Ancient Athenian Silver Seems Like Alaska’s Third Rail

Image of Greek acropolis. Photo: Andrew Baldwin

The debate surrounding a government fund paid out universally to citizens began in 483 BCE, with the discovery of a seam of silver in the mines at Laurium. Two competing statesmen, Aristides and Themistocles, enemies since boyhood, proposed to either distribute the newfound wealth among all 30,000 citizens, in regular and equal payments, or to expand the navy. In the end, the Athenian Assembly voted to keep the war machine running.

While researching for this blog, I’ve often come across this anecdote by both proponents and skeptics of universal basic income. Those opposed often extend the historical musing another three years, and proclaim it’s those same ships – 200 triremes, to be exact – lead by Themistocles, which defeated the Persians at Salamis. More of a pyrrhic victory for UBI supporters, who float the question… well, where’s Athens now?

Disregarding partisanship, the story still raises interesting questions about the opportunity costs associated with government spending. Like, who should benefit from a windfall? Alaska’s Permanent Fund is probably the most analogous modern example. Funded through oil revenues, the state-owned Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation provides an annual social dividend to all adult residents. Colloquially known as “the third rail of Alaskan politics” – because if you touch it, you’ll die – the program has proved to be massively popular.

Established thirty years ago, one can only imagine what else Alaska may have done with the fund’s cash. Maybe they read their Heraclitus.