All Transactions To Be Conducted in the Presence of a Tax Collector

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by Simon Black: ‘Money
Is No Object. I Just Can't Find the Right Person’

 

 
 

In the terminal
collapse of the Roman Empire, there was perhaps no greater burden
to the average citizen than the extreme taxes they were forced to
pay.

The tax ‘reforms’
of Emperor Diocletian in the 3rd century were so rigid and unwavering
that many people were driven to starvation and bankruptcy. The state
went so far as to chase around widows and children to collect taxes
owed.

By the 4th
century, the Roman economy and tax structure were so dismal that
many farmers abandoned their lands in order to receive public entitlements.

At this point,
the imperial government was spending the majority of the funds it
collected on either the military or public entitlements. For a time,
according to historian Joseph Tainter, “those who lived off
the treasury were more numerous than those paying into it.”

Sound familiar?

In the 5th
century, tax riots and all-out rebellion were commonplace in the
countryside among the few farmers who remained. The Roman government
routinely had to dispatch its legions to stamp out peasant tax revolts.

But this did
not stop their taxes from rising.

Valentinian
III, who remarked in 444 AD that new taxes on landowners and merchants
would be catastrophic, still imposed an additional 4% sales tax…
and further decreed that all transactions be conducted in the presence
of a tax collector.

Under such
a debilitating regime, both rich and poor wished dearly that the
barbarian hordes would deliver them from the burden of Roman taxation.

Zosimus, a
late 5th century writer, quipped that “as a result of this
exaction of taxes, city and countryside were full of laments and
complaints, and all… sought the help of the barbarians.”

Many Roman
peasants even fought alongside their invaders, as was the case when
Balkan miners defected to the Visigoths en masse in 378. Others
simply vacated the Empire altogether.

In his book
Decadent Societies, historian Robert Adams wrote, “[B]y the
fifth century, men were ready to abandon civilization itself in
order to escape the fearful load of taxes.”

Perhaps 1,000
years hence, future historians will be writing the same thing about
us. It’s not so far-fetched.

In the economic
decline of any civilization, political elites routinely call on
a very limited playbook: more debt, more regulation, more restriction
on freedoms, more debasement of the currency, more taxation, and
more insidious enforcement.

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