Hello, my brothers and sisters. Let us give thanks to Mother Gaia and our Olympian overlords for the bounty they have bestowed upon our planet—and for not squishing us like bugs. We shall stomp our feet, count to five three, and read from the Great Book of Vague Holy Sayings. For today’s iota is all about the liturgy.
Nah, I’m talking about the Greek concept of “leitourgia”, so relax, no discussions on something as divisive as religion. This is about politics instead! Before being co-opted into the domain of religious vocabulary, liturgies were an important part of the political realm, especially in Classical Athens. Broken down, the word liturgy comes from laos “people”, and ergon “work”; in essence, “public work”. A liturgy was the semi-mandatory, semi-voluntary commitment of the wealthy to fund a project for the state. Basically, the Buffet Tax in practice.
Death and taxes were as inevitable then as they are today. Rather than a flat tax, progressive tax, or whatever mess we have that takes an entire friggin library to put on paper, the Athenians had a liturgy system, whereby the wealthy would pay for a specific program or project on behalf of the state. It was a voluntary tax, which seems almost oxymoronic in today’s terms. The most famous and expensive liturgy a wealthy Athenian could fulfill was to become a trierarch, essentially the captain of a trireme, the backbone of the Athenian navy and power. They could also finance the plays put on at the City Dionysia or similar festivals. There were other liturgies that could be performed at various cost, which helped increase the number of people capable of performing liturgies. In the case of a trierarch, it was the responsibility of the liturgist to pay for the ship’s upkeep, the crew’s salary and any ancillary costs for one year. Similarly, the patron of the plays (choragus) paid for the actors, costumes, props, and the like.
Although the system was de-facto voluntary, the archons did have the power to assign liturgies if not enough volunteers came forward. Athens offered certain incentives for becoming a liturgist which helped bring more volunteers forward. Statues and other honors were bestowed on individuals for thanks, and funding a liturgy held a certain political and social prestige, which could be quite useful for a democratic state—elections were expensive even back then.
One issue with this system was that there was not any sort of set requirement or minimum income for who could volunteer (or be assigned) a liturgy. The archons, generals (strategoi), and other magistrates assigned liturgies based on who looked wealthy enough to fulfill them, and in many cases the amount required was crippling. Such an imperfect measure lead to fairly obvious abuse; a magistrate might assign a liturgy to a political opponent just to stick them with the bill and hinder their chances at spending money elsewhere.
The next problem was the sheer size of the burden. Putting on public plays was not a cheap endeavor, nor were many of the other liturgies. It is commonly estimated the cost of a trireme’s crew was 1 talent per month. Keeping in mind a talent of silver was roughly 6000 drachma, and the average pay for a rower on a trireme was 1 drachma per day, the 1 talent bill for the crew’s salary alone represented the need for a millionaire’s salary in today’s economy. Some historians put the ancient drachma at $45 USD today, meaning the crew cost a cool $270 grand. In short, the liturgy was a metric fuck-ton of money, and this severely limited the number of people capable of affording the cost. Out of a population of 250,000, only 1,000 were financially capable of a liturgy. Comparatively, this would be like asking wealthy Americans to buy an F-22 Raptor, pay for the ground and flight crew, plus supplies. Obviously, there are people so insanely rich that they could do it (Arnold Schwarzenegger does own a tank, because of course he does), but even Mitt Romney would be bankrupt in a few short years if he had to pay for the military’s toys. Not a very sustainable plan, which is why the system fell apart after Athens lost her empire and the massive income that came with it.
Between the arbitrary nature of picking liturgists and the heavy financial burden of fulfilling them, a lot of Athenians tried to get out of them. Right along with death and taxes, tax dodging was a thing back then too. The first way was by not appearing rich, which I’m calling the “Al Capone defense”. There was no IRS or Treasury Department, so it was not terribly difficult to hide income from the books—especially since there weren’t really books either. Of course this also meant keeping out of the public eye and living fairly frugally, so it wasn’t the best solution. If you did end up getting stuck with a liturgy, there were a few options open. The liturgist could complain against another citizen without a liturgy or a lesser one, accusing them of not paying their fair due. The defendant had three options; he could accept the accusation and pay the liturgy, go to trial over who was wealthier—and therefore who had to pay the liturgy—or they could appeal to “antidosis”, an exchange of property. In this last option, the two parties literally exchanged their property and wealth. This isn’t a bad thing if you were a poor citizen being accused by the rich—boy would I love to go through antidosis with some of the people in this country—but a bit of a gamble considering the ability for people to hide income. Demosthenes attests to this antidosis process, although it’s unknown how many, if anybody, chose this option. The liturgist could also be granted exemption for other reasons, such as being stuck with an expensive liturgy the year before.
The system worked for a while, mostly I think due to the sort of society Athens had. Being involved in public affairs was a crucial part of Athenian life; the “private citizen” was frowned upon, and doing a civil service was both a privilege and honor for many. The system was voluntary for that reason; it gave the elites a public avenue for competition, another way to win fame. Some even took out loans just to pay for their liturgies. It continued somewhat as “euergeton” in the Hellenistic period with more or less the same idea behind it; public works funded by rich people as a voluntary tax system.
In smaller ways our own society has similar principles and attitudes. A voluntary tax would never work, of course. The state is too complex to function that way, and as a society we are almost entirely antithetical to the concept of taxes at all. Hell, we basically founded the country to get out of paying taxes. There are still some semblances of this old system though. Many wealthy people donate to charity or engage in other forms of philanthropy, usually for the public good. If you’ve ever been to a major research university you can see it in all the buildings named after someone. More often than not, they are named for the person who donated the money rather than an important scholar. Just like the Athenians, we expect, appreciate, and honor the philanthropist, and tend to criticize and demonize the miser. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are held in high esteem by many because of their philanthropic commitment; Mitt Romney, Donald Trump, and the Walton family are scorned as assholes for not sharing their wealth. Maybe bringing back the liturgy system can rekindle some civic pride amongst our richest citizens; rather than compete over who has the biggest house, yacht, or fleet of cars, it would encourage the 1% to compete on things that benefit the public.
On the other hand, the liturgy system was largely abandoned because getting the super-rich to part with their wealth is insanely difficult—that’s why they’re the super-rich, after all. Asking for a voluntary tax was and is simply too difficult, and taxes became mandatory in later Hellenistic, Roman, and modern societies because of this. So maybe we should just go with the Buffet tax instead.