For Plato, the world of appearance was a kind of dream, and the real world was something that only the initiated could begin to understand through logic and mathematics, and perhaps a dash of magic. So far as it existed, matter was evil, and the universe was strictly bounded in space and time.
For Epicurus, the world of appearance was the real world. There is a void, or vacuum, which is infinite in space and time. It has always existed. It will always exist. It goes on forever and ever. In this void is an infinite number of atoms. These are very small, and therefore imperceptible, but indivisible particles of matter. They have always existed and will always exist. They are all moving through the void at an incredibly rapid and uniform speed. The world as we see it is based on combinations of these atoms. Every atom is hooked, and the collision of atoms will sometimes lead to combinations of atoms into larger structures, some of which endure and some of which we can eventually perceive with our senses. All observed changes in the world are the result of redistributions of the invisible atoms that comprise it.
Though we are not able to see these atoms, we can infer their existence by looking at the world that our senses can perceive. All events — the wearing away of a rock by water, for example, or the growth of crystals or trees — can be fully explained by an atomic hypothesis. Since there is nothing that cannot be so explained, there is no need of any other hypotheses. In a surviving explanation of his method, he says:
…[I]n our study of nature we must not conform to empty assumptions and arbitrary laws, but follow the prompting of the facts.
Everything in the universe is made of atoms. We are made of atoms. Our souls are made of very fine atoms. Our senses work because every other physical object is continually casting off very thin films of atoms that represent it exactly as it is. These films strike on our senses and give us vision and sound. Heat is produced by the vibration of atoms temporarily trapped in structures that prevent them from their natural onward motion.
Whether or not anyone can at any moment think of a likely explanation, all events in the universe can be explained in purely naturalistic terms. Assuming atoms and motion, no further hypotheses are needed to explain the world.
Epicurus was not the first to explain the world by an atomic hypothesis. That was Democritus (460-370 BC). But he seems to have developed the hypothesis with a consistency and detail that took it far beyond anything that earlier philosophers had conceived.
Perhaps his most notable innovation is the doctrine of the swerve. There are two objections to the atomism of Democritus. The first is that if the atoms are all moving at the same speed and in the same direction, like drops of rain, there is no reason to suppose they will ever collide and form larger compounds. The second is that if they are not moving in the same direction, they will collide, but they will form a universe locked into an unbreakable sequence of cause and effect. This conflicts with the observed fact of free will.
And so Epicurus argues that every atom is capable of a very small and random deviation from its straight motion. This is enough to give an indeterminacy to the universe that does not conflict with an overall regularity of action.
Sean Gabb, “Epicurus: Father of the Englightenment”, speaking to the 6/20 Club in London, 2007-09-06.
September 7, 2016
September 4, 2016
Again, the laws and customs relating to the acquisition of wealth are better in Rome than at Carthage. At Carthage nothing which results in profit is regarded as disgraceful; at Rome nothing is considered more so than to accept bribes and seek gain from improper channels. For no less strong than their approval of money-making is their condemnation of unscrupulous gain from forbidden sources. A proof of this is that at Carthage candidates for office practise open bribery, whereas at Rome death is the penalty for it. Therefore as the rewards offered to merit are the opposite in the two cases, it is natural that the steps taken to gain them should also be dissimilar.
But the quality in which the Roman commonwealth is most distinctly superior is in my opinion the nature of their religious convictions. I believe that it is the very thing which among other peoples is an object of reproach, I mean superstition, which maintains the cohesion of the Roman State. These matters are clothed in such pomp and introduced to such an extent into their public and private life that nothing could exceed it, a fact which will surprise many. My own opinion at least is that they have adopted this course for the sake of the common people. It is a course which perhaps would not have been necessary had it been possible to form a state composed of wise men, 11 but as every multitude is fickle, full of lawless desires, unreasoned passion, and violent anger, the multitude must be held in by invisible terrors and suchlike pageantry. For this reason I think, not that the ancients acted rashly and at haphazard in introducing among the people notions concerning the gods and beliefs in the terrors of hell, but that the moderns are most rash and foolish in banishing such beliefs. The consequence is that among the Greeks, apart from other things, members of the government, if they are entrusted with no more than a talent, though they have ten copyists and as many seals and twice as many witnesses, cannot keep their faith; whereas among the Romans those who as magistrates and legates are dealing with large sums of money maintain correct conduct just because they have pledged their faith by oath. Whereas elsewhere it is a rare thing to find a man who keeps his hands off public money, and whose record is clean in this respect, among the Romans one rarely comes across a man who has been detected in such conduct…
Polybius, Histories VI, 56.
August 26, 2016
Published on 25 Aug 2016
NOTE: We are still on the road and won’t be able to answer many comments. Greetings from Lviv, Ukraine!
The Salonica Front was supposed to be a backdoor to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and for supporting the Serbian Army when the first Entente troops landed there. But their presence in Salonica was growing and bigger. With the return of the Serbian troops from Corfu and new support by the Russians and Italians, the Allies were now fielding a Five Nation Army here.
August 23, 2016
Published on 22 Aug 2016
Greece was officially neutral in World War 1. Surrounded by warring nations and under the influence of the great powers, Greek unity was tested during the war in a time of National Schism.
August 8, 2016
While I sometimes feel old enough to have construed Latin in school, it departed the curriculum a few years before I reached high school. As a result, while I was vaguely aware of the Loeb Classical Library, I never had a need to obtain or depend on them for my academic career (thank goodness). Back in 2011, John Talbot described them as the “bright ghosts of antiquity” for New Criterion:
The gist of an old joke — it has a dozen local iterations — is that the Loeb Classical Library translations are so baffling that you have to consult the original Greek or Latin on the left-hand page to decipher the English translation on the right.
Funny or not, the wisecrack catches the condescension long directed at the Loebs, that venerable series of Greek and Latin classics in uniform volumes with facing English translations. Professors of classics in particular used to frown upon them. Until recently, merely to be seen on campus with a Loeb was to court scandal. There were gradations of disgrace. Those Loeb editions of Boethius, Bede, and Augustine I saw on the shelves of the professor who taught me Anglo-Saxon: those were permissible for an English scholar. But I, as a classics major, was to eschew the very same volumes. Even as an undergraduate, though I prized my Loeb edition of The Republic, edited and imaginatively annotated by Paul Shorey, I knew better than bring it to my seminar on Plato. That same tact — that same hypocrisy — accounts for the care I took, as a graduate student, to avoid detection as I sifted the used bookshops of Cambridge for second-hand Loebs. For many of us, the pleasure we took in the Loebs was tinged with guilt.
But attitudes are changing. Once treated as evidence of the decline of Western civilization, the Loeb Classical Library is now, in its centennial year, more often regarded as, if not quite a pillar of our culture, at least one of its more enduring and useful props. The centenary invites consideration of how the Loebs have both reflected and, increasingly, shaped our literary culture.
First, to deal with that joke: Are the Loeb translations really so convoluted? They are not. What is true, though not true enough to justify the slur, is that some of the translations, especially those of the Library’s first few decades, do make hard going for the reader, not because they are incomprehensible but because they are written in one of two different varieties of translationese. About the first kind, the Times Literary Supplement reviewer got it right when he complained that the 1913 Loeb Catullus was translated not into English exactly, but that other dialect, “the construing lingo beloved of schoolboys, but abhorred by man and gods.” He had in mind such clunking touches as “remains to be slept the sleep of one unbroken night” for Catullus’ suave nox est perpetua una dormienda, a solution which confirms, as though to satisfy a schoolteacher, the translator’s grasp of the future perfect passive, whatever the cost to English idiom.
H/T to Never Yet Melted for the link.
May 29, 2016
Ancient critics of Athenian democracy, such as Plato and Thucydides, argued that the state was dysfunctional because the citizens who ruled it through direct democracy were often too ignorant and irrational to make good decisions. For example, Thucydides claimed that Athens launched the disastrous Sicilian expedition, which led to the fall of the Athenian Empire, because the ignorant citizens had no idea how large and populous the island of Sicily was, and thus were easily snookered by demagoguery in favor of the ill-advised high-risk venture.
For centuries, critics of democracy pointed to Athens as a prime example of why the ignorant masses should be barred from wielding political power, especially directly. These critiques of Athens had a major impact on the American Founding Fathers. They were a key factor leading them to include a number of anti-democratic features in our Constitution.
The good news is that modern scholarship suggests that Athenian voters were more knowledgeable and did a much better job of making decisions than the longstanding conventional wisdom supposes. The bad news is that ancient Athenian citizens could avoid some of the pitfalls of ignorance in part because they had important advantages that voters in modern democracies mostly lack. Relative to modern counterparts, ancient Athenian voters dealt with a government with a much narrower range of functions, had far stronger incentives to acquire relevant knowledge, and often had direct personal experience with the most important functions of the state, which made it easier for them to assess leaders’ performance. I summarized these points in greater detail in this review essay. While ancient Athenian democracy did a better job of surmounting political ignorance than it is often given credit for, some of the reasons for its relative success should lead us to be more rather than less concerned about the enormous extent of political ignorance today. Jonathan Gruber’s assessment of the American voter may be more accurate than Thucydides’ take on ancient Athens.
It’s also worth remembering that, by modern standards, Athens was closer to being a narrow oligarchy than a democracy. Because women, slaves, and the city’s large population of resident noncitizens were excluded from the franchise, only a small fraction of the adult population actually got to participate in politics (though still a much larger one than in most other ancient states). Athens’ enemies often saw it as a nightmare of democratic egalitarianism run amok. But that was because their own oligarchies were far narrower still.
Ilya Somin, “The modern case for studying ancient Athenian democracy”, The Volokh Conspiracy, 2015-01-30.
April 21, 2016
I discovered the Greeks when I was eight, and I came across a copy of Roger Lancelyn-Green’s retelling of The Iliad. I was smitten at once. There was something so wonderfully grand, yet exotic, about the stories. I didn’t get very far with it, but I found a copy of Teach Yourself Greek in the local library and spent weeks puzzling over it. Over the next few years, I read my way through the whole of Greek and Roman mythology, and was drawn into the history of the whole ancient world.
When I was twelve, my classical leanings took me in a new, if wholly predictable, direction. The sexual revolution of the 70s hardly touched most South London schoolboys. The one sex education lesson I had was a joke. Porn was whatever I could see without my glasses in the swimming pool. So I taught myself Latin well enough to read the untranslated naughty bits in the Loeb editions of the classics. The librarians in Lewisham were very particular in those days about what they allowed on their shelves. They never questioned the prestige of the classics, or thought about what I was getting them to order in from other libraries. With help from Martial and Suetonius and Ausonius, among others, I’d soon worked out the mechanics of all penetrative sex, and flagellation and depilation and erotic dances; and I had a large enough fund of anecdotes and whole stories to keep my imagination at full burn all though puberty.
Then, as I grew older, I realised something else about the Greeks — something I’d always known without putting it into words. There’s no doubt that European civilisation, at least since the Renaissance, has outclassed every other. No one ever gathered facts like we do. No one reasoned from them more profoundly or with greater focus. No one approached us in exposing the forces of nature, and in turning them to human advantage. We are now four or five centuries into a curve of progress that keeps turning more steeply upwards. Yet our first steps were guided by others — the Greek, the Romans, the Arabs, and so forth. If we see further than they do, we stand on the backs of giants.
The Greeks had no one to guide them. Unless you want to make exaggerated claims about the Egyptians and Phoenicians, they began from nothing. Between about 600 and 300 BC, the Greeks of Athens and some of the cities of what is now the Turkish coast were easily the most remarkable people who ever lived. They gave us virtually all our philosophy, and the foundation of all our sciences. Their historians were the finest. Their poetry was second only to that of Homer — and it was they who put together all that we have of Homer. They gave us ideals of beauty, the fading of which has always been a warning sign of decadence; and they gave us the technical means of recording that beauty. Again, they had no examples to imitate. They did everything entirely by themselves. In a world that had always been at the midnight point of barbarism and superstition, they went off like a flashbulb; and everything good in our own world is part of their afterglow. Every renaissance and enlightenment we have had since then has begun with a rediscovery of the ancient Greeks. Modern chauvinists may argue whether England or France or Germany has given more to the world. In truth, none of us is fit to kiss the dust on which the ancient Greeks walked.
How can you stumble into their world, and not eventually be astonished by what the Greeks achieved? From the time I was eight, into early manhood, I felt wave after wave of adoration wash over me, each one more powerful than the last.
Richard Blake, “Interview with Richard Blake”, 2014-03-14.
March 14, 2016
the historical novel as we know it emerged at the end of the 18th century. The great historians of that age — Hume, Robertson, Gibbon and others — had moved far towards what may be called a scientific study of the past. They tried to base their narratives on established fact, and to connect them through a natural relationship of cause and effect. It was a mighty achievement. At the same time, it turned History from a story book of personal encounters and the occasional miracle to something more abstract. More and more, it did away with the kind of story that you find in Herodotus and Livy and Froissart. As we move into the 19th century, it couldn’t satisfy a growing taste for the quaint and the romantic.
The vacuum was filled by a school of historical novelists with Sir Walter Scott at its head. Though no longer much read, he was a very good novelist. The Bride of Lammermoor is one of his best, but has been overshadowed by the Donizetti opera. I’ve never met anyone else who has read The Heart of Midlothian. But Ivanhoe remains popular, and is still better than any of its adaptations. Whether still read or not, he established all the essential rules of historical fiction. The facts, so far as we can know them, are not to be set aside. They are, however, to be elaborated and folded into a coherent fictional narrative. Take Ivanhoe. King Richard was detained abroad. His brother, John, was a bad regent, and may not have wanted Richard back. There were rich Jews in England, and, rather than fleecing them, as the morality of his age allowed, John tried to flay them. But Ivanhoe and Isaac of York, and the narrative thread that leads to the re-emergence of King Richard at its climax — these are fiction.
I try to respect these conventions in my six Aelric novels. Aelric of England never existed. He didn’t turn up in Rome in 609AD, to uncover and foil a plot that I’d rather not discuss in detail. He didn’t move to Constantinople in 610, and become one of the key players in the revolution that overthrew the tyrant Phocas. He wasn’t the Emperor’s Legate in Alexandria a few years later. He didn’t purify the Empire’s silver coinage, or conceive the land reforms and cuts in taxes and government spending that stabilised the Byzantine Empire for about 400 years. He didn’t lead a pitifully small army into battle against the biggest Persian invasion of the West since Xerxes. He had nothing to do, in extreme old age, with Greek Fire. Priscus existed, and may have been a beastly as I describe him. I find it reasonable that the Emperor Heraclius was not very competent without others to advise him. But the stories are fabrications. They aren’t history. They are entertainment.
Even so, they are underpinned by historical fact. The background is as nearly right as I can make it. I’ve read everything I could find about the age in English and French and Latin and Greek. I’ve read dozens of specialist works, and hundreds of scholarly articles. My Blood of Alexandria is a good introduction to the political and religious state of Egypt on the eve of the Arab invasions. My Curse of Babylon is a good introduction to the Empire as a whole in the early years of the 7th century. The only conscious inaccuracy in all six novels comes in Terror of Constantinople, where I appoint a new Patriarch of Constantinople several months after the actual event. I did this for dramatic effect — among much else, it let me parody Tony Blair’s Diana Funeral reading — but I’ve felt rather bad about it ever since. This aside, any university student who uses me for background to the period that I cover will not be defrauded.
There’s nothing special about this. If you want to know about Rome between Augustus and Nero, the best place to start is the two Claudius novels by Robert Graves. Mary Renault is often as good [as] Grote or Bury on Classical Greece — sometimes better in her descriptions of the moral climate. Gore Vidal’s Julian is first class historical fiction, and also sound biography. Anyone who gets no further than C.S. Forrester and Patrick O’Brien will know the Royal Navy in the age of the French Wars. Mika Waltari is less reliable on the 18th Dynasty in The Egyptian. In mitigation, we know very little about the events and family relationships of the age between Amenhotep III and Horemheb. He wrote a memorable novel despite its boggy underpinning of fact.
I could move from here to talking about bad historical novels. But I won’t. “Judge not, lest ye be judged” is the proper text for anyone like me to bear in mind. What I will do instead is talk about some of the technical difficulties of writing historical fiction. The first is one of balance. If you write a novel about Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great, you start with certain advantages. We all know roughly who these people were. We already have Rex Warner and Robert Graves and Mary Renault. We have all the films and television serials and documentaries. We know that Rome was a collapsing republic before it became an Empire, and that Alexander got as far as India, and died in Babylon. Everyone has heard of Cicero and Aristotle. It’s the same with novels set in the Second World War, or the reign of Elizabeth I. You can give the occasional spot of background, but largely get on with the narrative.
Richard Blake, “Interview with Richard Blake”, 2014-03-14.
January 29, 2016
Published on 28 Jan 2016
Even though Britain went to war over the violation of the Belgian neutrality by the Germans, the neutrality of Greece seems to be of no concern to the Entente. The military presence on Corfu and Salonika is growing and growing. And even though there is no fighting there, the soldiers have to suffer since general Malaria is taking his toll. In the week of the Kaiser’s birthday, the diplomatic tensions between the USA and Germany are increasing and on the Western Front Trench Foot is becoming a real problem.
January 10, 2016
Published on 2 Jan 2016
Indy is answering your questions about the First World War again and this time we are talking about the neutrality of Greece, the accuracy of Blackadder Goes Forth and the contribution of Asia and Africa.
October 9, 2015
Published on 8 Oct 2015
The Central Powers want to open a direct supply connection between Berlin and Constantinople. So, they start a new offensive on Serbia to defeat them once and for all. It’s an open secret that Serbia’s neighbour Bulgaria will soon join the war so the Serbians are in dire need of help. With no other option, the Entente lands troops in Salonika, Greece. The whole situation on the Balkans is spiraling out of control once more. Meanwhile the new offensives on the Western Front continue while the Eastern Front cools down.
October 8, 2015
The policy of the emperors and the senate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, part of their subjects. The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.
The superstition of the people was not imbittered by any mixture of theological rancor; nor was it confined by the chains of any speculative system. The devout polytheist, though fondly attached to his national rites, admitted with implicit faith the different religions of the earth. Fear, gratitude, and curiosity, a dream or an omen, a singular disorder, or a distant journey, perpetually disposed him to multiply the articles of his belief, and to enlarge the list of his protectors. The thin texture of the Pagan mythology was interwoven with various but not discordant materials. As soon as it was allowed that sages and heroes, who had lived or who had died for the benefit of their country, were exalted to a state of power and immortality, it was universally confessed, that they deserved, if not the adoration, at least the reverence, of all mankind. The deities of a thousand groves and a thousand streams possessed, in peace, their local and respective influence; nor could the Romans who deprecated the wrath of the Tiber, deride the Egyptian who presented his offering to the beneficent genius of the Nile. The visible powers of nature, the planets, and the elements were the same throughout the universe. The invisible governors of the moral world were inevitably cast in a similar mould of fiction and allegory. Every virtue, and even vice, acquired its divine representative; every art and profession its patron, whose attributes, in the most distant ages and countries, were uniformly derived from the character of their peculiar votaries. A republic of gods of such opposite tempers and interests required, in every system, the moderating hand of a supreme magistrate, who, by the progress of knowledge and flattery, was gradually invested with the sublime perfections of an Eternal Parent, and an Omnipotent Monarch. Such was the mild spirit of antiquity, that the nations were less attentive to the difference, than to the resemblance, of their religious worship. The Greek, the Roman, and the Barbarian, as they met before their respective altars, easily persuaded themselves, that under various names, and with various ceremonies, they adored the same deities. The elegant mythology of Homer gave a beautiful, and almost a regular form, to the polytheism of the ancient world.
The philosophers of Greece deduced their morals from the nature of man, rather than from that of God. They meditated, however, on the Divine Nature, as a very curious and important speculation; and in the profound inquiry, they displayed the strength and weakness of the human understanding. Of the four most celebrated schools, the Stoics and the Platonists endeavored to reconcile the jarring interests of reason and piety. They have left us the most sublime proofs of the existence and perfections of the first cause; but, as it was impossible for them to conceive the creation of matter, the workman in the Stoic philosophy was not sufficiently distinguished from the work; whilst, on the contrary, the spiritual God of Plato and his disciples resembled an idea, rather than a substance. The opinions of the Academics and Epicureans were of a less religious cast; but whilst the modest science of the former induced them to doubt, the positive ignorance of the latter urged them to deny, the providence of a Supreme Ruler. The spirit of inquiry, prompted by emulation, and supported by freedom, had divided the public teachers of philosophy into a variety of contending sects; but the ingenious youth, who, from every part, resorted to Athens, and the other seats of learning in the Roman empire, were alike instructed in every school to reject and to despise the religion of the multitude. How, indeed, was it possible that a philosopher should accept, as divine truths, the idle tales of the poets, and the incoherent traditions of antiquity; or that he should adore, as gods, those imperfect beings whom he must have despised, as men? Against such unworthy adversaries, Cicero condescended to employ the arms of reason and eloquence; but the satire of Lucian was a much more adequate, as well as more efficacious, weapon. We may be well assured, that a writer, conversant with the world, would never have ventured to expose the gods of his country to public ridicule, had they not already been the objects of secret contempt among the polished and enlightened orders of society.
October 6, 2015
Published on 5 Oct 2015
Thank you Plamen Ganev for helping with the research for this episode!
Bulgaria joined the ranks of the Central Powers in World War 1 in October 1915 and shortly after invaded neighbouring Serbia to support the German-Austro offensive on Belgrade. A lot of promises about territory were made towards Ferdinand I and especially the chance of getting back territories lost in the Balkan Wars was music to Bulgarian ears. Find out all about Bulgaria joining World War 1 in our special episode.
September 30, 2015
The pioneering political thinkers of the West — Greeks, mostly Athenian, including the sublime Aristotle — devoted much thought to this question of scale. Their consensus was that a state of more than about five thousand people (plus slaves, of course) was essentially unmanageable, at least by its citizens. Large empires or alliances of states might attempt to guarantee the freedom and independence of these small states (or might not), but the hard fact was that above around five thousand souls, the participation of the citizen in his own government ceases to be reality, and becomes rather a pious (or impious) myth.
Skip forward to 1789, the year of the French Revolution. As I have written elsewhere, perhaps the most permanent effect of that Revolution was the transformation of local government across France. Overnight, the seemingly timeless boundaries of 60,000 French parishes, each governed in its own unique way — were erased and replaced with 36,000 “communes,” governed identically and now under central direction from Paris.
This model was copied, across most of Europe, for even those national politicians who did not share in the ideals of the Revolution were attracted by the prospect of central power. France has mostly preserved her revolutionary communes, of a piece in land area, though now a city such as Paris is a single commune with more than two million people. In other countries, these small districts were merged and merged again, into ever larger territorial units, ever more bureaucratic and ever more subject to central direction.
According to me — and I have mulled this at length, with my own feeble mental powers — the Greeks were right. Five thousand is near the top end of a population that can attempt genuine self-government, deciding for themselves what they will and will not put up with, inside their own little domains. In huge conurbations, I would say that is about the maximum size for a self-governing urban borough or ward, necessarily small in area. Outside, rural districts would be rather larger, and there the question of maximum acreage comes into view, balanced against the minimum population to make any formal government necessary.
Boundaries are important. Above the parish or ward, the county seems to be the next higher natural level of government, for the resolution of issues that cross parish boundaries. But at all levels, attention should be given to geography. The boundaries of the jurisdiction should correspond as closely as possible to natural landmarks, and elevations of land, such that e.g. riparian responsibilities can be assigned to the visibly appropriate jurisdiction.
What has all this got to do with the environmental management of the planet? Everything. Where people can see the cause and effect of their actions, problems such as pollution will be tackled, and beauties such as birdsong will not be sacrificed. If the problems aren’t tackled, and the blight spills into another jurisdiction, penalties may be imposed from a higher level, but first give people the chance and the power to solve their own problems at source. Give them ownership, and stable rule by law — not by central planning which rewrites laws for its own convenience.
David Warren, “Five thousand max”, Essays in Idleness, 2015-06-19.
September 21, 2015
Megan McArdle is in Athens, where she’s finding that Greek businesses have started handing out receipts for transactions that once would have been undocumented (the better to hide revenue from the taxman):
I was last in Greece in 2006, during the twilight years of the boom that peaked during the Athens Olympics. Back then, Greece was notable to Americans for its lack of receipts. This is convenient for the shoppers, who don’t have to hunt around for somewhere to toss yet another piece of unwanted paper. But it was also convenient for vendors who wanted to underpay the tax authorities.
The inability of the Greek government to collect the taxes it is owed is one of the recurring themes of coverage of the financial crisis. This problem is sometimes exaggerated, but everyone agrees that it’s very real. And since the burden of structural adjustment is falling on fiscal reforms — rather than, say, firing unproductive members of the vast government workforce — that’s a big problem.
Widespread evasion narrows the tax base, forcing the government to set higher rates. If the evasion were spread evenly across all sectors of the economy, then these two things would roughly cancel out. Unfortunately, it’s not. Some sorts of taxes are easier to evade than others. Employment taxes are hard to evade, while self-employed professionals like doctors and lawyers have found it relatively easy to shelter most of their incomes. As a result, the cost of employing a new staff worker is quite high (especially since those workers are incredibly difficult to fire). The value-added tax here is now 23 percent, close to the EU maximum rate. (Thank God for that maximum, joked one journalist I met; otherwise, who knows how high they’d have raised it.) That’s making up for taxes that aren’t collected elsewhere.
The good news is that Greece has at least made progress on collecting sales tax. They’re hardly at the level that our Internal Revenue Service would accept, but most of the places I’ve gone have automatically given me a receipt, printed out by a cash register. The taxi drivers mostly offer printed receipts. One did ask me how much he should make it out for. (Note to boss: I told him to make it out for the amount of the fare.) I’m told that on the islands, collection is less sure. But here in Athens, they are slowly but surely improving their collection apparatus.
Greece is attempting to do in the space of a few years what other economies did over the course of decades. Most people think of a cash register primarily as a way to add up the value of the sale, but in fact, that is the least of its functions. Its most attractive feature to the merchants who adopted them back in the late 19th century was that they made it harder for clerks to steal. (That’s why old registers made a noise every time the cash drawer opened; that prevented employees from stealthily recording sales and then pocketing the money, or alternatively, giving goods to their friends without being paid.) Over time, of course, revenue authorities realized that cash register tickers were also a good way to ensure that employers gave the state its due.