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Eat the poor.
In matters of taxation, Rome’s emperor Tiberius believed in handling things with a light touch.
He was quoted as saying “Boni pastoris est tondere pecus, non deglubere.” Or roughly translated, “A good shepherd shears his sheep, he does not flay them.” It was meant as a warning to his regional commanders to treat Roman provincial subjects fairly in matters of state revenue, and to avoid excessive taxation.
But a few hundred years later, by the time of the 3rd century, Rome’s tax landscape had devolved into one of disparity, that would have likely offended Tiberius deeply.
Despite not having access to digital banking or advanced financial tracking, the Romans were diligent record keepers. Based in the Temple of Saturn at the foot of the Capitoline Hill, the Empire’s central treasury was reportedly stacked with piles of vellum records and waxed wooden tablets, inscribed with notable holdings and ownership of lands throughout the realm.
Roman taxes were commonly known as the tributum—or “tribute”—and were levied on many forms of trade, income, or assets in a similar way we would recognise them in the modern world. While Roman citizens initially didn’t have to pay taxes, the tributum capitis was a general tax levied on provincial subjects of the empire. The tributum soli was a simple land tax, based on the amount of land one owned. And the centesima rerum venalium was similar to today’s VAT or sales tax, with a percentage of all sales at auction being collected by the powers-that-be.
No matter what level of society one came from, taxation was a life burden all citizens had to bear in some form or another. However, not all members of society had to carry this burden equally.
A common tactic used by some of Rome’s elite to evade taxes was to donate a part of it to charitable causes; for example towards the building of a school to support the education of children in a certain region. But despite these donations lowering a wealthy citizen’s tax rate, they usually required future repayment; entitling the donor to a healthy future income that came with interest.
Oftentimes, Romans would simply bury troves of coins underground to evade the eyes of a knocking taxman. Or instead of accurately divulging their assets to their local publicani when it came time to pay up, they would just bribe the public servant to make him go away instead.
In other words, if you were a privileged member of Roman society, you could easily reduce or negate your liability to be taxed by bribery, deceit, or creative accounting. Things that were out of reach to almost all other subjects of Rome.
In other words, exactly the kind of thing that continues to plague our modern world today.
Take my birth country of Australia, as a perfect example.
Australia’s economy is heavily driven by the resource sector, with mining and the production of fossil fuels being the most valuable industry by far. It accounts for 14.6% of the nation’s total economic output, and is dominated by international behemoths like BHP, Ampol, Chevron, and Glencore.
This past financial year, the top twenty-four fossil fuel companies in Australia reported a combined revenue of over $149 billion dollars. A huge number, and one you would expect that would lead to a significant amount of tax revenue for the Australian government, and its people.
But like being slapped in the face with a rotten fish, the reality is infinitely more disgusting. In total, these companies paid just $30 dollars combined in tax to Australia in the 21/22 financial year.
Not thirty billion. Not thirty million. Not even thirty thousand. Just thirty dollars.
To put this into perspective, an Australian earning just $30,000 AUD per year would be expected to pay a tax bill of $2,242 AUD to the government in a given year. In other words, despite only earning 0.00002% of what the largest fossil fuel companies did, they would still pay seventy-four times more tax.
The Australian government obviously needs money so the nation can function. But because the largest companies have the resources and knowledge to be able to take advantage of creative tax structures and loopholes to reduce their obligation to zero, the government inevitably has to make up the difference from those at the bottom: normal working-class people who don’t have the time, resources, or know-how to do the same.
This situation isn’t unique to Australia, either. In the United States, giants like AT&T, Charter Communications and AIG regularly pay no taxes, despite billions of dollars in revenue. In Germany, corporate tax laws have been estimated to cost the government more than half a trillion Euros per year in lost revenue. And Ireland has become a known tax haven in Europe, where “American” entities like Amazon, AirBnB, and PayPal have been known to incorporate, almost solely so they don’t have to pay higher taxes to Uncle Sam.
It’s the same story of Rome’s elite plundering the empire all over again, just a few thousand years later.
No matter the country, the result is always the same. Governments are responsible for creating laws that allow the elite to pay less than their fair share, then punish normal citizens and small business owners when they need to recover the funds needed to keep a nation functioning. The modern taxation system is designed to eat up the limited financial resources of the poor, while allowing the richest to keep everything they earn.
To me, this is why the idea of patriotism towards most of our nations, especially in the West, seems like such a ridiculous concept when I think about matters of taxation. Why should a citizen of a nation—a living, breathing, flesh-and-blood person—have any kind of pride towards their country, when it treats them like a disposable second-class commodity, compared to the faceless multinational entities that receive infinitely better treatment?
Why shouldn’t someone feel disillusioned towards their nation, and desire to turn their back on it in pursuit of living somewhere else that treats them better? Even if that other nation isn’t where they were born, raised, or feel familiar.
Whenever I talk about leaving home to seek a better life elsewhere—potentially a place that is warmer, sunnier, with a better quality of life, and a lower tax rate—I almost always get pushback from people who argue against this idea, because patriotism means backing your nation even when things get bad. Sometimes, especially when they do.
But here’s the thing: chances are, your country doesn’t have your back. The modern tax system shows it prefers to back the corporations, billionaires, and bankers who help write laws that benefit them—laws that the government seems more than willing to write. And when the going gets tough, it’s these corporations and billionaires who are the first to leave to go somewhere better.
So why shouldn’t you?
The alternative is to live within a system that Tiberius would have abhorred, and remain a sheep to be flayed for revenue.
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