealth Tax

Ancient Greece was known for its military, culture, architecture and many important contributions to science, philosophy and astronomy. However, what was ignored under the discoveries of Pythagoras (yes, that triangle guy) and Plato was its innovative and frankly very sly system of taxation, which could be attributed to the beauty of the liturgy.

Literally, the term Liturgy means a form of public worship, which in ancient Greece meant that the authorities did not tax consumption, instead all public services and development, from building roads to fighting wars, depended upon the benevolence of the rich. The rich paid taxes voluntarily because the greater the tax, the higher prestige and honour your name and family would get. The rationale behind this was that the rich should shoulder the expense because of the unequal wealth distribution and simply because they can. While the rich who paid higher taxes enjoyed a greater sway in decision-making and more respect, the poor benefitted by free and quality essential services. Consequently, ancient Greece grew and flourished economically and their citizens lived happily until, of course, the Romans came.

One can only imagine if the same system was implemented today and the same idea of benevolence ruled instead of our usual money and patriarchy. It may seem impossible, yet there are people who are working to (re)introduce a taxation system built on the same ideas of the rich paying for development, if not wholly then at least substantially. Except this time, it is not because of benevolence but because of the dominant and staggering wealth inequality and insane accumulation of wealth by the few people who managed to hack the capitalist system.

But before we go further exploring this idea of taxing the rich, we need to understand who exactly do we mean when we talk about the rich. The answer is simply the super rich who account for more that 70% of a particular country’s wealth and assets. Which surprisingly, or not if you’ve ever studied about wealth distribution, is less than 2% of the population of any country. For example, in America the super rich are 0.5% of the population, while in India they are 1% of the population. This means people like Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Beyonce.

Keeping this in mind, Elizabeth Warren proposed the ‘wealth tax’ which if implemented would tax as little as 2-4% of the wealth above a fixed point. Walking along a similar line, demands for wealth tax are being raised in countries like India, South Africa and Argentina. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) also recommended considering the wealth tax especially after the financial crunch that all countries are facing due to COVID-19. This pandemic has revealed the crumbling structure of public healthcare and services. Additionally, countries would require massive influx to be able to survive and then recover from this pandemic. Furthermore, the overall population demographic is changing and increasing exponentially, hence, the cost of basic necessary services like healthcare, education and housing is skyrocketing, and considering the wealth inequality and poverty rates, a huge majority of the population won’t be able to afford them if the government does not subsidise them, if not make them completely free. And the one possible way for any and all governments to do this is through tax revenue.

Now, governments can tax income, consumption or wealth. Most countries tax only the first two, in essence, the income you earn through income tax and consumption of goods and services through sales tax, service tax, value added tax and GST etc. However, this is pretty unfair because according to studies conducted by prominent think tanks like Brookings Institution, the lower income group spend more on day-to-day items as compared to the rich; consequently, they bear the brunt of consumption tax far more than the rich, furthering the divide between rich and poor.

Another reason why wealth tax is a good idea because the people who belong to the category of the super rich, have earned that money not primarily because of hard work, but because of exploiting systems, institutions and people for their benefit. Take Amazon owner Jeff Bezos for example; he became the richest man on earth by predatory pricing and exploiting his workers without paying the basic wages for overtime work. Hence, it makes sense for people who have benefitted from society and the people to give back to the same people and institutions.

A significant point of conjecture is whether the wealth tax is enough? And whether it would change anything? And the answer is yes. According to Vox, had Elizabeth Warren’s proposed wealth tax been implemented, the collected tax revenue would have been sufficient to pay for public college three times over, all food assistance programs two times over and reduce poverty by 60%, and that is only for America. One can only imagine the extent towards which public services can be improved and poverty reduced if wealth tax was collected along with the usual tax revenue.

The only reason why countries and governments shy away from the idea of wealth tax is that they are controlled and dependent upon these super rich people. Their wealth is proportional to the power and sway they hold with the authorities. And the reason why many people don’t demand and argue for the same is because we live in a world that is shrouded by the farcical garb of productivity, where people believe that cheaper or free public services makes people lazy and incompetent instead of the idea that basic healthcare and education is a fundamental right that every individual deserves regardless of their productivity and contribution.

Hopefully, this belief is not carried to the post pandemic world. COVID-19 has made us all painfully aware of the deficiencies in the existing system and structures. The fact that we need to change our priorities is inevitable, the awareness of the privilege of wealth and overwhelming wealth disparities is apparent and one can only hope that this awareness brings forth a change towards a kinder and more benevolent world.


Vidhi Arora

An 80 year old stuck in a 20 year old's body, with a penchant for ranting and reading.

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