The Weirdest Taxes of All Time
List of the weirdest taxes of all time.
Last updated: Friday 8th July 2011
Know Your Money Editor
Tax is a hot topic at the moment. The economic downturn has pushed it to the top of the political agenda in many countries (not that it's ever too far down the list). Recently, a UK thinktank, the Fabian Society, released figures indicating a backlash against the rich and a call for harsher taxation of the wealthy.
Whether this justified public sentiment has any affect on government policy is yet to be seen, but with all this tax-talk flying around I thought it might be a good time to have a look at some of the strangest and most controversial taxes that have been used throughout history.
Cooking Oil Tax
In order to fund the largest and most pointy vanity projects of all time, the Pharaohs of Egypt levied many taxes, mostly on food produce. One of their oddest and patently unfair laws concerned the taxation of cooking oil.
In a shamelessly unscrupulous system, citizens were obligated to obtain their cooking oil from the Pharaoh's officials and recycling was prohibited. Thus, scribes (Egyptian tax collectors) would audit every household to ensure that they were using the appropriate amount, confiscate their old supplies and force them to buy fresh, taxed cooking oil.
In keeping with their predilection for public sanitation matters the Romans were quite keen on taxing urine. Though introduced by his predecessors, it was Emperor Vespasian (AD 69-79) who rolled out the tax to cover all of Rome's many public toilets.
The tax was actually levied on the collection of urine by the toilet operators who sold it on, at great profit, to tanners and cleaners who utilised the liquid's high ammonia content. Perhaps a reintroduction of this admirable recycling of waste products could aid modern sustainable industry practices.
Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia from 1682-1725, was surely one of history's greatest advocates of odd taxes. Taking taxation to new levels of absurdity he levied taxes on drinking water, beehives and souls (actually this was just a poll tax - not quite as interesting as it sounds). He even created a committee whose sole purpose was to think up new taxes.
One of his most ludicrous taxes, introduced in 1705, was levied on men who grew beards. The tax was a part of Peter's modernising reforms and was used to coerce his countrymen into dropping archaic hirsutist customs and bring them into line with the clean-shaven citizens of modernised Western Europe.
Window tax, or glass tax, was introduced in England (and subsequently the whole of Britain) in 1696 during the reign of King William III. Eventually repealed in 1851, it was initially brought in as a way to tax people relative to their wealth while circumventing the vehemently opposed income tax.
Interestingly, the consequences of the window tax can still be seen in Britain today. Many of the period's surviving buildings feature bricked-up windows spaces, a common practise used to alleviate the tax burden by the middle-classes, who were greatly affected by the law.
Hat Tax, much like window tax, was levied by the British Government in 1784 as a way of taxing citizens according to their wealth without resorting to income tax. First introduced by Prime Minister Pitt the Younger, hat tax laws forced hat sellers to acquire licences and employed a tiered tax system dependent upon the cost of the hat with mandatory tax-revenue stamps pasted in its lining.
Apparently, many milliners and hat-wearers tried to dodge the tax by claiming that their headwear wasn't actually a hat. This form of evasion became so widespread that it led to government amendments to the legal definition of a hat in 1804.
It is hard to regard the humble, ubiquitous white grains as one of the most influential commodities in human history. But the crucial role of sodium chloride in the diet of humans, animals and plants and countless applications within science, religion and other areas have seen it shape cultures, define economies, cause wars and, as such, become one of history's most taxed commodities.
Of the countless salt taxes throughout history, perhaps the most well-known example is that imposed by the British in colonial India. Salt taxation had existed in India for millennia, but in 1835 the British East India Company increased the rate significantly, and the British Empire continued the harsh taxes when it took over in 1858.
The hegemonic British salt tax in India received worldwide attention during March 1930, when Mahatma Ghandi led the Salt March to Dandi. It was to be the first act of the Salt Satyagraha, a campaign of non-violent protest against the British salt tax, and moreover, the first act of organized civil disobedience after India National Congress's declaration of independence. The campaign did not have much effect on the salt tax, but it increased global awareness and support for India's plight against British rule.
Unlike the other taxes on this list, it is the implementation of this tax which is strange. A poll tax (also known as head tax or capitation tax) is a fixed rate tax levied on individuals with no reference to income or property. Taxes of this type have been used since ancient times since their indiscriminate nature makes them easy to implement. This indiscriminate nature, however, also makes them hugely unpopular.
One of the most controversial and divisive recent implementations of a Poll Tax occurred in the UK during the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher's government. The system's effect of shifting the tax burden from the wealthy to the poor created a huge public backlash, resulting in mass protests, riots and the downfall of Thatcher's leadership. At least some good came out of it.
Unauthorized Substances Tax
Since North Carolina pioneered the scheme in 2005, many US states have been imposing taxes on illegal drugs. Often referred to as "Crack Tax", this odd scheme obligates honest dealers and drugs users to anonymously buy tax stamps for all manner of illegal substances, from cocaine and heroin to marijuana and even moonshine. The stamps only satisfy state tax laws, so possession of illicit drugs remains illegal. However, possession without appropriate tax stamps incurs substantial financial penalties.
Predictably, few dealers and users buy tax stamps up front. Therefore, the huge revenues generated by these taxes are mostly acquired from tax evasion fines following arrests, which often result in seizure of property.
Critics have denounced this sneaky system for violating drug dealers' rights to due process and protection against self-incrimination as well as condemning the double punishment it imposes. Consequently, in some states the tax has been repealed after being ruled by courts as unconstitutional.