In the Beginning, There Were Taxes

Michael Keen and Joel Slemrod:

In Scoop, Evelyn Waugh drew on his experiences in 1930s Abyssinia to imagine tax collection in fictional Ishmaelia:

It had been found expedient to merge the functions of national defense and inland revenue in an office then held in the capable hands of General Gollancz Jackson; his forces were in two main companies, the Ishmaelite Mule Tax-gathering Force and the Rifle Excisemen with a small Artillery Death Duties Corps for use against the heirs of powerful noblemen…Towards the end of each financial year the general’s flying columns would lumber out into the surrounding country on the heels of the fugitive population and return in time for budget day laden with the spoils of the less nimble; coffee and hides, silver coinage, slaves, livestock, and firearms.

It was from simple plundering of much this kind that today’s often mind-numbingly complicated tax systems evolved. Taxation may be one of the few things in our lives that our ancestors would recognize from theirs.

Something recognizable as taxation doubtless began as simple plunder in the mold of General Jackson, long before Ptolemaic Egypt or even ancient Sumer. Elements of plunder continued over the centuries. In the Roman Empire, victories were sometimes spectacular enough to allow remission of all other taxes for that year. In England, a primary function of the Domesday Book of 1087 was to provide the newly installed Norman conquerors with a record of exactly how much they had acquired. Plunder continued through the conquest of resource-rich South America, though the plunderers themselves were occasionally plundered: Francis Drake’s capture of the Spanish treasure ships (and other piracy against the Spanish in 1577–80) brought Queen Elizabeth I the equivalent of about one year of her ordinary income.