A History of Taxation

A History of Taxation

From-Russian-manuscript-The-Tax-Collectors Tax collectors in 16th Century Russia

We have just gone through the agonies of tax season. Death has been inevitable since the first molecules assembled themselves into living protoplasm, but despite the adage, taxes are a fairly recent invention. The first humans were hunters and gatherers; even now, some humans continue to make their living this way. They spend an average of four hours a day collecting and preparing food. The rest is leisure. Think about that when you next put in unpaid overtime.

Taxation became inevitable only with the development of agriculture. Farmers are tied to the land and, unlike nomads, can’t vanish into forest or desert when a band of thugs shows up at harvest time to beat them up and make off with the crop. At first, the thugs usually stole everything in sight, but after a while they must have realized that it made better business sense to leave the farmers enough to live on until the next harvest.

Eventually the thugs figured out that, rather than risk their own lives in combat, sword against pitchfork, they could convince the farmers to hand over a share of the crop willingly, or at least semi-willingly. They began to protect “their” peasants against other thugs. They restyled themselves as kings and nobles and developed a propaganda machine. Some of the earliest documents in the ancient Middle East are the Sumerian king lists, which begin, “When kingship descended from Heaven…” In other words, they invented the doctrine of divine right of kings at least 4,000 years ago. The priestly and scribal classes promulgated the doctrine in their writings and speeches. In return, they received a cut of the loot.

The ancient Egyptians were no slouches when it came to living off the labor of others. One of the titles of the pharaoh was “the Good God.” Some of their writings that have come down to us extol the pleasures of working for the nobility, or of carrying an aristocrat around in a sedan chair. Here’s how their tax system operated: every year certain priests measured the annual inundation of the Nile. These measurements were used to predict the harvest. Based on this prediction, the priests in charge of revenues in their districts would estimate how much each peasant should owe in taxes. The priests subcontracted the actual collection to whoever promised the largest return. At harvest the subcontactor thugs went from house to house, demanding their share and beating up any farmer who came short.

The aristocracy took other titles in the New World, e.g., “captains of industry,” or “job creators.” Over the centuries the propaganda machine also underwent metamorphoses; in our time it is called Fox News. The rulers don’t beat their tax money out of working stiffs once a year but deduct it from their weekly paychecks. For those who are self-employed, it makes more sense to impose stiff penalties and high interest rates, confiscate their property, and as a last resort lock them in federal prisons, where they are forced to labor for $0.12 to $1.15 per hour.

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