Taxes Through Time

Taxes Through Time

It's April, and that means crunch time for tax procrastinators.

In decades past, waiting until April to file one's taxes either meant days of feverishly filling out paperwork, or trying to find a tax preparer who could somehow squeeze in one more customer. Today, anyone can file his or her federal taxes online as the IRS has offered an e-filing service for several years now. Almost every state with a state income tax has made online tax filing available, too.

Many columns and editorials published this time of year are filled with how-to advice, tips, secrets and other tax-related information -- but not this column.

Call it the courage to be different. Call it the fact that I know next to nothing about preparing taxes. Either way, instead of writing about the latest tax software, I thought we'd take a journey through the pages of history for an in-depth look at the evolution of taxes and the various systems man has created for collecting them.

Nearly 8,000 years ago, the Sumerians of Mesopotamia, arguably the most advanced civilization on Earth at the time, thought up two of the greatest inventions of all time -- the wheel and beer. Note the absence of taxes on this list of breakthroughs. The Sumerians, in their great wisdom, chose not to burden their people with a system of taxation. As such, Sumerian society flourished (unless, of course, you were a slave or non-Sumerian).

It was not until the rise of the Egyptian dynasties, in the third millennium B.C., that humanity was cruelly saddled with taxes.

Egyptian citizens paid their taxes with goods and labor -- the labor was in the form of obligatory service, such as completing public works projects or serving in the army. In fact, Egyptians were among the most taxed people in history, and many scholars blame overtaxation for the mysterious collapse of ancient Egypt.

China was another great ancient civilization that relied on taxes in the form of labor. The Great Wall was built by citizens who could not afford to give the government 20 percent of their crops. And what became of those great Chinese dynasties and their magnificent wall? Well, the dynasties vanished and the wall is a tourist trap.

Ancient Rome was also felled by aggressive taxation. Various Caesars funded their far-flung wars by imposing crippling taxes on Roman citizens -- eventually levying some of the first recorded examples of property taxes, the most hated tax of all. The ruling elite eventually came to subsist entirely on the taxes paid by the working class, finally leading to Rome's demise.

Then, European civilization was gripped by a millennium and a half of breathtaking stupidity, where taxation remained a constant. Not until the great revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries did mankind free itself from the tyranny of oppressive and complicated taxation systems, leading to the simple and efficient system we enjoy today.

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Chad Vander Veen is a former contributing editor for Emergency Management magazine, and previously served as the editor of FutureStructure, and the associate editor of Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.
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