David Bouchier: A Taxing Question

Apr 16, 2018

Not everybody enjoys paying taxes. Some citizens regard them as a kind of legalized robbery. They agree with Tom Paine who said, when income tax was introduced in 1792, “What at first was plunder has assumed the softer name of revenue.” Just as medieval kings brutally robbed their citizens to finance their wars and comfortable lifestyles, so the democratic monarchs of the present age have found less violent means to the same ends. The extreme anti-tax position embraces a kind of anarchy in which central government ceases to exist, and only the fittest survive. This, for some reason, is very popular with those who believe that they are the fittest.

Then there is the less radical view that we pay the government via taxes to look after us with social services and to protect us from wicked people like jihadists, communists, atheists, and above all ourselves. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said: “I like paying taxes; with them I buy civilization.” The extreme form of this pro-tax position is that government should just take everything we have, take care of everything we need, and give us back a few Amazon gift cards to keep us quiet.

It is amazing how few tax rebellions have happened in history. There was some slight disagreement between the American colonists and the British King in the 1770s, and Henry David Thoreau famously took to the woods in 1846 to avoid paying taxes, but was thrown in jail anyway. Nowadays, even this seems a bit radical.

One thousand, nine hundred and fifty-seven years ago a more effective tax revolt was mounted by an English queen called Boadicea, or Boudicca. She was a woman of strong character, rather like Margaret Thatcher or Joan of Arc. She's often depicted in a chariot with long scythes projecting from each wheel – an arrangement that intimidated the enemy, but which must have made parking difficult.

Boadicea is remembered for a single historic act. In the year 60 A.D. she led a fierce anti-tax revolt against the occupying Romans. The Romans, like the Egyptians and the Greeks before them and every great power after them, built their empire on a ruthless and efficient system of tax collection, backed up by overwhelming force. With an army estimated at 230,000, Boadicea was said to have killed every Roman within a hundred miles, and seized the capital city of Londinium. This slaughter gave the Roman IRS something to think about, although they quickly reasserted their superiority, and probably added some penalties to her tax bill.

The reason we pay up, instead of looking for a modern Queen Boadicea to lead us into battle, is because one singular virtue of the American tax system – the refund. I don’t know who thought of this, but it was a stroke of genius. We are actually thankful to get back a small part of our own money, as if it was some kind of gift.

If the Romans had thought of this cunning trick in 60 A.D., things would have turned out very differently. Queen Boadicea and her followers would have collected their refunds, and spent them happily in the malls and boutiques of first-century England. A great deal of bloodshed would have been avoided.

Copyright: David Bouchier