By Sam Packer, media campaign manager
Perhaps it is not surprising that it has taken a comedian to make tax remotely funny. Libertarian comedian Dominic Frisby has written a hugely readable, well-researched text about the history, reality and future of tax which can draw the occasional chuckle. It is also an informative tome which raises important questions about how and why governments are funded.
The book is essentially divided into four parts; a short prologue on Hong Kong’s economic miracle, the history of taxation, current tax policies and challenges to them and a concluding utopian vision of how taxation should be reformed. Frisby approaches taxation from a position of welcome scepticism, he is a strong opponent of bloated government and makes that clear throughout. However, this view never overpowers the stories told and there is a sense of jovial ridicule in almost every chapter, keeping the fairly intense subject matter relatively light-hearted.
The most entertaining aspect of the book is the steady march through the history of the world. Frisby uses wonderful examples of historical events shaped by tax policy to argue, frequently very convincingly, that the history of the world is at its core a history of taxes. He briefly guides the reader through a range of historic events including the impact of the Islamic tax code – the greatest convertor in religious history; the anger of the English peasantry at new tax measures that led to the famous revolt which targeted, amongst others, any men of the exchequer for immediate execution; the French revolution and the introduction of surnames. Without wanting to ruin the comedian-author’s set, Herbert Hoover’s “Blessed are the young for they shall inherit the national debt” is just one of the pithy, relevant quotes that permeate the text and Frisby has a gift for selecting.
His exploration of Hong Kong’s post-war transformation, the role played by its long-serving Financial Secretary Cowperthwaite and the lessons it can provide economists and governments is a brief but informative insight into the potential power of free-market capitalism. It is fifteen pages that ought to be compulsory reading for any advocate of interventionist economics.
Important, under-considered questions about the philosophical underpinnings of tax systems are littered throughout the book but are especially pervasive in the second half, where the nature of taxation in the modern world is considered in more depth. Why has every society had taxes? On what grounds are they collected and why or (why not) are they accepted by the public? Why, unlike other goods and services, are they totally compulsory? All of these questions and others are explored, and Frisby explains that above all else, taxes are what happen when men gain power over others. The extraordinary transformation of states and governments into the modern megaliths that they are today is analyzed and Frisby concludes that “Income taxes have made possible the large-scale social democratic model by which most of the developed world lives today.”
However, it is history rather than philosophy where the book is most successful. The best aspect of its arguments about the questionable morality of state power and its relation to taxation are the examples provided of governments throughout history coming up with new ways to tax. The history of income tax is explored in particular depth and the story of Henry IV “secret” income tax of 1404 of which almost every record was destroyed in order to keep it concealed from posterity is one of a number of entertaining tales.
This book is not academic in nature and is not aimed at strong sceptics. However, it is incredibly well-researched and is a must-read for any layman interested in knowing more about the history of taxation, economics or state power. Free-marketeers are sure to enjoy this historical tour with a fellow traveller in Dominic Frisby.