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History of Taxation, Part One: Taxation and Ancient Egypt

November 5th, 2009

Ancient Egypt wasn’t a land of terrible taskmasters and oppressed slavery – that is only the stigma we get from the tale of Moses, which came at a time of turmoil in Egypt. Modern translations of Egyptian language tell a tale of life in ancient Egypt was usually bountiful and peaceful. The land was rich, women and men had roughly equal rights and life was enjoyed. Now, there were tax collectors, as numerous as “the sands of the seas”. The high level of Egyptian life was maintained by these “scribes” whose job was enforcing the Pharoah’s tax policies. Almost everything was taxed – sales, slaves, foreigners, imports, exports, and businesses. Agriculture was taxed at a hefty 20%. There was also a tax on cooking oil and inspectors would make continuous visits to kitchens to ensure that free drippings were not being wasted instead of the taxed oil.

The word “freedom” ironically in ancient Egypt referred not to someone’s political or social liberty but to one’s tax level. If you were “free,” it meant that you paid no taxes. Interestingly, the word can’t be found anywhere in the Egyptian language. Good thing we live in this time eh?

However, the scribes were never brutal (at least in theory). They were taught to act kindly towards the poor and defenseless. One ancient translation instructs: “if a poor farmer is in arrears with his taxations, remit two-thirds of them.”

Another translation instructs scribes to “cheer up everyone and to direct them into a good mood.”

And, if someone is suffering under the stress of their taxes, or is at the end of his means to pay them, you must let the case go unchecked.” This lenient policy was called “philanthropa”. From this word we get the word philanthropy.

Over the 3000 years of the Egyptian empire, there were many periods of humane and decent tax administration.

Keep an eye out for W. Marc Gilfillan’s next chapter in his History of Taxes series: Taxes and the Greeks.

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