Monday, December 14, 2009
A Brief History of (Property) Taxes: And How Taxes Really Do Relate To Death
A few highlights that I found most interesting:
Taxes in the ancient world were very low by our standards. In the Roman world and further back, I remember making mental note of property taxes (which were pretty much all the taxes at the time) as low as 1 percent.
In Medieval times, property taxes were raised to the level of a tithe, and paid to a "Landlord," who then paid a part of that to the king. These were only paid by wealthy landowners. For the peasants, their "taxes" were basically a portion of their crops, which were a kind of rent (I already kind of knew about that one). Humorously, around 1200 or so (I don't remember the exact date) an English Lord received a tax abatement when his wife paraded around the streets naked on a white horse to protest high taxes. I'm not sure if that means she was beautiful or repulsive on that horse. Lol.
Something I read that I must say I really didn't understand, concerns the US Colonies and their efforts to raise money for the Civil War. I read that the Northern and Southern states could not agree on good form of taxation, because the merchantile economy of the North lended itself to a different form of taxation of the South, which relied on weathly plantations (and more on poll taxes than income taxes, which seems backwards, if you have a bunch of rich landowners). I understand the basic idea that the two were different, and so had different interests in mind, and that the two would better raise money in different ways. But what I did not understand, is how the interests of the wealthy landowners of the South blocked the efforts of the North for more taxation at a national level with national control (to raise national funds to pay for the war). If I remember correctly, the States ended up taxing separately for the most part, and fowarding the necessary funds to the national army for the war.
Other very interesting stories involved efforts by citizens of early America to have some taxes lowered or removed. In all cases rebellions and violence were involved, and in once case the tax was actually removed, while the person in charge of the rebellion, who initially received the death penatly, went free. Also interestingly, the tax that he was rebelling against was one of the few taxes that could not be gotten around, because it was where the "tax assessors" count the number and sizes of the hearths in a home/estate in order to calculate the value of an estate and also the amount of tax owed. With other forms of property tax, people throughout history often just moved their assest around to different properties when they knew that the assessor was on his way, lol. It seems that they usually got away with it too. It also seems like this is probably the basis for how a lot of people try to get around taxes today (by "moving things around in the books"). That's just a bit of a wild guess, though.
And perhaps what I found to be most interesting about the whole thing, was that sales and income tax came to supplant property tax at right about that time when the world really lost its foothold to physical reality. When we entered what McLuhan calls the "electronic environment", and our world began to head toward a virtual one, and what people had was less and less determined by something that can be physically measured and seen, then things really changed drastically. Its not like you had property in the form of a hearth standing on the earth, or grain in a storehouse that an assessor would come by every so often and measure with his eye. When we entered what McLuhan also sometimes refers to as the "acoustic environment", what people have - at least moreso - is now a matter of a kind of metaphysical speculation.
So assessment is done by the traces of a constant and ever-changing flow. People don't move their assets to avoid taxation; what is taxed is already on the move anyway. The filing cabinet full of income check receipts, from which most of the money has already flown away someplace, is the new storehouse of grain that the assessor comes to measure. Is the cash register a kind of station point marking the end of a trip to a space of retail activity and the beginning of the new phase of barely measurable activity, or is it just the recorder of the vestiges of an endless river of sales activity for the tax assessor, a kind of frozen moment in time? At this station point where time dies for a moment, the inevitable happens, every time, no matter what, for everyone - a sales tax. No I was not referring to death, lol.
Lastly, what might have rivaled that last note about the shift in taxation methods around the time of WWII for the peak of my interest level is the fact that, from this brief overall survey of history, it appears as though the survival and livliness of a civilization does not depend so much on whether taxes are higher or lower at a given time in said history (and correspondingly whether goods and services are produced publicly or privately), but whether the taxes are decreed, administered and collected justly (in either case, whether the taxes are higher or lower). The biggest measure of this in history seems to be whether or not the tax collectors/assesors were pocketing extra for themselves. It seems to be a given that they kept some; that was part of their livelihood. But obviously if you have a whole group of corrupt tax collectors getting rich off of the people's property while the Roman army isn't getting paid (or while some other public need isn't being met), then you have problems. At that point, Rome was invaded by "the barbarians." Funnily enough, of the memorable quotes from the paper: "Taxes are what we pay for civilized society."
OH and I almost forgot. Probably the biggest lesson I learned from the read: the BASIS of taxation. Its simple. NEED. That's why taxes have often gone up in wartime. Simply because the government NEEDS more money. I guess that's why the utilitarianism of it has always struck me as a mere hassle. Its not that I have ever really minded paying taxes; its more that its struck me as kind of boring. Like a lowly activity. Like the difference between reading T.S. Eliot versus reading a weekly tabloid about celebrity escapades.
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