Published by EH.NET (October 2004)

David F. Burg, A World History of Tax Rebellions: An Encyclopedia of Tax Rebels, Revolts, and Riots from Antiquity to the Present. New York: Routledge, 2003. xxxiv + 502 pp. $125 (cloth), ISBN: 0-415-92498-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Richard Vedder, Department of Economics, Ohio University.

David Burg’s new reference volume on tax revolts is better described by its subtitle: “An Encyclopedia of Tax Rebels, Revolts, and Riots from Antiquity to the Present.” The bulk of the book is a description of some 392 different tax protests through history, ranging in length from a couple of paragraphs to eight or nine pages. Like most encyclopedias or dictionaries, this is not a volume sane persons pick up and reads from beginning to end, although, somewhat irrationally, that is what this reviewer tried to do.

The bottom line is this is a nice, well written reference book that should prove useful to persons interested in the history of taxation. Want to know about rising concerns about taxation during the Roman Empire? This volume has perhaps two dozen entries of various incidents where the populace, or an important subset of it, expressed displeasure. Interested in intellectually driven anti-tax movements, say the single tax idea as promoted by Henry George? There are nice descriptions of these incidents, with references to other longer works. Want a bit of titillation? Read of Lady Godiva’s possibly mythical naked ride to protest high taxation.

The book does not stint on references to early tax rebellions in order to emphasize the post-industrial era. Indeed, almost the opposite is true. There are almost as many references (38) to the fourteenth century as there is to the twentieth (45). If the incidence of tax protest were proportional to the number of entries in the Berg volume, one would conclude that tax protestation peaked in the eighteenth century (59 entries), remaining strong in the nineteenth century (56 entries), before subsiding a good bit in the century recently concluded. One might almost believe tax rebellions are in significant decline — it takes 91 pages to describe the revolts of the eighteenth century, including such biggies as the American and French Revolutions, but a mere 48 pages to describe the fewer and less momentous modern ones.

And that brings me to the greatest deficiency of the volume, the lack of analysis and interpretation. This weakness of the book is understandable and predictable, given that it is a reference book. But reading the entries gives rise to lots of questions, the grist for many more volumes trying to explain the changing relationship of citizens to the state.

For example, given the fact that government in most parts of the world has grown substantially relative to output over time, and taxes have risen accordingly, why have not tax revolts multiplied in number and intensity? Why is it that people would kill over taxes (and many of the early revolts boiled down to killing tax farmers and collectors) when they took 10 or 15 percent of people’s income, but be relatively complacent and compliant when they absorbed 40 or 50 percent?

Has the rise in democratic political processes reduced tax revolts by giving citizenry a sense of participation? Is that, indeed, one of the more compelling arguments for democratic forms of government? Were tax revolts virtually unknown in the modern authoritarian state of the Communist or Nazi variety because of fear of brutal police power or because the state professed a benevolence towards the citizenry not found in the old monarchies such as ruled leading European countries before the French Revolution? A supplemental or competing explanation for the decline in tax protest would be that early revolts centered heavily on kleptomania — anger over the redistribution of funds from taxpayers to rulers. While modern day rent-seeking is very real and in my judgment substantial, perhaps a smaller proportion of taxes today in most countries are directly used for taxing a comparatively less affluent population to enrich already affluent plutocratic rulers.

Is there a threshold level of taxation beyond which the citizenry revolts? What determines variation in that threshold over time and space? For example, I think that roughly speaking contemporary Americans will not tolerate federal taxation exceeding 20 percent of GDP except in emergencies, nor state or local spending much greater than 10 percent. But also I think the people of New York and Vermont have a greater tolerance for taxation than those of nearly New Hampshire. Is this the result of a Tiebout effect working in the American federal system? How and why did the New Deal and Great Society raise the threshold level of tolerable taxation, and has there been some slight but perceptible decline in that threshold in modern times, manifested in the tax revolts in California and Massachusetts in the late 1970s (the latter, Proposition 2 1/2, totally ignored by Berg), and by the election of Ronald Reagan (also ignored)?

Returning more to the task at hand, Berg does not provide much in the way of economic analysis surrounding tax revolts. There is little information provided on tax rates, on the impact that levies had on revenues raised (were there Laffer Curve effects?), etc. In large part, that may reflect inadequate information, but that is not generally the case for the modern era. For example, as Berg notes (p. 250), the Sugar Act of 1764 actually cut sugar duties in half but increased enforcement. Revenues apparently rose (no discussion). Was this the Laffer Curve in action, or something else?

In short, the book raises far more questions than it answers, but that is as it should be. This is, after all, a reference volume, a nice addition to other works (e.g., Charles Adams) for those interested in the history of taxation.

Richard Vedder is Distinguished Professor of Economics at Ohio University. His latest book is Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute Press, 2004).