Although views on what is appropriate in tax policy influence the choice and structure of tax codes, patterns of taxation throughout history can be explained largely by administrative considerations. For example, because imported products are easier to tax than domestic output, import duties were among the earliest taxes. Similarly, the simple turnover tax (levied on gross sales) long held sway before the invention of the economically superior but administratively more demanding VAT (which allows credit for tax paid on purchases). It is easier to identify, and thus tax, real property than other assets; and a head (poll) tax is even easier to implement. It is not surprising, therefore, that the first direct levies were head and land taxes.
Although taxation has a long history, it played a relatively minor role in the ancient world. Taxes on consumption were levied in Greece and Rome. Tariffs—taxes on imported goods—were often of considerably more importance than internal excises so far as the production of revenue went. As a means of raising additional funds in time of war, taxes on property would be temporarily imposed. For a long time these taxes were confined to real property, but later they were extended to other assets. Real estate transactions also were taxed. In Greece free citizens had different tax obligations from slaves, and the tax laws of the Roman Empire distinguished between nationals and residents of conquered territories.
Early Roman forms of taxation included consumption taxes, customs duties, and certain “direct” taxes. The principal of these was the tributum, paid by citizens and usually levied as a head tax; later, when additional revenue was required, the base of this tax was extended to real estate holdings. In the time of Julius Caesar, a 1 percent general sales tax was introduced (centesima rerum venalium). The provinces relied for their revenues on head taxes and land taxes; the latter consisted initially of fixed liabilities regardless of the return from the land, as in Persia and Egypt, but later the land tax was modified to achieve a certain correspondence with the fertility of the land, or, alternatively, a 10th of the produce was collected as a tax in kind (the tithe). It is noteworthy that at a relatively early time Rome had an inheritance tax of 5 percent, later 10 percent; however, close relatives of the deceased were exempted. For a long time tax collection was left to middlemen, or “tax farmers,” who contracted to collect the taxes for a share of the proceeds; under Caesar collection was delegated to civil servants.
In the Middle Ages many of these ancient taxes, especially the direct levies, gave way to a variety of obligatory services and a system of “aids” (most of which amounted to gifts). The main indirect taxes were transit duties (a charge on goods that pass through a particular country) and market fees. In the cities the concept developed of a tax obligation encompassing all residents: the burden of taxes on certain foods and beverages was intended to be borne partly by consumers and partly by producers and tradesmen. During the later Middle Ages some German and Italian cities introduced several direct taxes: head taxes for the poor and net-worth taxes or, occasionally, crude income taxes for the rich. (The income tax was administered through self-assessment and an oath taken before a civic commission.) Taxes on land and on houses gradually increased.
Taxes have been a major subject of political controversy throughout history, even before they constituted a sizable share of the national income. A famous instance is the rebellion of the American colonies against Great Britain, when the colonists refused to pay taxes imposed by a Parliament in which they had no voice—hence the slogan, “No taxation without representation.” Another instance is the French Revolution of 1789, in which the inequitable distribution of the tax burden was a major factor.
Wars have influenced taxes much more than taxes have influenced revolutions. Many taxes, notably the income tax (first introduced in Great Britain in 1799) and the turnover or purchase tax (Germany, 1918; Great Britain, 1940), began as “temporary” war measures. Similarly, the withholding method of income tax collection began as a wartime innovation in France, the United States, and Britain. World War II converted the income taxes of many countries from upper-class taxes to mass taxes.
It is hardly necessary to mention the role that tax policies play in peacetime politics, where the influence of powerful, well-organized pressure groups is great. Arguments for tax reform, particularly in the area of income taxes, are perennially at issue in the domestic politics of many countries.