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The tale of two Jacobs, their sons, and taxes

Jacob.jpg

There was once a man called Jacob whose son Joseph was responsible for the first recorded introduction of tax. Thousands of years later another Jacob’s, son would also have a special association with tax.

The two son’s individual relationship to tax, however, were quite different. In chapter 47 in the book of Genesis in the Old Testament it is recorded how Joseph, son of Jacob from Canaan instructed the people of Egypt to deliver one fifth (20%) of their crop to Pharaoh for storage to provide for an expected future famine.

 In short, this tax, called tithes at the time around 3000 – 2800BC, were aimed at what we will today call the ‘greater good’ – protecting the nation against the danger of famine.

Now, some 5 000 years later, Duduzane, son of Jacob from Nkandla, is being accused of misusing tax resources by, amongst others, the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA). It is alleged that some tax proceeds was used to establish a palace for Jacob from Nkandla and his family in another land – Dubai, not too far away from the land of Canaan where the of Jacob biblical times had lived.

Tax in history

 While the phenome of taxes is just about as old as civilisation itself, dating back to Ancient Egypt, followed by the Persian Empire, the Greeks and the Romans, the word tax only appeared in English during the 14th century.

It derives from the Latin word taxare which means ‘to assess.’ Before that, English used the related word task, first recorded in the 12th century and deriving from Old French. For a while, task (labour) and tax (money) were both in common use.

Tax then developed its additional meaning to imply something wearisome or challenging. So, soft soap tax, words like duty got added the burden imposed on people, suggesting a more appealing purpose. But then, political spin has just as long a history as taxation, and neither term has been unduly detained by its original meaning.  

Duty, as an alternative for tax, started out with an intention of suggesting a sense of some mark of respect that was due to a superior, but quickly took on the additional meaning of a mark of respect to be paid in hard cash – something owed to someone else. This reflected in the word duty’s Latin root, debere, a compound meaning ‘to keep in one’s possession something that belongs to somebody else,’ which is also the direct ancestor of our modern term debt.

Champion taxer

Probably the champion taxer in history was Tsar Peter of Russia. Be it beards, boots, beehives, candles, nuts, hats, horses, chimneys, water – he taxed them all. Despite that, to this day, in modern histories of Russia he is referred to as “Peter the Great.”

However, modern rulers should take note that he got his “great"-title probably for what he used much of his taxes for – to produce mighty works and monuments in his own land, as opposed to the general legacy of taxation through the ages – to be an abused or abusive means towards ignoble ends, and never quite able to escape its association with extortion and war.

The later, was especially established by the city states of Ancient Greece, which imposed eishpora to pay for wars, which were numerous. But at least in their case, once a war was over, any surplus had to be refunded.

In ancient Rome Julius Caesar became the first ruler to impose a one-per-cent sales tax, and Augustus instituted an inheritance tax to provide retirement funds for the military.

Modern rulers should also take note that many historians are of the view that tax resistance played a significant role in the collapse of several empires, including those of the Egyptians, Romans, Spaniards, and Aztec.

Tax can drive revolutions

Throughout history resentment of tax fuelled revolutions, including the French- and American Revolutions. The latter, between 1765 and 1783 fuelled the formation of the United States, though an independent Congress soon enacted the Federal Property Tax in 1798.

However, taxes also fuelled the establishment of democracy, starting with England’s Magna Carta in the early 13th century, and later when the mantra of “no taxation without representation” became firmly established.  

However, political promise did not always materialise in reality. In Britain for example, in the general election of 1871, both Gladstone and Disraeli opposed income tax. Disraeli won, but the tax stayed.

And, unpopular tax can also trigger rebellions, as the so-called Whiskey Rebellion in 1794 against the new federal government of the US, which had to use the military to quell an uprising against a liquor tax aimed at paying the national debt.

Final word

The Jacob from Nkandla, his son, and friends, should take note of the mounting resistance of taxpayers, and citizens in general, to the perception that their tax only benefit the overlords of the day, while revenues for desperately needed public services remain minimal. At the same time there are no “mighty works” in sight that might deliver “The Great“ status.

Who knows what might trigger the rebellion, or the revolution – and there are a number of candidates, starting with the uncertainty around the South African Social Security Agency.

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by Piet Coetzer

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