Peter Jones

The Athenians’ mansion tax

Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, has said he may support Nick Clegg’s suggestion of a mansion tax. All houses worth more than £2 million will annually pour a certain percentage of that down the Treasury black hole. But how appealing is that going to be? And what if X, whose house comes into the category, believes that his shouldn’t, but Y’s up the road should? Let the ancient Athenians ride to the unhappy Clegg’s rescue.

In Athens, the property tax levied every year on the richest 300 was called the leitourgia (‘public service’, origin of our ‘liturgy’). Those liable were worth about four talents or more (that meant 24,000 drachmas — a skilled workman was paid about 350 drs. a year). And here comes the sugar rush: it funded, in particular, the great dramatic festivals (January and April every year, when tragedies and comedies were staged in open competition with each other), and the equipping and manning of the triremes which brought Athens its empire in the 5th century BC.

Brilliant! What could be more glorious than personally staging magnificent plays or equipping superb triremes for the pleasure and security of Athens? The result was that, for many Athenians, the duty was a great honour. Such leitourgiai also conferred high public status and could bring considerable political or personal advancement. Some, we hear, even volunteered for it. But other misery-guts tried to avoid it. If misery-guts A thought B was richer, A could challenge B to a property exchange. If B agreed, property was exchanged and A carried out the duty; if B refused — and the only reason can have been that B knew he really was richer — B carried out the duty.

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