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Anthropologists have discovered a reason to feel good about doing your taxes this weekend

Smile while you write the IRS a check. You’re participating in one of the oldest cornerstones of democracy.

Anthropologists have discovered a reason to feel good about doing your taxes this weekend
[Photo: sutlafk/iStock]
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Did you know that doing your taxes is part of an ancient tradition of supporting functional democracy?

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A new study by a team of anthropologists, called “The Fiscal Economy of Good Government,” finds that a broad, equitable, well-managed tax system is, actually, older than dirt—and correlates strongly with governments that are open to public input, serve the well-being of the populace, and disperse wealth and power. In other words, if your April 15 tax commitments went away, so too would much of your safety and freedom.

Though academics have commonly thought that the joys of the IRS can be traced back to early-modern Western democracies, they are much older. Researchers compared 30 past societies, including the Venetian Republic (1290 to 1600), the 15th-century Ming Dynasty, and the Asante Kingdom in West Africa (1800 to 1873). They conducted a quantitative analysis of features such as transportation infrastructure, food and water security, equitable taxation, and leader power. They found that governments that reasonably serve the people have three pivotal cornerstones: functional bureaucracy, public goods and services (transportation infrastructure, access to food and water), and limits on ruler power (term limits, impeachment processes, checks and balances).

Funding turns out to be absolutely pivotal: The democratic systems were marked by broadly based tax revenue systems, responsibly managed by governments.

Aside from making you feel better when you write that IRS check, this understanding is critical for policymakers. Modern pundits tend to focus on free elections and nonautocratic leaders as the path to transitioning to democracy, but this is not the whole story: An equitable tax system, supported by a functional bureaucracy, is the keystone.