New Worlds: Taxation

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

In the first year of this Patreon I devoted a number of essays to the topic of death. The time has come for us to turn to the other proverbial inevitability: taxes.

It’s not precisely accurate to say that taxation is a hallmark of state-level societies, but I don’t think it’s far wrong, either. The earliest known instance of it took place during the First Dynasty in Egypt, so Sumer had been coalescing into cities for a while beforehand without any taxation that we’re aware of. Then again, it’s extremely difficult to detect that kind of thing until there are written records to make note of it — and indeed, writing in Mesopotamia seems to have come into existence for the purpose of recording commercial transactions, which would include things like taxation.

The reason I call it a hallmark is because the apparatus of a state requires resources to function. While historically a lot of those resources have been used to fund the lavish lifestyle of the ruler and those around him, that’s not their only purpose. Public works like roads and irrigation need funding, too; so does warfare. And as the business of the state gets more complex, you need officials to administer it, and those officials need money to live on. Though that money doesn’t always come out of state coffers — more on that later in this essay.

For most of us in modern times, the two forms of taxation we’re most familiar with are income taxes and sales taxes (or their close cousin, value-added taxes). These, however, are only the tip of a very large and very bureaucratic iceberg. Tariffs are taxes on imports and exports; property taxes are levied on various kinds of property, but most commonly on real estate. States may also levy taxes when someone dies and their estate is inherited. A poll tax is a flat fee owed by every individual of a particular type: often all adult men in the community, or all adults regardless of gender. Its virtue is simplicity; its flaw is that what amounts to pocket change for a wealthy individual might be a serious hardship for a poor one.

Since we’ve been talking about money and societies without it, one thing to note is that taxes aren’t always paid in coin. In a state where money isn’t in widespread circulation, taxes are liable to be paid “in kind,” meaning with goods or services rather than cash. When you read history or novels that reference farmers owing a certain percentage of their harvest to the local lord, that’s payment in kind. So is corvée, a.k.a. conscripted labor, when it’s used for taxation rather than punishment. Occasionally payment in kind takes bizarre forms: in the United Kingdom there are a number of vestigial “quit rents” (a type of land tax) that call for things like a bucket of snow, three red roses, or — in one moderately famous instance — a knife, an axe, six horseshoes, and sixty-one nails.

If that isn’t enough narrative bait for you, consider also that taxes have been a cause for unrest pretty much since that First Dynasty Pharaoh came up with the idea. Here in the U.S., we all learn about the Boston Tea Party of 1773, which helped kick off the American Revolution; that was a protest against a certain set of taxes (including one on tea), and more generally on the practice of taxing colonists when they had no members sitting in Parliament (“taxation without representation”). British schoolchildren probably learn about the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, sparked in part by an attempt to collect the poll tax in a time of great tension and unrest. Fiction loves rebellions designed to overthrow unjust rulers, but much of the time, the causes and aims are smaller and more immediate: people pushed to the brink by their situation demanding, not complete revolution, but simply more equitable treatment.

Of course, not having taxes can create its own problems. I mentioned above that officials aren’t always paid a stipend out of public funds. Some of them own enough property to live off the income that generates, but there’s also a setup where being granted X job means you’re also granted whatever revenue you can squeeze from it (usually after passing along a certain amount to the central government). If this sounds like a recipe for treating the job as your own personal piggy-bank, you’re not wrong. And that, too, can lead to revolt against the injustice of the one in charge.

The role this topic plays can also be more of a long-term pressure. I don’t want to get too far into the weeds here, but one of the underlying causes of the English Civil War in the seventeenth century was the breakdown of the system by which the government was funded. For centuries the ideal had been that the Crown paid for its operations mostly out of the revenue gathered from Crown-owned properties, supplemented as needed (e.g. in times of war) by taxes voted in by Parliament for a limited span of time. Changes in the value of land and the cost of government and war made this increasingly untenable, such that monarchs were going to Parliament more and more often to ask for tax revenue — an unconscionable imposition, by the earlier standards that assumed taxes should not be a ubiquitous feature of life. Add in a host of other factors including personal animosity directed at an unlikable king, and you get war. (But even there, note that the goal wasn’t the overthrow and execution of Charles I: that just wound up being the effect.)

So taxation, while on the surface a very dry topic, isn’t necessarily about your characters filling out bureaucratic paperwork, the way it is for most of us today. It can be; the tax code in the United States is sufficiently byzantine in its complexity that many people rely on computer programs and paid professionals to help them figure it out, and it isn’t a big step from there to a Terry Gilliam-esque tale where the sheer stupid absurdity of the system is the point of the story. But burdensome taxes are a very plausible foundation for all kinds of unrest, from delegations of farmers sent to beg the local official for a reprieve, to a war that can transform a society.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Taxation — 9 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: Taxation - Swan Tower

  2. Another variation on the tax theme that’s been extremely important in some times & places is tax farming, where people (individuals or groups, generally wealthy financiers or speculators) contract with the govt to pay cash up front and return get the right to collect the full value of the tax from the people who owe it. Depending on how desperate the govt is for funds, they may lease the tax rights at a steep discount. In some cases they might also lease the tax for years in advance. Frex the provincial govt of Burgundy in the 17-18c was largely funded by tolls & excise taxes on trade (octroi) on the Saône river. As their budget needs grew and income fell behind, they leased the rights further and further ahead: 5 years out, 15 years out, even more. By the 1750s they were leasing tolls to be collected in the 1790s! There would have been a lively market in what are now called derivatives based on the future value of the asset, long after the govt had spent the advance.

    • Hah, that’s great! And yeah, a precursor to modern trends in investment and speculation. That’s one of the things I want to talk about at some point, if I can get it into coherent order.

      • Heck, it’s a common and modern thing. You can even hear ads on the radio for schemes to “buy tax liens” as an investment “system.” Speculators buy packages of tax liens from local governments that haven’t been able to collect the property taxes owed from the owners; that gives the speculators the right to collect on the lien. I probably don’t need to say that the tactics used are some of the most abusive in all of collections, nor that the promoters of the schemes often “offer” to do the collections “for” the speculators (for a small additional fee, of course).

        From the point of view of the speculators, collecting these things can be fun because they are NOT obligated to follow the rules that protect consumers for consumer debts. Technically, “tax due a city/county government” is not a “debt” under those rules. It’s disturbingly not uncommon for large thugs to bang on the door at 3 a.m.

  3. As a completely separate issue, in modern American usage a “poll tax” is one that is collected from a prospective voter to give him or her the right to have a ballot issued. In that way, what we call a “poll tax” (and there’s quite a bit of law and related documents confirming that the link to voting is what was intended in the Constitution) is really a “government participation fee” at the edge of taxation.

    One of my favorite “taxes” was the (uncollected and uncollectable, at least after 1587) frankelmoigne fee collected by abbeys in England, usually set at a spring commodity and a fall commodity. One example might be “one fine lamb at Easter, and three bushels of good corn [wheat or spelt] at Michaelmas,” written into the deeds of local properties. Including, in a delicious bit of fun, the 1980s headquarters of the UK Communist Party, which had just moved on to former abbey land in 1979. Local rumor had it that the Tory bishop presented a demand for several hundred years’ compliance shortly thereafter… although how one calculates late fees (or interest) on a spring lamb I do not know.

  4. L.E. Modesitt Jr. put realistic taxes in some of his Recluce books. It’s been years (more than a decade) since I read them, but I remember an exiled woodworker worrying about how to get enough coin set by for the annual tax round in his new hometown, or what to do about money when a commission went wrong.
    His depiction of small artisans & shopkeepers and such worrying about paying their taxes and rent and getting coin set by for their plans and needs always made those stories seem much more real, more believably grounded in a plausible economy (a fairly low-coin one, with some small bit of barter or trade thrown in, especially among the poorer classes), regardless of the fantasy elements.

    It also helps to put limits on what the protagonist can do, even if he sees trouble coming: you may see the need for more ventilators, or weapons and provisions, or dragonproof firebalm charms or whatever looming ahead, but you can only buy so many with the money you’ve got. This goes for both individual protagonists and for your (fictional) government: if your city-state is set up to minimize government taxation it also minimizes what government can pay for in emergencies, unless you’ve set up a large collective savings fund, like Norway did with its oil revenue.

    If it’s set up with lots of government income from taxation, that can mean several very different things for your fictional world.
    If the tax money is being prudently spent on stuff the taxpayers approve of (like roads and schools, police, firefighters, hospitals, the army, street cleaners/snowplows, disaster relief, etc….) minimizing dissatisfaction and unrest, it means your fictional environment needs to be clean, well-kept, and adequate for the citizens’ needs so most people are content most of the time; but which might mean not much leftover for emergencies, if government has not put effort into convincing their taxpayers that this is a sensible goal. So how do they pay for that? Take out loans, print more money, put up a ‘war bonds’ subscription, ration stuff?

    Or is some/a lot saved for emergencies? Then taxpayers will expect their government to take care of all emergencies.

    Or is it squandered or hoarded by the powerful (at least in the eyes of the taxpayers)? That leads to an environment that is not adequate for many people’s needs, like potholed roads / muddy tracks, inadequate institutional support for the needy, no good schools for poor kids, medical care only for those who can pay, but flaunting of excess wealth by the rich and powerful, and grumbling, protests and possible unrest from the poorer taxpayers. This appears to be a frequent default setting for fantasy in my experience, if they mention tge financial underpinnings of government at all. Maybe because a lot of the writers I read are from the USA, or maybe because it’s easier to set up individual heroes to rescue the situation when the government is disfunctional, and the sort of no-safety-net precarious existence any poorer people lead in that kind of society makes for more exiting reading?

    • maybe because it’s easier to set up individual heroes to rescue the situation when the government is disfunctional, and the sort of no-safety-net precarious existence any poorer people lead in that kind of society makes for more exiting reading?

      I think that’s a large part of it, yes. The kinds of places we like to read about are not the kinds of places we like to live; Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar is, by and large, a very nice utopian magic fantasy kingdom (though I know she complicated that image in later books), but it means that most of the conflict is driven either by bad eggs who are the exception to the rule, or by outside forces. Same thing for the Star Trek universe, up until quite recently. And I never find either of those places as interesting as the ones that are more internally broken.