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Taxes, money & markets

Puzzle: Why do governments make money — then demand it back in taxes?

The basic history: if you don't have enough tokens that the king gave his soldiers—one day he'll throw you in jail. (Or whatever the punishments were for your family not obtaining a token.) So you'd better expend some efforts contriving a way to get your hands on them.

This built money & markets:

If nothing else, this approach helps solve one of the obvious mysteries of the fiscal policy of so many early kingdoms: Why did they make subjects pay taxes at all? This is not a question we’re used to asking. The answer seems self-evident. Governments demand taxes because they wish to get their hands on people’s money. But if Smith was right, and gold and silver became money through the natural workings of the market completely independently of governments, then wouldn’t the obvious thing be to just grab control of the gold and silver mines? Then the king would have all the money he could possibly need. In fact, this is what ancient kings would normally do. If there were gold and silver mines in their territory, they would usually take control of them. So what exactly was the point of extracting the gold, stamping one’s picture on it, causing it to circulate among one’s subjects—and then demanding that those same subjects give it back again?

This does seem a bit of a puzzle. But if money and markets do not emerge spontaneously, it actually makes perfect sense. Because this is the simplest and most efficient way to bring markets into being. Let us take a hypothetical example. Say a king wishes to support a standing army of fifty thousand men. Under ancient or medieval conditions, feeding such a force was an enormous problem. Such a force would likely consume anything edible within ten miles of their camp in as many days; unless they were on the march, one would need to employ almost as many men and animals just to locate, acquire, and transport the necessary provisions.18 On the other hand, if one simply hands out coins to the soldiers and then demands that every family in the kingdom was obliged to pay one of those coins back to you, one would, in one blow, turn one’s entire national economy into a vast machine for the provisioning of soldiers, since now every family, in order to get their hands on the coins, must find some way to contribute to the general effort to provide soldiers with things they want. Markets are brought into existence as a side effect.

— David Graeber, "Debt: The First 5000 Years"

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