Book Review: For Good And Evil

For Good And Evil:  The Impact Of Taxes On The Course Of Civilization, by Charles Adams

Even without knowing the author in person, this book gives a good idea of what he would be like.  He’s a bit of a monist, viewing everything through the lens of his area of expertise, which happens to be the history of taxation, and with plenty of mistaken ideas that come from not having bothered to learn about other matters (such as the Bible or more general historical topics) because of his focus on taxes, but at the same time even if there are some errors (like the cause of the Civil War being blamed on tariffs without mention being made to slavery being at the basis of them even so), the book does offer considerable insight.  If the guy is a bit of a wacko when it comes to focusing so much on such a narrow subject and then blaming it for (nearly) everything that has gone wrong over the course of thousands of years, it is not as if taxes are an unimportant subject and so there is insight even if it is exaggerated here.  The job of the reader is to dial back the exaggerations made by the author into a more reasonable and more balanced perspective and to recognize that taxes are something hat is too often ignored and not to make that mistake for oneself.

This massive tome is divided into eight parts and 41 chapters as the author hammers the subject of taxation in history rather bluntly.  The book begins with a foreword and preface and introduction, and then the author discusses the beginning of taxation (I) with a discussion of Egypt (1), the Rosetta stone (2), the tax rebels of ancient Israel (3), Israel’s fall (4), China (5), and the Greeks (6, 7).  This leads to a discussion of the Romans (II, 8-11) and their complex views of taxation that went from a better system to a very bad one that ended up leading to serfdom and the fall of Rome.  A few chapters comprise the author’s discussion of the Middle Ages (III), with a look at Islam (13), the Jews (14), and England (15).  There is then a discussion of taxation in Russia, Switzerland, Spain, and Germany in the early modern period (IV).  After that the author discusses the devil’s tax regime in ancien regime France (V, 22) that led predictably to the French Revolution (23).  Five chapters comprise the author’s discussion of English economic history relating to the Magna Carta VI), after which the author discusses early American taxation in three chapters (VII) and then closes with a passionate denunciation of contemporary taxation around the world (VIII), an epilogue, notes, bibliography, illustration credits, index, and notes about the author.

The author views taxes with a high degree of passionate interest and the end result is a book that is sprawling but also deeply entertaining to read.  This book was fun, in large part because the author was a bit of a whackadoodle.  If one has to read nearly 500 pages of economic history, one wants a bit of enjoyment, and having a crank write such an account makes it entertaining and that is considerable enjoyment.  It should be remembered as well that the author has a lot to say that is worth reading, even if the libertarian perspective and economic determinism is somewhat tedious at times.  Taxes are immensely important, taxation officials do great harm to citizens and to the well-being of nations, and excessive taxation that is unfairly enforced does tend to predictably lead to the flight of assets and rich people and to widespread tax evasion and avoidance.  All of this the author explores, pointing out that it is only rarely that rulers have been able to keep low-tax regimes and restrain their own spending to avoid aggressive war, which is the sort of condition that is necessary to maintain liberty.  If you are a fan of economic history with a higher tolerance for libertarian nonsense than I am, there is a high chance you will regard this book even more than I do, but the appeal of this book is pretty widespread as long as you hate excessive and unfair taxation.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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