[FOUNTAIN]As fall the wealthy, so falls the stateIn Athens, the ancient cradle of democracy, the gap between the rich and the poor was an important concern. The solution arrived at was that the rich would “contribute” to the public welfare. It was one of their civic duties. The rich ―4 percent of the population, in the fourth century B.C. ― paid for public festivals, and for the maintenance of warships, of which there were a considerable number. The government built the ships, and paid for the crew, but maintenance and repair were the responsibility of wealthy citizens.
Another way Athens addressed the gap between rich and poor was by establishing a relief fund. Its original purpose was to subsidize theater admission for poor people. Later, a variety of relief funds were created for different purposes, and an increasing number of people depended upon them. As the government budget was directed toward relief funds, instead of being used for national defense or investment in facilities, the state’s financial situation began to decline. And as the democracy of Athens deteriorated into a “mobocracy,” the situation got even worse. The citizens often chose to use revenues for festivals instead of building battleships.
The public’s perception of the contributions from the rich gradually changed. Toward the end of the history of Athens, their donations became a means to exploit the rich, and the burden placed upon the wealthy grew. The famed rhetorician Isocrates lamented, “When I was young, it was not dangerous to be called rich, and people were proud of it. But today, people are doing their best to hide their wealth, because it is more dangerous to be rich than to break the law.”
Athens was unexpectedly defeated by Sparta, despite its unmatched naval power, superior numbers and greater economic might. The defeat is attributed to the plague and Persia’s intervention, among other factors. But there is a more convincing theory. In “The Story of Tax,” author Jeon Tae-yeong argues that the more fundamental cause for the fall of Athens was the redistribution of wealth. The lesson of Athens is that a society in which one cannot take pride in being rich is bound to collapse.
by Lee Se-jung
The writer is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.