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Taxation: The future of society lies in the past (Stuff Nation)

Emperors provided bread and circuses in Rome to those at the higher end of society, certainly not the poor. (FILE PHOTO)

OPINION: Income tax seems to carry a stigma in some modern western nations and among some people in politics and the media.

Indeed, some New Zealanders are obsessed with tax hoping for its absence.

Tax has become a central issue in this election. But it is worth thinking about its significance and the important role it plays in society more broadly.

If we look at the evidence of recent times we have seen wealth accumulation for some alongside greater hardship for others. (FILE PHOTO)

If future governments wish to continue to lower income tax then the future lies far back in the past. It lies in a world where income tax was (practically) non-existent and if such taxes applied they usually supported military endeavours.

READ MORE:
* Gordon Copeland: Why New Zealand needs a comprehensive income tax
* Budget 2017: Family income and tax package - by the numbers
* Politically Correct: Election campaign turns into an all-out war

 

In antiquity, a world without income tax, the rich land-owning top 5 per cent existed in a privileged environment protected by the military, the law and a system of elite self-reinforcement.  

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During ancient times, income taxes were (practically) non-existent and if such taxes applied they usually supported military endeavours. (FILE PHOTO)

There was almost no middle class and at the bottom of society an enormous number of poor, uneducated masses, serfs and tied dependents living on hand-outs. Beneath all of these were chattel slaves. Roman Imperial society was stratified between haves and have nots – few existed in the world in-between. The imperial system had no democracy and limited genuine redistribution, but supported a tiny elite group of super rich, embedded and entitled aristocratic Senators and Knights. 

Those hoping for less government involvement in the economy and less taxation should consider that without redistributive mechanisms and regulation we would have no socialised medicine, no public schooling, and no labour laws and no unions – and wealth would accrue further into the hands of those who are already wealthy.

Money is increasingly becoming the end and not the means to a better world within our current economic paradigm.

Contrary to ideas of trickle down economic theory, small-elites thrived in the autocratic societies of the past.

Emperors provided bread and circuses in Rome to those at the higher end of society, certainly not the poor.

In a city of a million people about 200,000 were on the grain dole and 50,000 could enter the Coliseum. This provision was not charity, but part of Imperial reciprocity, and a form of ancient 'corporate' welfare.

The poorer members of society had no safety nets at all. Without rules, without unions and employment laws to protect workers, without state sponsored healthcare and education, the rich triumphed over an increasingly poor, unhealthy, disenfranchised and demoralised majority.  

This lesson from the past applies to the present. Without the state arbitrating between rich and poor, between the haves and have nots, then our society will move closer to those unequal societies of antiquity.  

If we look at the evidence of recent times we have seen wealth accumulation for some alongside greater hardship for others.

Regulations have been removed, the environment sacrificed for productivity, employment laws deregulated in favour of employers, the health service struggling, user fees for doctor's visits, hospitals at bursting point, and schools at every level with less money.  

Most tellingly, all the economic indicators show the poor in New Zealand remain relatively poorer, families in the middle are being squeezed (in the US the evidence for this process in a similar tax-regimen is far starker) and the rich, the embedded, the elite are wealthier than ever – and we are not talking here about the couple who own the house next door.  

Recent data show New Zealand's number of multi-millionaires and super-duper rich has doubled in the past decade. 

Democracy and equality – and of course that also means economic equality – go hand in hand.

Without addressing economic equality, the Roman Empire might be nearer to us than we think.

Matthew Trundle is an ancient historian who specialises in the social and economic aspects of the Greek and Roman world.

Stuff

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