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For Good and Evil: The Impact of Taxes on the Course of Civilization

av Charles Adams

MedlemmarRecensionerPopularitetGenomsnittligt betygOmnämnanden
1361149,709 (4)2
"The very word taxes sends shivers up spines. Yet very few realize the tremendous impact that taxation has had on civilization. Charles Adams changes that in this newly revised and enlarged edition of his fascinating history. Taxation, says Adams, has been a catalyst of history, a powerful influence on and sometimes the direct cause of many of the famous events that have marched across the world's stage as empires collided and battled for the right to tax the loser. For Good and Evil is the first book to examine how taxation has been a key factor in world events. Like the Rosetta Stone - itself a tax document - the book sheds fresh light onto much of history."--BOOK JACKET.Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved… (mer)

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My reactions to reading this book in 1995.

A very informative book about the tax collectors of the past and, even more so, about the taxes they collected.

Adams’ thesis is that taxes have had a profound effect on many civilizations and not just the two historical events – the American and French (who had a long, violent history of tax revolts before 1789) Revolutions – usually linked to taxes. Any time a war is fought between an empire and one of its subjects over how much, if any, tribute is to be paid it is, as he points out, a war over taxes.

Ancient Egypt had a ubiquitous and intrusive group of scribes who collected taxes, and oppressive taxes led to the decline and eventual conquest of Egypt. The Rosetta Stone is (as a great many ancient records are, including a Sumner document with the proverb: “You can have a Lord, you can have a king, but the man to fear is the tax collector.”) a tax document, specifically granting immunity – that’s why it was on stone and not papyrus and written in three languages.

The Israelites had a long – and unsuccessful – history of revolts against occupying powers and their taxes. (Adams’ writing is so lucid and fun that I at first thought this book was a popular history with little scholarly depth – especially since Adams uses rather old historical works and seems to uncritically accept – in a brief paragraph – the idea of Israelites in Egyptian bondage. However, as the book progressed, my qualms were eased, and I became impressed by Adams’ scholarship – particularly in his professional area of tax law and especially changes in American tax law.)

The Greeks – as always – come off as a combination of great inventors of just political institutions and ideals and corrupt practioners of power. They imposed many indirect taxes (including the notion that harbors around more pirate-infested-sea-lanes should pay a higher tax than others for protection – the same with roads) and regarded direct taxes on a person as tyranny (though they weren't above taxing people in “despised professions”: soothsayers, prostitutes, and doctors. Plane geometry was helped along by needing to determine land size for administering harvest taxes. Foreigners were directly taxed. Liturgical devotions (basically the same as rich Romans voluntarily donating large sums of their money for public works, all in pursuit of civitas and to avoid ostracism) paid for many items of Greek cities. Tax farmers were used as well. However, the Athenians, as per their usual cynical attitude toward their allies, exerted heavy taxes on the other members of the Athenian defense league.

I was surprised to learn that the Romans seemed to have been – in the Imperial days from Augustus to Marcus Aurelius – good tax administrators. I think Adams is perhaps too kind to the Roman publicani. It may be true that laws existed against extortionate tax collecting by people like Sicily’s governor Verres, but, as I recall, his trial is so famous not only because Cicero prosecuted him but because the prosecution was actually successful. Toward the end of the Republic, publicani were starting to decline since Roman administrators realized that they could use local administrators to assess and collect taxes (as the publicani, as worthless middlemen, were already doing). In the end days of the Republic, dictator Sulla and general Pompey treated their subjects with harsh taxation while Caesar practiced moderate taxation. Starting with Augustus and through Marcus Aurelius, Roman tax administration was at its best. The Emperor took control of most tax collection with the money collected directly from a city and not done through publicani. Taxes were inheritance taxes, sales, custom taxes. Corrupt tax collectors were crucified or assessed heavy fines. (However, unlike Adams, I’m not convinced these laws did much good. I suspect the frequent complaints of rapacious (and sometimes torturing and murdering) tax collectors and the draconian laws against them are proof of a wide spread problem. Surprisingly, the notorious emperor Caligula comes off well in regard to taxes. Caligula abolished the sales tax. Nero had to be talked out of abolishing all indirect taxes. The revolts in Judea and Brittania at this time were the result of tax malfeasance by Imperial officials. There were also frequent moratoriums on taxes and burning of tax rolls by the Emperor. Marcus Aurelius was obsessed with not raising taxes and even told his army that they would get no extra pay after a victory because it had to come from the blood of their parents and relatives. Eventually, though, the system broke down. Roman coinage devalued, military expenditures went up, revenues fell, and Diocletian issued his infamous price controls and instituted a caste system to control people fleeing tax generating profession. Adams follows A.H.M. Jones lead in attributing the collapse of Rome to excessive taxation. Adams’ illustrations fit nicely with Ramsey Macmullen’s Corruption and the Decline of Rome. Macmullen makes a convincing case for the corruption of the client-patron relationship being the cause of Rome’s collapse. Using evidence from this book, it seems that corruption – and the formation of mediaeval feudalism – was fostered by a desire to evade taxes and tax collectors. Ironically, Macmullen makes a silly argument (it’s only a throwaway line in his book, not a major argument.) that there’s nothing inherently wrong with heavy taxation, indeed it can spur additional productivity. (never mind that this has never shown to work in reality). His book also argues, at its end, that the Roman experience argues against privatization.

Adams’ book, by contrast, argues that too ambitious of government leads to destructive taxation. There are constant references to Vietnam which Adams views as an evil, unnecessary war. He believes communism could simply have been outcompeted and not out fought by proxy. Adams covers many other influences of taxes on civilization. Islam’s spread is shown to owe more to lower taxes for oppressed Christians and Jews rather than any appeal to theological simplicity. Hitler’s taxes on Jews were simply a reinstatement of old taxes on them, and the first step toward their extermination. (Ghettos for Jews were there for tax collection ease.) Russian feudalism (which sprang in to practice about the time Europe was evolving away from it) was given a big boost by Peter the Great’s rapacious tax collection which drove most peasants into serfdom to avoid it. He shows how the great Spanish Empire, despite vast gold from the New World, was destroyed by massive tax evasion. One of Adams’ main points is that taxation – to be just and not just legalized extortion – has to be done with the consent of the taxed. Evasion is, de facto, non-consent regardless of what the law or one’s legal representative says. Governments, says Adams, must seek to tax by consent. He uses the example of Elizabethan England. Elizabeth I was well aware that tax evasion was a long British custom and that her subjects had rebelled against many types of tax levies. She determined that she would rather be loved by her subjects rather than have more revenue. She ordered her government to content itself with the low but steady stream of taxes her subjects were willing to pay. Her plan worked. She was beloved and her subjects willingly paid more taxes when England was threatened. Indeed, Cortes’ success in the New World owes something to heavy Aztec taxes. Cortes received valuable aid and intelligence from Indians tired of paying their imperial Aztec masters. (Of course, William MacNeill would argue disease played its part.).

Adams traces the history of British and American tax law and its effects.

The English Civil War was started partly by a dispute over taxes. He also cites Enlightenment wisdom on taxes Many of its writers had just seen society involved in violent struggles about taxation. One interesting point he makes is that direct taxes on income require, by their very nature, intrusive surveillance and harsh collection methods whereas taxes on land are more readily assessed and the property can be liened rather than jail a person. Another very good point is that prevention of high, destructive taxes (which foster evasion which fosters repressive collection methods which lead to violent revolution or despotism) involves separating the power to spend from the power to tax. Switzerland is the only modern country that does this. Its assembly spends but a referendum is necessary to raise taxes. In England, the king used to spend Parliament tax, but the latter gradually assumed both powers.

The U.S. Constitution tried to do this by limiting spending on the general welfare (which did not mean local park projects or probably the welfare state) of defense which Adams gives some evidence from The Federalist Papers to show meant strictly defense, not Imperial ambitions like the Spanish-American War, though he has to reconcile this with many of the Founding Fathers giving the president a black budget for covert missions and intelligence as per O’Toole’s Honorable Treachery. However, these restrictions were corrupted by Supreme Court rulings and clever but disingenuous definitions of words like welfare and defense. Adams proposes what he considers to be the characteristics of a good tax and ways to restrain corrupt or abusive collectors. He admits that no tax is perfect and no tax or tax rate is inherently bad if the taxpayer consents. After all, some people fought wars over tax rates lower than ours. Adams tells a great many stories of tax collector thuggery throughout history and also tells of some of the punishments – legal and otherwise against them. There is a lot of good historical and practical knowledge in here. One of the truly startling parts is Adams strongly supported contention that the American Civil War was caused by taxes. On the eve of the war, the South got everything they wanted – slavery protected, autonomy, Federal troops withdrawn – except freedom from high tariffs which put money in the pocket of Northern commercial interests. Lincoln (there is evidence he was beholding to Northern manufacturers who supported his campaign) conceded all these items to the South in his inaugural address, but he reserved the right to use Federal troops to collect custom duties from the South. In fact, the tariff was raised. Adams supports his case with quotes from before, during, and after the war from abolitionists, politicians, and newspaper editorials. It is certainly food for thought in regard to the causes of the War, and Lincoln’s virtues as a leader.
  RandyStafford | May 2, 2013 |
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"The very word taxes sends shivers up spines. Yet very few realize the tremendous impact that taxation has had on civilization. Charles Adams changes that in this newly revised and enlarged edition of his fascinating history. Taxation, says Adams, has been a catalyst of history, a powerful influence on and sometimes the direct cause of many of the famous events that have marched across the world's stage as empires collided and battled for the right to tax the loser. For Good and Evil is the first book to examine how taxation has been a key factor in world events. Like the Rosetta Stone - itself a tax document - the book sheds fresh light onto much of history."--BOOK JACKET.Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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