The Good, The Bad, and the Weird: Tax Edition

There is a saying about the ubiquity of taxes which is itself so ubiquitous it isn’t even worth wasting my word count on. Instead, I’ll pose this question to you all: do you like tax? If your answer is yes, then you are either: a) my mother or b) fictional. Yet we know taxes are an incredibly important part of our lives; they allow governments to raise revenue, correct market failures, create incentives, and even lose elections. But the last thing we consider when thinking about taxes, is just how fun and downright absurd they can be. So, without further ado, I present to you three of history’s most ridiculous revenue-raisers; one good, one bad, and one just a bit weird.

The Good: Urine Tax- Ancient Rome

The Romans loved urine. It was a multi-faceted tool, with the ammonia being used for cleaning clothes, tanning leather, and even brushing teeth (though I personally prefer mint toothpaste) The process of doing a number one in Rome was a bit different to how we’d imagine it today. Lower- class people would relieve themselves into clay pots, which they would leave outside their homes to be collected and thrown into a communal cesspit, while many upper-class citizens had their urine collected privately. From there, the urine would sit in a cesspool until it went stale and turned into valuable ammonia. The urine tax was initially levied by the Emperor Nero, however it was repealed soon before his overthrow and disappeared until the ascension of Emperor Vespasian following the catastrophic Year of the Four Emperors. With the country broke, the ruthless Vespasian went on a taxing spree, and upon the creation of the first public toilets in 74 AD, he smelled a very smelly opportunity. With everyone suddenly going to public toilets to do their business, a much better system than the previous clay pot one, Vespasian decided to make going to a public toilet a taxable action. The Roman people now had to pay a tax for the disposal of their waste in a cesspool, something which greatly incensed them, particularly Vespasian’s son Titus who was told by his father, Pecunia non olet: ‘Money doesn’t stink’. Yet this tax was a rousing success, as Vespasian’s fiscal discipline replenished the Roman treasury, leading to a period of architectural and cultural expansion, most famously resulting in the construction of the Colosseum. However, this doesn’t stop it from being one of history’s most bizarre and frankly, hilarious taxes. Just remember next time you go to Rome and see the Colosseum, that it was funded (partially) by urine.

The Bad: Window Tax– England

If you’ve ever been to England, you’d have noticed rows of old houses with bricked-up windows, if any windows at all. There’s a reason for this beyond the pasty, sun-hating nature of the British. It’s because through much of the 18th and 19th century, they had a tax on the things. In 1696, William III implemented this controversial tax as a way of taxing people progressively based on income. The British considered an actual personal income tax far too intrusive, as it was no business of the government’s to interfere in people’s incomes, so this was the next best option. In theory, the more windows you had, the richer you were and the more you got taxed. Simple, right? This didn’t quite work, as poor people couldn’t afford the tax at all, so it was eventually changed to exclude cottages and houses with less than ten windows. However, many of them  lived in large tenements with many windows, meaning that the tax was levied on them anyway. That was when people came up with the ingenious idea of simply bricking their windows up or building houses without them. This was not at all what the government wanted, as they began to need the window tax as a way of raising funds for endless wars against the French. As far as creating undesired incentives go, this was certainly up there, and in 1851, the tax was finally repealed after doctors became very concerned about the health risks of people not getting enough fresh air or light due to houses having minimal windows. This tax was  a failure on all fronts (although it was a win for the Lucas critique), as it altered taxpayer behaviour such that it failed to raise the desired revenues, and created incentives that actually made the population worse off.

The Weird: Beard Tax- Russia

Russia is a weird place at the best of times. Tsarist Russia, is a whole different beast. In the early days of Russia’s identity crisis about how culturally European it wanted to be, Tsar Peter I ( commonly known as Peter the Great) went on a tour of Western Europe in disguise as part of  the ‘Grand Embassy’, a mission to learn about what made the European powers of the time so successful. Upon returning to the Motherland, Peter decided Russia was in dire need of modernization, and one thing he’d noticed in his time away was how cleanand ‘modern’ these Western Europeans looked. So, he decided to ban the very uncivilised beard, and proceeded to shave himself and many of his highest ranking generals’ facial hair right off. However, this was incredibly controversial, particularly within the Church, which considered it blasphemous. Peter’s next move was to implement a tax instead, in 1698, and a system of tokens which beard-wearing men would carry if they had paid it. Surprisingly, this tax was quite progressive, with the nobility paying far higher sums than commoners. However, Peter’s modernizing tax raised very little revenue due to the complicated system of proving whether the tax had in fact been paid, and the fact that the incentive worked much better than Peter imagined, as many Russian men readily shaving their beards off. It was eventually canned by Russia’s other “Great” ruler, Catherine the Great, in 1778. Despite its controversy, it was actually copied by other nations, like the British, and did little to damage Peter’s sterling reputation as a revolutionary modernizer and national hero amongst the Russian people.

In the end, wherever you stand on the role of the government, it’s hard to deny taxes are an important and necessary part of the economy, and the world. Hopefully these three unusual taxes through history can teach you something about what makes a good tax, and what breaks a bad one.