The only sure things are death and taxes

William Pitt the Younger implemented the graduated income tax to fight the Napoleonic Wars

CALGARY, AB, May 1, 2014/ Troy Media/ – So tax season has ended yet again, and I just paid my whopper of a tax bill. As an independent consultant, I don’t have the luxury of seeing the tax disappear slowly from my paychecks on a regular basis. No, for me it is one large cheque that disappears into the black hole that is government. This happens every year, and yet every year, I feel surprised and slightly ripped off by my respective governments, both provincial and federal.

The only solace I take from this is that for years – no, actually for centuries and millennia – my ancestors have felt exactly the same way when it comes to taxation.

When I was a Masters student, I worked on a document from 1290 and 1292 from the Kingdom of Castile and Leon. It was a taxation record of King Sancho IV, known as the Brave. For well over a year I was entrenched in a 13th-century system of Spanish royal tax accounting, which was surprisingly still using roman numerals as opposed to the increasingly popular Arabic. I had to relearn the roman system, and became quite adept at transcribing complex numerals such as “CDXCII” into the more common Arabic numeral of 492. It struck me then that taxes have always been a part of life for generations of humans from around the world.

It was after this project that I moved to the UK to complete my Ph.D. at Cambridge. This was in 1991, right after Margaret Thatcher’s Poll Tax controversy that eventually forced her to retire. Poll taxes, or head taxes, have some of the longest history of all taxes, going back to the Old Testament (Exodus 30: 11-16). This half-shekel tax was levied for every Jewish male over the age of 20. But centuries on, it was a deeply unpopular tax in the UK, with civil disobedience and riots erupting. It was soon repealed by Thatcher’s successor, John Major, who replaced it with the Council Tax two years later.

Our more familiar form of income tax actually has a long history of association as a wartime tax. Henry II imposed the so-called Saladin Tax in 1187 as a means to raise funds for the Third Crusade he was planning in the Holy Land. It was a flat 10 per cent tax on all revenues and moveable property, which could be avoided completely if you signed up to participate in the crusade. The tax was payable to ecclesiastical authorities, and if you did not pay, you were imprisoned or excommunicated. Kind of makes that late payment fine by CRA a bit more palatable.

In more modern times, the graduated income tax was first introduced by William Pitt the Younger when England was preparing for the Napoleonic wars. It was in use between 1799 and 1816, when it was repealed with great fanfare. A ritual burning of all tax records took place, although copies were kept in the basement of the tax court. Even back then, government had a sneaky habit of keeping our personal information without our knowledge.

In Canada, it was the First World War that brought us income tax. Although promised as a temporary wartime measure by the Borden government, it proved too attractive a revenue source to give up, and the Liberal government under Mackenzie King kept it in place – until this day.

But my favourite taxes, if you can have a favourite tax, are the sumptuary taxes. We now call these taxes sin taxes, as they were based on moral or religious codes and are now levied against things like alcohol and tobacco. They developed out of sumptuary laws, which had fines payable to those breaking them. This resulted in a form of indirect luxury tax being levied on the rich, as they would flagrantly break the law and just pay the fine.

In renaissance Italy, some of these laws and their fines were quite interesting. For example, in Florence, they were known as “gabelles”. You could pay a gabelle if you wanted to invite more than 200 guests to a wedding, or a woman could pay a gabelle in order to wear more luxurious clothing. If noticed by a roving tax collector, these women either paid the fine, or some tried to physically run away, many into a nearby church that provided sanctuary.

Sanctuary from taxes sounds like a fine idea that we should bring back. Or have they continued in existence and are now referred to a tax havens? Havens or sanctuaries, the less tax paid, the better.

Lee Tunstall is an adjunct assistant professor in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Calgary and holds a PhD in History from the University of Cambridge.

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