The Deep History of Taxation May Surprise You

Two things in life are certain: death and taxes. So goes the saying. And yet despite that, the idea of the necessity of taxation is largely undisputed, “consent” to its use is, historically seen, new. How did it come about that tax evasion, first an act of protection against the abuse of government, is now frowned upon? Why is there such moral indignation, and why is tax avoidance such a big deal today when it was widespread centuries ago?

Think of the procedure of taxation and then imagine you’d have to explain it to a person who has never heard of it before. That is pretty much the history of taxation in a nutshell. Early taxes in Ancient Rome and Greece were not only very low and indirect (for instance, on goods), they were only levied when there was a time of crisis. European countries which were large traders, such as the Netherlands or England, gathered funds for the expenses of the state through tariffs. While these were protectionist and surely not good news for the farmers on each side, at least they did not claim ownership to a part of the people’s income, as they did in France.

Historically Speaking

During the Middle Ages, the King’s finances and those of private individuals were merged: there was no distinction between a public budget and private budget. Consecutive monarchs instituted taxes according to the expenses they deemed necessary at that moment in time. In addition to the royal expenditure which was merely in their own interest (construction of castles, financing of hunting, clothing, and gifts offered to the members of the court), there were exceptional expenses related to wars, for which sovereigns appealed to “feudal aids”.

The feudal lords took from their servants as much as needed to satisfy the military budget of the King. The expenses were rarely approved of, even when the endeavors of the King were successful. Little did the Duke of Bourgogne care for the crown’s success in a renewed sea battle against the English.

A famous example of this was King Philippe II, who levied the Saladin tith in 1118, in order to fund the crusade against Salah ad-Din Yusuf, the Sultan of Egypt and Syria. The same tax was equally levied in England by King Henry II, where it raised very large sums. All those who joined the crusade were exempted from the tax, which was, of course, meant to encourage participation, and tax evaders were threatened with imprisonment and excommunication. However, the crown was confronted with such a large opposition to the tith, that King Henry suspended it and promised, upon popular demand, to never levy such a tax again as it seemed to establish a precedent for future taxation. Little did they know…

The Folly of France

During the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, these exceptional tax levies suddenly became regular ones. Charles V (1338-1380) was, therefore, the first to dispose of an income tax, now holding both the fiscal and the military monopoly of the nation. With the appearance of the income tax came the first tax avoiders: many cities and ports became “fiscally excluded”: the tax havens of their time. The city of Marseille declared itself independent to escape taxation, something they succeeded in until the King took the city by force in 1481.

With the weakening of the nobility during the Hundred Year’s War and later the religious wars, the French Kings had taken control over their territories and now needed to legitimize taxation. This notion of legitimizing taxation needs was essential in medieval Europe: the law wasn’t written down, which is why the people adapted by customs, calling it customary law. Customary Law had said until now that taxation was legitimized through the necessity of war. However, the expenses of the crown were so high at this point that the income tax had to be maintained regardless of whether the troops found themselves in battle or not. The bourgeoisie of the times contested the fiscal monopoly of the King: they described the crown as intransparent with its expenditures, accusing the level of taxation of being merely arbitrary. However, the bourgeoisie did not have the noble intention of lowering burdens for hard workers but to use these colossal funds for its own self-interest.

These multiple clashing interests made the “consent to taxation” a major issue until the French Revolution. Claiming that the French Revolution was fought because the people were fed up with paying taxes would not be painting the whole story. However, it can be said with confidence that paying a monthly fee to the King who gathered the nobility in Versailles for his expensive lifestyle surely did not to calm the nerves of starving peasants.

We thus note that 2 of the 17 articles of the DDHC of August 26, 1789, are devoted to the question of taxation. These two are Articles 13 and 14. Article 13 states that, “for the maintenance of the public force, and for administrative expenses, a joint contribution is indispensable: it must be equally distributed among all the citizens, according to their means”. And Article 14 adds that, “All citizens have the right to ascertain, by themselves or by their representatives, the necessity of the public contribution, to freely consent to it, to follow its use, and to determine the quota, the base, the recovery and the duration.” These two articles are intimately linked, their content complementing one another, but also overlapping on the issue of the necessity of taxation. It needs to be noted that the notion of “freely consenting” did not imply that citizens were free to consent or not, but that given the overwhelming evidence supporting the need for taxation, they were free to do so, meaning they should absolutely do so.

This did not only force both the clergy and the aristocracy into taxation, despite them previously having been exempt from all its forms, but also made it crystal clear taxation was necessary, just, and, most importantly, compulsory. One thing was clear to the French revolutionaries: they could only hold their new democracy against the monarchists if they maintained the funds that enabled them to have the military on their side. This was only possible if they fed the entire population with the belief that their contribution was unthinkably important to the existence of a free state.

When people claim that taxation is a necessary evil for the maintenance of our freedoms (meaning the right to social services and welfare benefits in today’s world), then they are deriving their rhetoric from 18th century French revolutionaries, whose philosophical foundation for the creation of the French Republic had very little to do with the convictions of the American revolutionaries and their struggle against taxation.

This article was first published by the Foundation for Economic Education.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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