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Weird taxes pressure public policy

Eleanor Konik
Written by Eleanor Konik

I write stories & articles inspired by all eras of history & science... so I wind up putting notetaking software like Obsidian & Readwise thru their paces.

3 min read.
barnacles on stone
The following story stands alone and can be read without any knowledge of my prior works, but does involve story elements that appeared previously in Sea Prince. 

The coronation ceremony of an agonarch was a grueling funeral and bittersweet coming of age, but at least Varpen had inherited one advisor he could trust: his ship, living wood imbued with the immortalized soul of his grandfather.

Family legend claimed the ship came courtesy of Grandfather's torrid affair with a Voldshee shaman, and that she'd given up her own chance at immortality for love of the seafaring prince. Varpen cared only that his grandfather's wisdom, and motives, could be trusted.

"We're an island, my father never should have allowed so many mages to cross the sea to Tal," he said the moment the last of the coronation celebrants finally stumbled back onto dry land. "I don't care how good their Collegium is."

"If you try to ban them from leaving, they'll flee, just for fear of losing the chance." Grandfather's words emanated from the drums nestled beneath the bow.

Varpen showed his teeth as he smiled. "I don't plan to ban anything, at least for now. But a tax for every island-born crewman with an aura and double for every outbound passenger ought to stem the tide long enough to let us develop a shaman school of our own, don't you think?"

"I think taxmen breed smugglers like barnacles," the old ship rumbled.

Varpen smirked. "When have I ever flinched from scraping barnacles?"


It's my strongly-held belief that taxes are a lot more interesting than people give them credit for; that's one of the reasons I wrote about them back in October. They seem pretty boring because we tend to focus on the normal ones like income taxes and trade tariffs... and because school conditioned most of us to find word problems tiresome.

Back when I was in law school, I took a tax law class. Somehow, that was the first time I was ever exposed to the idea that taxes served a policy purpose beyond “getting money for the government to use.” Many taxes codes are designed to incentivize (or punish) particular behaviors; the latter are generally known as "sin taxes." For example, adult nightclubs, strip clubs, gambling, alcohol, gasoline and candies are lucrative for modern governments; they attract buyers and generate revenue, but generally people don't fuss too much about the government trying to make them more expensive and thus, harder to acquire.

Sometimes this backfires. In 1696, the English had to pay taxes based on the number of windows in their homes. It was probably meant as a sort of wealth tax, but people just bricked up their windows in their house. Ironically, bricks were also taxed, but eventually the window tax took such a toll on public health that it was repealed after about 150 years. After years of builders increasing brick size to avoid the brick tax, it was eliminated in 1850.

This reminded me of the Roman sumptuary laws, which I also wrote about in October — they were eliminated after Roman women took to the streets in protest. Sure enough, at least one world leader used taxes to enforce appearance ideals: Peter the Great of Russia. He  liked the idea of Russia having clean-shaven men like Western Europe. At first, he tried outright banning beards, but that went over pretty poorly; he had to settle for a beard tax, which persisted for nearly 50 years past his death. Beards are still pretty controversial in Russia, from what I understand, at least in part because of this cultural tension.

Speaking of tension, taxes were sometimes used as a way for feudal kings to balance two conflicting needs: money and might. King Henry I, for example, gave his vassals a choice between fighting or paying scutage (does it really matter if we call it a tax or a fine?) to avoid going off to war. This was particularly important for ecclesiastical tenants (i.e. churches), who had trouble raising a full quota of knights for the army. Scutage was generally pretty affordable, so many knights chose to pay instead of fight... until King John (of Robin Hood fame) levied them so often his vassals threatened civil war.

Most Americans grew up hearing about the importance of "no taxation without representation," but tax rates are responsible for more than just the Declaration of Independence; I doubt the Magna Carta would have existed if it weren't for scutages.

How about you?

Note: There are a couple of affiliate links & codes scattered around, but these always come from links I was already recommending and usually I share them because they benefit you too (i.e. getting you extra time on trials).

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