Nowadays, people are quick to bemoan the cost of razors. But go back a few hundred years, and it was not shaving that could cost a guy a pretty penny.
In 1535, King Henry VIII of England levied a tax on beards. The beard tax gave the wealthiest men in the kingdom an easy way to flaunt their prosperity: By wearing a beard, they were also proving they could afford to pay for it.
Another beard tax surfaced in Russia at the end of the 17th century, when Czar Peter the Great passed a wave of reforms designed to make his agrarian nation as modern as Europe. Among other things, his reforms encouraged Russian men to forgo the traditional long beard. If a man refused, he was permitted to keep it—provided he paid a tax for the privilege and always carried the token he received in exchange for paying it.
These are just two of many strange tax tales collected by Professor of Economics Joel Slemrod, who has made researching odd tax codes into a quirky hobby.
While his expertise is in tax policy, Slemrod is also known for inserting obscure footnote references into his work. He has now gathered enough of these anecdotes to write a book about taxes that are so outlandish they demand an explanation.
Take the beard tax. From our vantage point, the beard tax is a deliciously silly story. But, says Slemrod, the beard token also illustrates the tax principles that are current topics of debate in tax policy circles. The beard tax liberates these principles from the charged situations in which we typically see them—a situation Slemrod finds useful. “Sometimes these principles are hard to see in taxes we’re familiar with,” he says, “because we get distracted by the political rhetoric that accompanies them.”
Another window through which Slemrod sees a policy connection to a weird tax from the past is a British property tax determined by how many windows a house had. “In the 17th and 18th centuries,” he says, “it wasn’t easy to estimate the value of houses in order to assess a fair tax. They didn’t have Zillow. How should they do it?”
First, they tried to assess a tax that was based on the number of fireplaces in a house—a tax that was much resented because it gave tax collectors permission to enter and inspect every building. Then they tried the window tax, which, though imperfect, was certainly an improvement. Some people tried to evade the tax by bricking over the windows, particularly in tenement houses, which reduced ventilation and inspired a campaign to repeal “the tax on health” and “the tax on light and air,” which eventually succeeded in 1851.
“As the government could observe more and more things,” Slemrod says, “it changed how they taxed and what they taxed.
“Today,” he continues, “the situation is different. People can hide money in tax havens or by using bitcoin, which the government can’t trace at all.”
If a tax code reflects a nation’s priorities, Slemrod thinks ours says a few things about us. “We’re skeptical of big government,” he says. “Our taxes take a fraction of our gross national product, and we’re near the bottom of industrialized countries. Our tax code also says we value our privacy quite a bit because we’ve placed severe restrictions on how tax data is shared both within and outside the government .”
But ultimately, says Slemrod, taxes are tied to information. “We’re undergoing a revolution in information technology, which raises the question of whether it’s time to rethink how we tax. Technology makes it possible to do more because we can track so many more things.” In Finland, for example, speeding fines are issued according to the offense and the speeder’s income. In one notorious case, a businessman was fined more than $50,000 for driving 65 mph in a 50 mph zone. “I’m not saying that’s a good use of technology,” Slemrod quickly says, “but it is an example of what is possible.”
Itemizing More Weird Taxes
- The Urine Tax
Ancient Romans used the ammonia in urine for laundry and tanning animals skins. The Roman emperor Nero levied a tax on collecting it.
- The Cow Flatulence Tax
The United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization has identified cows as significant contributors to global warming because of their byproduct: methane. Ireland assesses a flatulence tax of about $18 per cow. Denmark’s tax is even steeper: about $110 per cow.
- The Wallpaper Tax
Introduced in 1712, the tax included patterned, printed, and painted paper. Circumventing the tax created a new craft: hanging plain paper and then hand stenciling it.
- The TV Tax
In the U.K., watching the telly comes at a price—you must buy a license, which costs about $165 per year. Watching on a black-and-white set is a bargain at $55 per year. There are other exceptions: Citizens who are 75 or older don’t pay anything, nursing homes pay about $9 per year, and the legally blind get their license at half price.
- The Hat Tax
Levied by the British government from 1784 to 1811, the hat tax was only trying to be fair. It assumed wealthy people had several expensive hats, and that poor people had an inexpensive one—or none at all. The tax was determined by the hat’s cost, and a stamp inside the hat proved the tax had been paid. They weren’t fooling around: One man who was caught forging a hat-tax stamp was sentenced to death.
- The Hot-Air Balloon Tax
If you board a hot-air balloon that’s anchored to the ground in Kansas, prepare to pay a 6.5 percent sales tax. If, however, you board an untethered balloon, you can keep your wallet in your pocket. Why? Kansas considers a tethered balloon an amusement. An untethered balloon? Transportation.