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.