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

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    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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