Taxation – an unsung hero in world history

It’s a funny thing, but world history is so full of headline events that the long, slow developments which do most to shape human societies go unnoticed. I’ve referred to this before in my blog posts: for example, in studying the decline and fall of the Roman empire, one can read about barbarian invasions, civil wars, political murders, peasant revolts and so on; but it is harder to trace the evolution of western European society over several centuries from urban, literate and sophisticated to rural, mostly illiterate and simple.

What I want to refer to today is taxation – a hugely important influence in world history. Benjamin Franklin apparently said that the two inevitable facts of life were death and taxes; but actually, when looked at from the point of view of history, taxes have been by no means inevitable for many people. Those who have lived in non-state societies – hunter-gatherer groups, nomadic clans, tribes, independent villages – have had little or no experience of what we might call “taxes”. 

Unpleasant as they are, the coming of taxes marked a big step forward in social organization. The emergence of proper, full-blown states was impossible without them. They allowed rulers to pay for standing armies with which to defend frontiers from invaders and keep potential rival power-bases (and thus sources of violent instability) down. They enabled them to maintain corps of officials to keep up regular communications with the different parts of their realms, provide them with expert advice, supervise state projects such as irrigation works and road-building, bring royal justice to all their subjects – and collect more taxes. They also allowed the building of monumental structures which proclaimed and reinforced the ruler’s power: palaces, temples, fortifications and so on.

But introducing taxation is a very difficult thing for rulers to do. They have to overcome the opposition of powerful vested interests. Even today we can see this in operation: one of the key failures of the Greek state, and a major cause of its economic woes, is apparently its weak tax system, with the richer folk not paying their fair share.

In the past, the coming of tax collectors and their demands provoked hostility and outright rebellion amongst local nobles and peasants alike, and the temptation for rulers to let and let live must have been strong. It needed vigorous and determined rulers to carry through this innovation successfully; and even then, in most places it was carried out in stages over a long period of time. However, once a regular taxation system was in place, a ruler had major advantages over his non-taxing neighbours. His standing armies could expand his territory and thus extend his tax base, and so the system advanced.

One of the places in world history where this process can be seen most clearly is in the later Zhou dynasty period of ancient China. Here, competing states struggled with one another for centuries, and the most centralised and well-organized – the most taxed – states won out. This struggle laid the foundations for the remarkable series of great imperial dynasties which followed, all based on comprehensive and sophisticated revenue-collection. Another era in world history where proper taxation systems can be seen to gradually evolve is in medieval Europe, in the teeth of feudal opposition. What aided the rise of centralised tax-systems here was the threat of foreign invasion – in England the Anglo-Saxon tribal system gave way to a much more centralized system of kingship when Viking attacks brought misery to large swathes of the country. Probably in all places and times in world history where real states based on taxation have emerged has been connected to warfare, at least to some extent.

Once introduced, as we have seen, taxation was a real driver of advanced civilization. Eventually it allowed roads, schools, hospitals, anti-poverty measures, sewage and water distribution systems to be developed. 

So, I would suggest, taxation is one of the unsung heroes of world history. But don’t ask me to argue this point when my tax bill falls due.

By Peter Britton