Who are the modern tax collectors

taxes and finances

Constanze Hacke

Constanze Hacke works in Cologne as a business journalist, lecturer and presenter for radio, print media, specialist publishers, public clients and companies. For more than a decade it has been under the motto "Economy - made easy!" successfully self-employed and has made a name for herself as an expert, especially in the field of taxation. Her work also focuses on the areas of law, finance, economic policy, medium-sized businesses and management. As a specialist journalist, she sees her task as being to understand and explain complex relationships and dry topics, and to make them understandable and vivid. At the end of 2011 her book "Self-employed and then? How freelancers become successful in the long term" was published by Wiley-VCH Verlag. In spring 2013, the guide "Taxes Made Easy. First Aid for Self-Employed" will be published by the same publisher.
Contact: www.c-hacke.de

Taxes have always had an impact on the course of history. The German tax system is also a historically evolved structure that has repeatedly adapted to social requirements and has been increasingly harmonized and centralized.

Citizens pay their taxes. Representation from the 15th century. License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de /


The idea of ​​systematic taxation arose from the sheer financial need. Even in the great empires of antiquity, the rulers needed money for their sumptuous court on the one hand, and on the other they had to finance the communal infrastructure such as roads and bridges or the military. The origins of the German tax system can be traced back to the early Middle Ages. The first signs of our current income tax can already be found in the church staff tenth and later in the territorial poll taxes of the 17th century. The actual tax state was the early modern territorial state in absolutism, with all its demands on the development of the court. On the one hand, his expenses were paid for by his own income - such as domains, forests and customs duties. On the other hand, direct and, above all, indirect taxes developed more and more in the 17th century. Some of them, such as the dog tax or the racing betting and lottery tax, still exist today. Complaints about the complexity of the system, excessive taxes and distribution injustices have also been heard since the first taxes were introduced in Germany.

After all, the idea of ​​using private money to carry out public tasks and redistributing wealth is older than you might think. Basically, the idea of ​​taxes as something that you “contribute” to the community arose very early on. Civilization in the sense of orderly coexistence, external supply and mutual support formed the basis for this. We find the first evidence of tax levies as early as the 3rd millennium BC - that is, 5000 years ago.

Royalties in the old empires

In most regions, real taxation in the current sense went hand in hand with the introduction of the money economy. But even where money was not yet the usual means of payment and the mutual exchange of goods determined trade, taxes were collected: through labor services, harvest taxes or through so-called tributes for subjugated peoples. In ancient Egypt, for example, there were numerous taxes and compulsory services that the population had to perform. Since the pharaohs had the highest priority in the community in the spiritual-religious conception of the Egyptians and were even regarded as the only deity in certain periods, they were also entitled to earthly goods. Private property or wages in the modern sense did not yet exist.

So what do you levy duties or taxes on? And according to what criteria? By pure arbitrariness? The tax collectors of the pharaohs were not quite so simple-minded.

That is why there were soon “real taxes” in ancient Egypt, such as a harvest tax and a Nile duty. This Nile tariff was based on a kind of guideline, on the basis of which the tax burden was determined: So-called Nilometers were built on the Nile, the largest river in the country. These were deep shafts that were connected to the river. A scale was attached inside. The height of the floods was calculated using the nilometer. Because the floods brought the fertile mud onto the fields as fertilizer. Only when there was enough mud could the seeds grow and thrive. The flood height was therefore also a very important factor in calculating the tax. Special officials, the so-called Nile knives, recorded the waterline along the course of the river. A method that is similar in principle, but not in terms of its technical design, still exists today to measure the water levels of rivers when flooding is approaching.

Even in the urban high cultures, for example in Mesopotamia, today's Iraq, a large number of taxes can be observed as early as the third millennium before the birth of Christ, including on private livestock farming or fishing. The temple administration kept a record of this.

The financial distress of the rulers was often due to their conquests, wars and the associated military expenditures. Many of the great empires therefore took the conquered into account: The financial needs were covered by tributes (from Latin tributum: contribution, public levy), which were imposed on the conquered peoples. The "locals" benefited from this, for example among the Romans. The Roman Empire expanded enormously from around the 3rd century BC, more and more provinces contributed to covering the state financial needs, so that in 167 BC the Roman citizens were exempted from direct taxes.

The ancient Chinese rulers, the Assyrians and the Greeks also established complex tax systems, because they all needed taxes to finance their expenses. These systems worked partly because of the military or religious power of the rulers over their subjects and the conquered peoples. On the other hand, most of the great empires of antiquity were ultimately always central powers. Something like a state with its individual structures already existed. In this respect, a basic requirement for the collection and administration of taxes was created.

Roman tax system

Both the Greeks and the Romans financed the state primarily through indirect taxes, primarily tariffs, road and usage fees. This system of indirect taxes was leased - and the collection was left entirely to the tax farmers. The tenant system had two main motives: On the one hand, it was possible to decentralize fiscal tasks in this way. On the other hand, the tenants were mostly wealthy citizens who financially supported public life - for example by paying for competitions, theater or musical events. However, they usually only got involved in this way if they were allowed to collect taxes on a commercial basis in return. For the tenant, this calculation was by no means plus or minus zero, because his advantage lay in the profit margin, which in profitable years could considerably exceed the lease. However, this system was prone to corruption and mismanagement.

Another important requirement for tax collection was that taxpayers were counted. "And it came to pass at the time [...] that all the world could be appreciated." This biblical quote from the Christmas story refers to the census of the Roman Empire, which was gradually carried out in the Roman provinces. It was only through this census that the emperor and the Roman senate knew exactly who to tax. The census was part of a comprehensive tax reform under Emperor Augustus (right: 30 BC - 14 AD).

The taxation processes of that time already contained a system that is reminiscent of our current tax system in some respects. The Romans developed a cadastral system that recorded property. It is therefore not surprising that the two largest of the innumerable types of tax were poll tax (tributum capitis) and property tax (tributum soli). There was also an inheritance tax, from which the Roman sales tax developed.

A failed tax reform by the Emperor Diocletian (right: 284 - 305 AD) has also come down to us from ancient Rome. He switched the tax on agricultural land from an actual to a target yield tax. The land tenants were no longer taxed on what they actually got out of their land. If the harvest was hailed and the farmer barely had enough to survive, he still had to pay the same tax as in a good year. The Roman “state” hoped that this tax on assets would generate evenly flowing and therefore easily calculable income. In fact, however, it led to the exact opposite - to tax losses.

In any event, such a system needed a basis on which to tax. The "tithe" provided such a measure of taxation. Scientists suspect that already several thousand years before the birth of Christ, the appearance of the number 10 in the Near East suggest approaches for an accounting system. The “tithe” essentially extended to income from real estate. Many of these tithes in kind turned into monetary contributions only later. The so-called Fronden (also known as robots) were intended for people who did not own land. These were services performed through physical labor. There were public and private corporations. A distinction was also made between manual services (for example harvesting work) and clamping services (haulage services).