Letter to Kallikrates

THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB

MY DEAR KALLIKRATES: — Your letter to Saint Paul which appeared in the Atlantic four or five years ago interested me very much. It is a long time since we used to hear him together at the house of Justus, and, while I have never lost touch with him since, I had not heard from you for a long, long time, and had actually lost your address. But your letter in the Atlantic brings back very vividly all those old days and experiences together — our life in Egypt, our studies at the universities, and our religious instruction at Corinth by Saint Paul. All sorts of memories of those days came at once to my mind on seeing your name once more.

Do you remember, back in the first century, when we used to have to work five days a year on those Nile embankments for the government, instead of paying taxes? How tyrannical and oppressive it used to seem, the old corvée! But you should see us now. My cousin, a very able engineer, told me last night that he works one whole month of every year for the government, and as for me, one fifth of my time, or two months and a half out of each year, is spent working for it. Think of it! Not five days, but seventy-five! Of course we do not actually do the special work required ourselves, but we earn the money equivalent and turn it over to the tax gatherers, who apply it — we hope! — to the public good.

But it makes me sigh a little sometimes for the old free life on the embankments, working up the loose earth with our mattocks and carrying it in our little baskets to the place indicated by the overseer, and then camping out at night under the stars. There was the jolly fellowship with the other taxpayers who were working out their corvée, and the songs and stories about the supper fire. And when it was over we were all off for home again, with the load off our shoulders for another year.

Here, we all grow stoop-shouldered bending over our desks week after week and month after month and year after year, while the tax load grows steadily heavier and heavier. It’s a long, losing race, trying to keep ahead of it, with ruin sure at the end. I remember, just a few’ years ago, one of our best daily papers (which are such a blessing to all our people nowadays, telling them just what to think and do about everything you can imagine) startled us by declaring that we were all paying 5 per cent of our incomes to the government in taxes. It was a revelation to most of us then. But of course that is a mere nothing to what we are paying now.

One wonders where it will end. Of course every office seeker, from the ward committeeman to the President, declares he will reduce taxes, and everybody who is elected to office is committed to effecting some reductions in these burdens, which are rapidly getting to be intolerable. We now have a new alderman, a new mayor, a new governor, and a new President. The result is, my personal property tax has just been increased 700 per cent. A friend of mine inquired at the Assessor’s office how they came to do this, and was told that the Assessor in poking about had found that I was a member of the University Club and concluded that I must be rich. Of course I am only a teacher-member, and pay only nominal dues, but he did not poke as far as that.

But what a tribute this is, my dear Kallikrates, to our modern university education! Hard-faced men like tax gatherers used to think study an impractical and visionary pursuit. But now, if a man belongs to a University Club they think he must be a millionaire! What a change from our old university days at Rhodes and Athens, where we worked so hard over astrology and Aristotle. Such studies never made any of us rich! It is very different nowadays. Indeed, they tell us that one has n’t much chance of financial success now without a college training, and the colleges are waking up to their obligations in this direction.

Well, I must get back to work, my dear Kallikrates, or I shall not succeed in earning the 20 per cent the state now requires of me for its support. In that case, my house and small effects will be confiscated and I shall become a wanderer, dependent upon the relief provided for me by the steadily decreasing few who can still pay their taxes. Of course they will inevitably grow fewer and fewer until the last one passes over from the ranks of the taxpayers to the tax-eaters, and there will be nobody left to tax, and the government will become, as our dear old teacher Saint Paul used to say in a nobler connection, all and in all.

In fact, that is the actual state of things in a big, wild region tip north of Dacia, which was almost unknown in our time but is now called Russia. And that is the way our politicians are hurrying us as fast as the taxes can carry them. In ten years my own taxes have gone up from 5 per cent to 20. In ten more they will, at that rate, have reached 80, and I shall not wait for them to reach an even 100, but will go on the relief rolls probably when they get to 75. Of course, the way the thing is accelerating, it will not take nearly that long.

Perhaps it will be easier then; at any rate we shall not have to worry about making ends meet any longer. As it is now, anyone who is foolish enough to own a house to live in really rents it of the government; I pay fifty dollars a month to the state for the use of my house, which amounts in a year to 3 per cent of its cost when it was new; and to the bank I pay more than forty dollars a month on the mortgage, so you see I am really renting it, except that I have to pay for insurance and repairs myself.

But we are very happy, my dear Kallikrates. Do not think otherwise. We are all proud of our politicians, who live richly and splendidly, and are a source of simple pride to us. The obsequies of our late mayor, who was shot by a man aiming at someone else, were of unexampled splendor; no Pharaoh was ever better buried. (Still, Egypt did n’t work out so well, did it?) In fact, I was myself one of his honorary pallbearers. There is a great deal of comfort in this. It means more to plain people like me than most thinkers realize. There are also the movies to go to, and in the evening one can do jig-saw puzzles and listen to the radio at the same time — pleasures unheard of in your day, even in Corinth, as I am sure you will admit.

When you next hear from me, Kallikrates, soul of my soul, I shall have given up the losing fight, and be free and independent again, as we all used to be in our old spring camping parties on the embankments, doing our jolly five days of corvée! Those were the days!
Yours till Serfdom,
DESPERATUS
a. d. X Kal. Jun.
1933