Taxing the Ancients, Aliens and Fantasy Worlds


Taxes are an invention of the devil, designed to oppress, enrage and impoverish.

No, I’m not quoting an anarchist or even a libertarian on steroids, (but I am feeling more sympathy with those points of view these day).

This is me as I struggle with what has to be the most cumbersome system of taxation the world has ever known—and that includes the Byzantines.

Yes, I’m attempting to get my tax forms completed in time to pay even more money to the Internal Revenue Service. Once that’s done, I’m sure the state of Wisconsin will want its share. (God bless our governor for trying to lower the tax rates!)

Rather than ruin my day with a pointless rant, I started thinking about how the ancient world handled the matter of taxes. The Romans needed to fund their roads, aqueducts and wars somehow.

In Mesopotamia, for example, since there was no form of money, people paid taxes with what they had, like cattle or sheep. Merchants were subject to tolls or duty fees, so of course the profession of smuggling developed as a result. Giving time was another form of taxation. Males were expected to donate so much labor each year, whether in the king’s fields (the fortunate) or the king’s army (the not-so-fortunate.)

The Greeks had a war tax, since apparently they went to war a lot. No one was exempt from the tax, but at the end of the war, if any money was left over, it was returned to the people. Now there’s an idea.

The Romans also taxed trade in the same way. The also had a tax on property and wealth, requiring payments of 1%. That’s right, 1%. In times of war it rose to 3%. They also had a 5% inheritance tax, but it wasn’t levied against spouses or children.

However, there were inequities in the system. Most people paid a 1% sales tax (they had this one even then), but slaves paid 4%. The wealth taxes hurt those who were the drivers of the economy, which was one of reasons for the fall of Rome. It’s a warning for us all.

Over time, all kinds of things have been taxed. Salt, windows, candles, bricks and hats are just a few. They say that the best way to discourage a behavior is to tax it, which is why we have cigarette taxes. The city of Pittsburgh, where I grew up, has an amusement tax. When I was a kid, we had to buy two tickets for every ride at the amusement park. One to get on the ride, and one to pay the tax for riding. This tax is still in effect. Are they trying to discourage fun?

Then I started wondering how aliens handle such a mundane matter. Surely any society with some form of centralized government would need to fund itself. But it would all depend on the goals of the society. If they wanted equal outcomes for all, they’d tax the producers more heavily, to give to those with less. If they were ruled by those who wanted to accumulate their own wealth, they’d take as much from everyone that they could.

Which brings me to Tlefas, where my fantasy novels take place. The king claims to work for equality for all, as that’s the way to prevent civil unrest. So everyone’s income is taxed to pay for the guards who keep the people safe.

Traders are subject to taxes in the form of tolls paid to use the roads, to bring goods into a town, and fees to the King’s Guard, to protect against bandits on the road. Vendors pay market taxes, a percentage of all they sold.

The pirates and bandits, of course, don’t bother with such details, which is why they find their professions so attractive.

So back to my 1040 form. It makes me wonder who the real pirates are.

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