Death & Taxes


new internationalist
issue 220 - June 1991

Death & Taxes
It was Mark Twain who claimed that the two certainties of life
are ‘death and taxes’. But while taxes have always been with us
so has the struggle against unjust taxation. Time and again throughout
history who should pay how much has been a hotly contested
issue – and even a cause of violent revolt.


The Ancient World
In Pharaonic Egypt the all-powerful scribes counted everything from the fish catch to garden produce. Failure to pay could result in a beating or in being sold as a slave. Eventually fleeing tax payers endangered the revenue base. The Greeks fought a bloody war against the Persians to resist a tribute tax and then had to impose one to pay for the war. It was Jewish tax resisters who held out in the mountain fortress of Masada against Imperial Rome. Rome responded by imposing a special tax on Jews, the ‘fiscus judaicus’.



The Poll Tax
Britain has a long history of tax resistance. It was to protest against high taxes, for example, that Lady Godiva took her famous nude ride through the streets of Coventry. But it was the medieval poll tax that provoked most popular indignation. In 1381 Wat Tyler led an armed revolt to oppose King Richard II’s levying of a one shilling tax on every person over 14. The tax hit mainly at the peasantry and revolt quickly spread after the execution of three unfortunate clerks sent to investigate poll-tax fraud. Although Tyler and the other leaders of the revolt lost their heads, for centuries to come poll taxes either excluded peasants or taxed them at a nominal rate.

Peasants in the Third World were not so lucky. Britain and other colonial powers used poll taxes on the newly-colonized people of Africa (who had no money) not only as a source of revenue but to force them to produce cash crops or to go into paid employment where they could be more readily exploited.



Birth of a nation
If political authority is seen as illegitimate the taxes it levies are considered particularly odious. Revenue collected by foreigners has been quick to spark popular resentment. William Tell was forced to shoot the apple off his son’s head for his refusal to pay the heavy taxes that the Habsburgs were trying to levy on the Swiss. In 1291 Swiss communities joined in a league of mutual assistance to defy the power of both the Austrian military and tax-collectors. It was out of this struggle that Switzerland emerged as an independent nation. To this day the final decision on tax increases in Switzerland must be made by popular referendum. As a result Swiss taxes are some of the lowest in the world.



The Boston Tea Party
A constant irritant for Britain’s American colonies in the 1700s was ‘taxation without representation’. Ironically it was the removal of a British tax on tea that provoked Boston merchants dressed as Indians (a favourite US scapegoat) to board ships and pitch the tea overboard. The British had removed the tax to protect their tea monopoly - by cutting prices they hoped to break an American boycott of their tea. But the boycott held and the British responded with more drastic military measures setting off the six-year long revolutionary war in 1776. After their victory the fledgling US government imposed much heavier taxes on their people than the British had ever managed.



War and taxes
Tax politics always seem to heat up during wars. Who is to pay for these huge and wasteful allocations of public funds has always been a bone of contention. It was during the Napoleonic Wars that the first income tax was introduced in Britain. In Canada during World War One the rallying cry of labour and farm organizations in favour of an income tax was ‘no conscription of men without conscription of wealth’. By 1917 a reluctant Conservative government was forced to bring in the country’s first income tax.

The first US income tax was imposed during the Civil War. In the nineteenth century income tax was considered a way to tax the wealthy. In the 1890s a vast populist coalition in the US led by William Jennings Bryant pushed through a renewed income tax in 1894 only to have it overturned by a conservative Supreme Court. It took a 1913 constitutional amendment to reverse this ruling and make income tax the law of the land.



Revolt of the haves
The late 1970s and the 1980s have seen a massive anti-tax movement steered by the political Right into a series of reforms that have lightened the tax load of the well-to-do. The movement was started by a reactionary populist named Harold Jarvis in California where escalating house prices had pushed property taxes through the roof. The result was a 1978 tax-limitation statute called Proposition 13 which limited taxes but imposed draconian cuts on local services and education. The big winners were corporate properties who saw their tax bills reduced by hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In country after country the anti-tax theme was picked up by eager right-wing and reluctant social-democratic politicians. Irrationalities in the tax system were used to stoke up public discontent with government. Capital income was handed generous exemptions. Corporate taxes were cut to encourage investment. And some 81 countries slashed their top rates for high-income earners.



Revolt of the have-nots
Income taxes of lower-and middle-income people remained quite stable or even increased during the 1980s. Government got into a lot more indirect taxation (sales taxes) that hit these people very hard. But as the decade ended revolts against unfair taxation began to erupt. Movements against the modern version of the poll tax in the UK, against the Canadian sales tax (known as the GST) and against US property taxes which are biased towards the wealthy have been picking up steam.

In the UK a series of violent demonstrations and the jailing of poll-tax resisters put the tax revolt on the front page. A reported 14 million people either refused to pay or were in arrears - and the poll tax had become such a political liability that the British Tories had to drop it. The regressive tax policies of the New Right show every sign of becoming a major focus for resistance in the 1990s.

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New Internationalist issue 220 magazine cover This article is from the June 1991 issue of New Internationalist.
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