Top 10: Dumbest Taxes In History

No.10 - The Beard Tax

There's supposedly a goatee tax on the books in Massachusetts, but goofy, archaic state laws are often mere urban legends. Luckily, history has more than one beard tax up its sleeve, and for that we have Peter the Great to thank. [via askmen]

Peter gets called everything from "radical" to "absolutely nuts" depending on who you ask; his beard tax certainly seems to place him squarely in the latter column. As additional evidence that Peter just really, really didn't like beards, those of his subjects he taxed for their facial hair were also required to wear medals admitting that their beards were ridiculous.

No.9 - The Dealing-Illegal-Drugs Tax

It's hard enough to get law-abiding people to report under-the-table income on their tax returns, so it's a little mystifying when the Internal Revenue Service expects people to actually implicate themselves in crimes just for the warm feeling of satisfaction you get from filing a comprehensive tax return. The IRS tax income guidelines insist that "…illegal income, such as money from dealing illegal drugs, must be included in your income on Form 1040, line 21." This particular pain-in-the-ass tax deserves a spot on the list purely for the extreme unlikelihood that it will ever be paid by anyone, anywhere.

No.8 - The Slave Emancipation Tax

Ancient Rome employed a particularly mean little tax referred to as a manumission tax, which was essentially a tax on not being a slave anymore. In some cases, this applied to masters who'd chosen to free their own slaves, in which case the tax wasn't really all that bad (guys wealthy enough to own slaves could probably afford to pay a one-time tax on emancipating them). It only became an unceremonious pain-in-the-ass tax when the slave himself, having finally worked his way to his own freedom, had to scrounge up 10% of his former sticker price and hand it right over to Rome.

No.7 - The Disagreeing-With-The-King Tax

One of the time-honored measures taken by rulers who like it when things go completely awry is to tax the hell out of your enemies and hope they put up with it. Oliver Cromwell (though of course not actually a king) instituted one of the better-known such taxes in 1655, levied against the Royalists who were still hanging around England after he took over. As an added kick in the teeth, Cromwell used some of the money he took from the grumbling Royalists to fund a militia that fought against other Royalists. At least they knew where their money was going.

No.6 - The Existence Tax

The very concept of a poll tax is as straightforward and unwelcome as pain-in-the-ass taxes can get: Instead of being taxed on how much you make or what you buy, a poll tax is what you owe a government simply because you had the audacity to be alive. England levied a series of poll taxes in the 14th century that were particularly harsh and ill-advised (even by poll tax standards), culminating in a tax that tripled the rate of the first. Some protests broke out, some peasants revolted, and so began the appropriately named and hugely destructive Peasants' Revolt.

No.5 - The Nobel Prize Tax

Yes, Nobel Prizes are taxed by the IRS. It may seem especially villainous that an entity designed to take everyone's money even demands its fair share from those who, in the words of Alfred Nobel, "have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind," but hey, Pulitzers and other prizes are taxed as well. If it's any consolation, some prizewinners are exempt if they fit certain criteria -- all they have to do is give the entire prize away without touching it (either to a charity or the government and the IRS is willing to let you decide which).

No.4 - The Being-Foreign Tax

Taxes levied specifically against foreigners and immigrants are not all that unusual, even up through the 20th century. Canada started taxing Chinese immigrants in 1885 and didn't stop until 1923. Unfortunately, this pain-in-the-ass tax ended not because anyone had a change of heart, but because that's when the Chinese Immigration Act prohibited the Chinese from entering Canada at all.

No.3 - The Hearth Tax

When you're a monarch who's strapped for cash and you've already tried to tax property, goods and people, the only thing left to do is start picking random parts of structures and taxing those too.

The problem with England's 1660 hearth tax was that the lower class wound up overtaxed -- which somehow always seems to happen -- so people started concealing their chimneys, prompting inspectors to come rooting around everywhere to make sure nobody was hiding hearths. This continued right up until a 1684 fire that destroyed 20 houses and killed four people, thanks to a baker's attempts to discreetly make use of a neighboring house's chimney.

No.2 - The Danegeld

History is filled with instances of countries paying pain-in-the-ass taxes to other (scary and violent) countries, and it has its share of war-related taxes, but the Saxons pretty clearly knew what they were getting into when they began paying the Danegeld. It's right in the name. This was a tax on not being killed by Danes.

The ignominy of being the first to pay the Danegeld rests with poor King Ethelred "The Unready," who essentially spent his rule being kicked around by Danes, died and wound up saddled with an embarrassing nickname.

No.1 - The Salt Tax

Yes, salt. Harmless, innocuous salt.

Unlikely as it may seem, it turns out that taxing salt has been one of the most unthinkably problematic ideas in history. Salt taxes were partially responsible for the fall of the Chinese empire, the French salt tax (the gabelle) helped precipitate the French Revolution and Gandhi himself marched in an anti-salt tax protest in 1930. In doing so he galvanized a burgeoning Indian independence movement, and that specific march inspired the future philosophies of Martin Luther King, Jr.

So, if you're looking for a nice, quiet tax that won't rock any boats, taxing salt is probably not very wise.

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