The history of taxation - inciting rebellion and civil discord

By Kevin Avram
web posted August 16, 1999

The history of taxation is a fascinating subject. It's the story of rebellion, corruption, presumptive arrogance, and even civil destruction. We know a lot about it. That's because there are more historic records about taxation than any other subject.

The oldest tax system that we know about was set up 6,000 years ago at a place called Lagash. The information comes from clay tablets that were unearthed in an archeological dig. Not only is Lagash the site of the first known tax system, it is also the site of the first bureaucratic rebellion. Artifacts indicate that heavy taxes were originally implemented to finance a war. To collect them, tax collectors armed with the power of seizure stretched from one end of the land to the other.

Eventually, the war ended. The tax collectors, however, having grown extremely fond of their positions and the power they derived from them, didn't want to give up their taxing power.

The most intense tax system likely belonged to the ancient Egyptians. Administrators known as scribes ran everything. There was an up-front fee required to become a scribe, but after becoming one a person was on easy street. Unlike normal people, scribes were completely exempt from taxation. They conducted audits, prosecuted delinquent taxpayers, and ran the courts. Grain was taxed. So were fruit, honey, and fish. Beer was taxed too. As were gardens, farm produce like chicken and pigeon eggs, and even home crafts. Audits involved things like searching home kitchens to see if non-taxed oil was being used for cooking.

The all-encompassing role of the scribe is well illustrated by considering the relationship they had with farmers. Tax historian Charles Adams writes: The Egyptian farmer started with a short-term lease dictated by the scribes. They told the farmer what to plant, and even provided the seed. As most of the farmers and workers were illiterate, the scribes were the ones who recorded everything. They watched the crops grow and recorded the details. In order to make sure that the Emperor got his share they were also present at the harvest.

What is interesting about ancient Egypt is that many attribute its collapse to corruption in the bureaucracy, especially the tax bureau. It got to the point where the Emperor could not restrain it and his orders would go unheeded. The great historian Rostovtzeff says that the continual and unabated tyranny of Egyptian tax collectors produced a nationwide decline in incentive. Agricultural lands fell into disuse, businessmen moved away, workers fled. Crime blossomed.

A major factor in the fall of Rome also had to do with corruption and runaway bureaucracy. At one point, assaults on Roman tax agents became so frequent that soldiers had to accompany them to act as bodyguards. The last great Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, knew Rome was in trouble. And he knew that bureaucratic arrogance and excessive taxation caused that trouble. He sent advisors to the provinces in order to persuade local governments to spend less money and collect fewer taxes. And when the national treasury was bare, rather than raising taxes, he sold off his vast personal fortune to pay for the cost of running the government. Yet Rome was doomed.

The lesson of history, and it's an important one, is that bureaucrats and political administrations left unchecked will eventually trample the rights of everyone. By virtue of what they are, they place a lower value on civil rights than their own self-interest. As they can become the downfall of any nation, it would be wise to learn from history.

Kevin Avram is a former director of Canada's Prairie Centre/Centre for Prairie Agiculture, and continues to sit as a member of the Prairie Centre's Advisory Board.




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