The Tax Romana

Daily Metaphors

It is difficult to point to something which unites the industrialized world more than the dread of things coming due. Indeed, as we continually produce, acquire and accumulate, it’s clear—on this most important of Mondays—that modern seizers should beware the ides not of March but April.

Of course, with tax law notorious for its intricacies, generalizations about its institution are difficult. U.S. tax law has grown from an estimated 11,400 words in 1913 to circa 7 million words today; the IRS employs 114,000 people and sends out 8 billion pages of forms and instructions each year (enough for 15 million 500-page books; compare Widener’s 3.2 million volumes). Still, “I dues” continue to unite Americans as they have through the country’s brief history.

But perhaps most remarkable are some deep ideological continuities in taxes throughout world history. By way of framing this argument—guaranteed to have reached resolution between your cereal and tea (or, shall we say, between the Fertile Crescent and Boston Harbor)—consider a brief epic of Tax.

In the domestic sphere, early American taxes might be likened to compulsory capital campaigns meant to offset the immediate debts of war. The first direct U.S. tax (on dwellings, land and slaves; apportioned among states based on census data) was levied by Congress in 1798 in order to offset $2 million of the debt incurred by the Revolutionary War. During the Civil War the first federal income tax of 3 to 5 percent was levied by Congress in 1862 and eliminated in 1872.

But it was not long before more continual uses were found in the young government for money, war in and war out. Permanent U.S. income tax began in 1916 with the ratification of the 16th Amendment, which passed 77-0 in the Senate and 318-14 in the House. Tax began at 1 percent on taxable net income over $3,000 for an individual, and topped off at 7 percent for those making more than $500,000 (approximately $8 million in today’s currency).

Internationally, of course, this was old hat. Routinized agricultural taxation in China was well established by the Zhou dynasty (c. 1027-221 B.C.E.); the earliest Roman taxes, the portoria, were customs duties on imports and exports. The Athenians had a monthly poll tax, the metoikion, on foreigners (people whose parents were not both Athenian) of one drachma for men and half a drachma for women, while their contemporary Persians levied a tax called jizya on all non-Muslims living in Muslim-ruled areas. In 11th-century Britain, rising property taxes propelled Lady Godiva to ride the streets nude, inspiring popular reform as well as aristocratic candy. Meanwhile, Peter the Great of Russia is reported to have taxed beards, souls, hats, boots, beehives, basements, chimneys, food, clothing, birth, marriage and burial.

Let us pause at this list. One interesting effect of such a review is the exaggerated importance of detail and pattern. The taxes surveyed, contested or not, concern either property already acquired (land, assets, beards) or some kind of procedural fee (marriage, burial, customs duties and a flat fee for foreigners to participate in the local economy—however problematic, by our standards, this determination of foreignness may have been). The detail which stands out, making the list seem more like a Borgesian encyclopedia than a record of tax law, is that of souls.

One might guess that souls were used as some kind of proxy, i.e., a way of saying that every living human on Russian soil was liable for a certain fee. But intuitive problems inherent in taxing souls are borne out by a more rigorous examination of the action at hand. Merriam-Webster traces tax from Middle English, “to estimate, assess, tax;” to Old French taxer, to Medieval Latin taxare; and finally to Latin, “to feel, estimate, censure, (frequentative of tangere to touch).” The tangibility of assets taxed (as well as of the tax itself) is a curious and critical undertone of the process.

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