I wrote a story last month about how taxes stem the tides of behavior (it's about weird taxes created for reasons of public policy), but lately I've been having a lot of discussions about the role bureaucrats play in bureaucracy. After reading many editions of Matt Levine's endless sympathy for the poor folks at the SEC who have to deal with Elon Musk, I wanted to worry less about policymakers who create taxes and learn more about the people who collect them.
- There's literally an entire genre of Renaissance Flemish paintings that riff off of the caricature from Quinten Massy’s Tax Collectors (click thru for a deep dive on the art history of it all, it's interesting and the paintings are pretty funny).
- The gabelle, a tax on salt in medieval and early modern France, was really unpopular. To cut down on smuggling, the government had to resort to selling it in small quantities in designated stores.
- In 1712 Britain introduced a tax on soap, which tripled the price of it and made it a luxury commodity. People started smuggling it — so tax collectors ordered soap-makers to lock their boiling pans at night to ensure they were not making illegal product.
- Over 250 British customs officers were attacked between 1723 and 1730 after Britain introduced new taxes on consumer goods like tobacco and tea.
- Major Simon Affleck (notoriously known as ‘Simon the Hound’) was a Swedish tax collector of Scottish ancestry who killed himself in 1725 as a mob of Finns attacked his mansion.
Before Jesus ushered him down from a tree and convinced him to give away a huge proportion of his wealth, Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector in Jericho (Roman Judaea). Since the Romans did not pay tax collectors a wage, he earned money based on how much taxes he collected. Roman tax collectors were thereby incentivized to overtax, which made them pretty unpopular. Zacchaeus means ‘pure’ or ‘innocent’ in Greek. His original name was most likely something different and was changed to Zacchaeus later by the authors of the Gospels.
Taxes and the Fall of Rome
When asked why the (western) Roman Empire collapsed, most people will typically point to the waves of Germanic and Asiatic tribes which invaded large parts of it between the third and fifth centuries. But other factors also contributed to its collapse, notably excessive taxation. In the third century the government began trying to raise ever greater amounts of taxes to pay for the massive Roman army. Eventually this taxation became so onerous that people began mass-producing counterfeit coins in the third century. In turn this led to extreme inflation, which also contributed to the collapse of Roman rule.
St Mary’s, Annapolis and Baltimore
In the seventeenth century St Mary’s City (where I went to college) was founded as the capital of the colony of Maryland. Soon, though, a volatile market in tobacco and new taxes kicked off widespread smuggling. I was always told that taxation and smuggling played a role in how Annapolis and Baltimore overtook St Mary's in prominence, but more recent research indicates it was probably because in the early 1690s, the new governor decided he wanted to end toleration for Roman Catholics in Maryland, which meant moving the capital.
Antoine Lavoisier and the Ferme Générale
A notorious early modern tax collector was Antoine Lavoisier, who was also a French chemist and politician. Born in a minor noble family, Lavoisier invested his fortune into the Ferme Générale, a tax-farming company in eighteenth-century France. He became a senior administrator within it during the 1780s and so when the French revolutionary government arrested all former tax farmers in 1793, he was quickly found guilty of corrupt activity and guillotined in 1794.
Samuel Adams and American Taxation
Samuel Adams is famed as one of the leaders of the American Revolutionary War. He led opposition within the city of Boston to onerous new British taxes such as the Stamp Act and the Tea Act. Ironically, he used to be a tax collector himself — in late 1740s Boston. Following independence, he strongly supported the violent suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion — a revolt by western Pennsylvania settlers unhappy at being taxed on whiskey production.
📗 If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy this earlier edition about weird taxes and community kitties.
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📃 Do you have a favorite story about historical bureaucrats? Please reach out — I'd love to hear about it, either via email or in a comment where other readers can see.