Through the ages, a taxing tradition


IT MAY SURPRISE you to learn that the poet who called April "the cruelest month" did not have tax season in mind. Rather, he was referring to how the month cruelly leads fans of the Chicago Cubs to be falsely optimistic at the beginning of each baseball season.

But most of us think April is cruel because it's when our taxes are due. And assuming you haven't messed up and sent your taxes in with your census forms, my guess is some of you have yet to tackle your 1040s.

Come on, you slothful people. How will Uncle Sam ever get the big surpluses Bill Clinton and others are promising if you don't send in your fortunes?

It turns out that I've been thinking about taxes lately and have been reading a bit about how we came to be in this annual pickle. You don't need to thank me for doing this. It's part of my job, though I did notice that several times while working on this task I either had to lie down or engage in some primal scream therapy.

I recommend both.

The first thing you should know is that taxes have bedeviled people for a very long time.

Perhaps you recall that taxes were even part of the first Christmas. As the gospel of Luke tells that story, Caesar Augustus, CFO of the Roman Empire, issued a degree "that all the world should be taxed." In response, God became incarnate as a human being to see what all this was about. Well, maybe that's not exactly the way Luke tells it, but I've heard worse theology.

Historically, import duties were among the earliest taxes because, well, politicians are naturally more comfortable taxing people who can't vote them out of office.

It's still that way today, despite widespread calls for free trade. Trade, by the by, is never free. And free agents aren't, either. Anyway, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which knows all about all and is not afraid to put it all in print, says taxes played a "relatively minor role in the ancient world." I don't know exactly when the ancient world was in business, but I'm betting it was before faxes, e-mail and Ben Franklin, who is the source of the famous phrase, "In this world, nothing is certain but death and taxes."

(Just so you know: Franklin's own death occurred in 1790, coincidentally the last year the Cubs won a pennant.)

Anyway, when Julius Caesar came to power in Rome (several years before Benito Mussolini), a 1 percent general sales tax was introduced.

Well, it was 1 percent in Rome, but 1.225 percent in East Rome, 1.356764 percent in West Rome, 1.456450221 percent in South Rome and 1.725098618947124 percent in North Rome.

The sales tax in other Roman suburbs and surrounding counties varied according to the influence of the Greater Rome Merchants Association.

Many of the suburbs, which stretched all the way to Jerusalem and beyond, relied on head taxes and property taxes and so forth. Tax collectors were mostly loathed, but in the end people paid because if they didn't they knew the emperor would send around enforcers who would crack heads.

Over the years there have been many revolting taxes and many tax revolts. No doubt you've heard the anti-tax phrase made famous by people in the American colonies in the 1700s: "No taxation without beer." Or whatever.

The point is that you have to pay your taxes. If you don't, you're history. And nobody reads history any more. Well, except me.

Bill Tammeus is an editorial-page columnist for

cf01 the Kansas City Star.

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