This article was published in the Spring 1995 issue of Formulations
by the Free Nation Foundation
For Good and Evil:
The Impact of Taxes on the Course of Civilization
by Charles Adams
Madison Books UPA, 1994
reviewed by Robert Mihaly

   (to table of contents of FNF archives)

Surely the spirit of libertarianism has existed since the moment of the first violent act between cavemen. I suspect it was the desire for defense from such threats that eventually created the state. However, since that time the primary threat to individual rights has been the very state charged with protecting them.

For Good and Evil: The Impact of Taxes on the Course of Civilization chronicles the avarice and arrogance that have led governments to deprive their citizens of life, liberty and property since the very beginnings of recorded history.

Perhaps out of fear that history might repeat itself, clay cones crafted 4,000 years before Christ warn future generations: "you can have a lord, you can have a king, but the man to fear is the tax collector."

Charles Adams' compendium is replete with evidence that confiscatory tax policies of ambitious governments destroy great nations. The empires of yesteryear collapsed after they became top-heavy with burdensome taxes. From the Assyrians to the Aztecs and the Prussians to the Russians, the story is always the same.

Even if you have never been a history buff, you cannot help feeling amused and sometimes inspired by our ancestors' relationships with their governments. Does it seem ridiculous that North Carolina operates ABC stores? Ancient Egyptians were also forced to purchase heavily-taxed alcohol from a state monopoly. How about phony religious impersonators who claim tax exemptions? They are merely honoring a medieval tradition. English merchants traveling across northern Europe often disguised themselves as clerics or pilgrims on religious excursions to avoid paying bridge and road tolls.

The interactions between tax collectors and the religious over the millennia is actually quite fascinating. In 200 B.C. Egyptian documents were kept on papyrus scrolls. But not the Rosetta Stone as a document of tax exemption it was considered a bit too important to be trusted to papyrus. You wouldn't mind if we got that in stone, guys, would ya? Maybe three languages while we're at it?

As the armies of Muhammad's followers swept across what remained of the Roman Empire, their battle cry was not exactly, "Convert or die! Death to the infidel!" By the time the Moslem armies arrived the Roman Republic had long since become the(Christian) Byzantine Roman Empire. The Moslems actually offered vanquished people three options: Jews and Christians could convert and pay no taxes (Because of illiteracy most could not read the Bible or Koran anyway. Let me get this straight, guys, I get myself a Koran and pay no taxes to anyone?), they could keep their faith and pay a tax lower than they'd paid the Romans, or they could die. The Islamic invaders may have employed the greatest proselytizing tool in history. Only when they stopped offering tax breaks for conversion did the spread of Islam stall. Coincidence?

The epic struggle of mankind has been that of individuals yearning to breathe free, individuals fighting to exercise their free will and to throw off the yoke of greedy warlords and arrogant political leaders.

The Swiss people still pay homage to the legendary William Tell for more than his crossbow skills. Adams tells the true tale of Tell refusing to acknowledge the Austrian Habsburg family and their cadre of tax collectors. As the 13th century drew to a close, Tell ignited a successful revolt against the imperialistic Austrians.

To this day, the Swiss retain the same concept of liberty as their forefathers. Indeed, the idea that liberty is centered in one's pocketbook dominated the thinking of our own forefathers, the ancient Greeks, and the early Romans. If you don't want to hear it from Rush Limbaugh, pick up a copy of the early 10th-century encyclopedia called the Suidas. It's a simple fact that governments allowed too much power will necessarily become tyrannical.

The war between governments and individuals determined to engage in mutually-beneficial, voluntary relationships has had many ups and downs. Some checks on government power have been secured relatively smoothly with tax-limitation charters like the Edict of Paris in 614 A.D., the Magna Carta, and Proposition 13. Other checks on government power have required more proactive measures like 17th-century peasants slowly rending tax collectors limb from limb.

Folks seeking to control their own destinies have not always done so well. In the fifth century B.C., the Island of Melos tried to withhold tribute from the Athenian League. By then, unfortunately, the Greeks had grown a greedy and tyrannical central government. All the men of the island were slaughtered and the women and children sold into slavery. The saddest thing is that the Greeks defeated the Persians at Marathon for the ideals of democracy, private property, and liberty. I could almost imagine such acts of inhumanity from a nation that had never known freedom, but not the Greeks. As a liberty-loving stone sculptor I love the Greeks, but dang it, they knew better!

Adams' survey of history has inspired me to offer two candidates for the Heroes of Liberty Hall of Fame: the Jewish people and the soldiers of the Confederacy.

The plunder of Jewish people by governments is nearly a historical constant. How they have managed to tough it out from the very beginning is truly inspiring. In 1700 B.C. the Egyptian Pharaoh decided they were a prosperous political minority that he could rob and then enslave. Moses led these children of Israel out of bondage to Palestine, but there they rebelled against the unbridled taxation of Assyrian despots one too many times. The indomitable Lost Tribes of Israel (who were not slaughtered) have been singled out by governments ever since. The Romans demanded a special tax from them called the "fiscus judaicus." All of Medieval Europe followed suit, and ditto for 19th- and 20th-century Germany. Historically, Jews have been the archetype of the overtaxed political minority.

And the poor Confederates I was enthralled by Adams' account of the War of Northern Aggression. My public school teachers in Ohio never taught me that in Lincoln's 1860 presidential campaign he repeated time and time again that he would never interfere with slavery in the South. I also wasn't taught that in his inaugural address, Lincoln essentially told the South they could secede as long as they continued paying taxes to the North.

It seems Congress was even agreeable to constitutional amendments permanently protecting the institution of slavery, and of course the Supreme Court had given its blessing three years earlier in the Dred Scott case. The institution of slavery was possibly safer in 1860 than at any other time in our history.

The ultimatum from the beginning was "taxes or war." The Emancipation was just a lucky realpolitik break for the slaves. Ironically, even though the slaves found themselves taking an enormous relative step in the direction of freedom, half of America was purposely denied the fundamental human and social right of self-determination.

The FNF Library (available to FNF members) has a copy of this book, so even if your local bookstore is out, you have no excuse! Read it, get inspired, and remember if at first you don't secede .... D


Robert Mihaly, a stone sculptor, lives in Durham, NC.

  (to table of contents of FNF archives)   (to top of page)