THER has been a lot of talk related to the fresh taxation measures announced by the government in the recent budget, with many suggesting that the approach may actually backfire. Throughout history, economic pressures have often acted as catalysts for social and political upheaval. Among these pressures, higher taxes on the middle class have played a particularly significant role in driving major episodes, like the French Revolution (1789-99), the American Revolution (1775-83) and the Russian Revolution (1917-23).

History is full of tax revolts. Famous Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, in his renowned work The Art of War, has argued that long military campaigns are unwise because they exhaust the people, stating that such campaigns deplete “seven-tenths” of the wealth of the elite. Ther are many commentators who have interpreted this to mean that there is an upper limit to the taxes that can be imposed on the people due to prolonged military engagements or constant warfare. Sun Tzu noted a threshold which, according to him, drives people to sheer desperation, and forces them to shift from passive compliance to active rebellion.

In pre-revolution France, the financial crisis was exacerbated by costly wars and the extravagant spending of the monarchy. The tax system placed a disproportionate burden on the middle class, artisans and professionals. Despite acknowledged economic contributions, the middle class was heavily taxed, leading to widespread frustration and anger, which precipitated the outbreak of the revolution.

Similarly, the American Revolution was significantly influenced by issues of taxation. The British government had imposed a series of taxes on its colonies in America to help cover war costs and maintain the presence of British troops there. The middle class in the colonies, particularly merchants and landowners, saw these taxes as unjust due to its lack of representation in British parliament. The slogan ‘No taxation without representation’ captured the sentiment of many among the colonised communities, and this led to widespread protests, and eventually kick-started the revolutionary war.

In Russia, heavy taxation combined with corruption had placed an immense strain on both peasants and the middle class. Discontent with the Tsarist regime’s inability to address these issues led to mass protests, strikes, and, ultimately, the October Revolution, paving the way for those who promised redistribution of wealth and elimination of inequities.

These examples from history underscore the significant impact that higher and disproportionate taxes on the middle class can have in terms of fomenting negative sentiments. Equitable tax policies that balance the needs of the state with the economic capacities of all social classes are crucial to preventing mass discontent.

Adil Hanif Godil
London, UK

Published in Dawn, July 7th, 2024

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