Ibn Khaldun, Taxes and the Rise and Decline of Empire
February 7, 2010
When I’m feeling lazy and Sunday is coming up, I grab something out of my book. There’s so much good stuff in there, it’s a practically endless resource. You should really buy a copy if you haven’t yet.
Today, we have passages by Ibn Khaldun, an Arab genius of the 14th century. Ibn Khaldun must have one of the most impressive resumes of all history. He was born in Tunis to a family of high-level bureaucrats. Although he held minor government offices from a young age, his first high office, as prime minister, came about after he had been plotting against a local monarch. He was thrown in prison; one of his prison friends later became the monarch, and brought Khaldun into his government. He was part of the court of the Sultan of Grenada, for whom he successfully negotiated a peace treaty with the King of Castile. Pedro the Cruel was so impressed by his abilities, he offered Khaldun a place at his court, along with landholdings in the area that had previously been in his family. More diplomatic positions followed. Eventually, frustrated with the constantly changing alliances and politics, he sought refuge wth one of the Berber tribes. For three years, in a small village, he wrote the “Prolegomena,” the first book of an enormous history of the world that he had planned. The “prolegomena” consisted of his theory of history, from which we get our passages below.
Finding that the small Berber town did not have the resources he needed for his history, he migrated to Alexandria in Egypt. There, he held high office within the justice system. His attempts to reform the system produced conflict, however, and he was forced to resign. He then made a four-year trip to Mecca. After his return, he continued to serve as something like a high professor of law. During this time, his son Faraj was sent to lead an army to relieve Damascus of a siege by the Mongol conqueror Timur. Faraj, inexperienced and concerned about a revolt in Egypt, abandoned his army in Syria, at which point Ibn Khaldun assumed command. Khaldun surmised that his army was no match for Timur’s, and, in typical Khaldun fashion, arranged to be lowered over the city’s walls by ropes to begin long series of talks with Timur. He returned to Egypt without hostilities. His last five years were spent completing his epic history of the region, which British historian Arnold J. Toynbee called “a philosophy of history which is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place.” The British philosopher Robert Flint wrote: “As a theorist on history he had no equal in any age… Plato, Aristotle and Augustine were not his peers.”
Chapter III, part 36: Taxation and the reason for low and high (tax revenues).
It should be known that at the beginning of the dynasty, taxation yields a large revenue from small assessments. At the end of the dynasty, taxation yields a small revenue from large assessments.
The reason for this is that when the dynasty follows the ways (sunan) of the religion, it imposes only such taxes as are stipulated by the religious law, such as charity taxes, the land tax, and the poll tax. They mean small assessments, because, as everyone knows, the charity tax on property is low. The same applies to the charity tax on grain and cattle, and also to the poll tax, the land tax, and all other taxes required by the religious law. They have fixed limits that cannot be overstepped.
When the dynasty follows the ways of group feeling and (political) superiority, it necessarily has at first a desert attitude, as has been mentioned before. The desert attitude requires kindness, reverence, humility, respect for the property of other people, and disinclination to appropriate it, except in rare instances. Therefore, the individual imposts and assessments, which together constitute the tax revenue, are low. When tax assessments and imposts upon the subjects are low, the latter have the energy and desire to do things. Cultural enterprises grow and increase, because the low taxes bring satisfaction. When cultural enterprises grow, the number of individual imposts and assessments mounts. In consequence, the tax revenue, which is the sum total of (the individual assessments), increases.
When the dynasty continues in power and their rulers follow each other in succession, they become sophisticated. The Bedouin attitude and simplicity lose their significance, and the Bedouin qualities of moderation and restraint disappear. Royal authority with its tyranny, and sedentary culture that stimulates sophistication, make their appearance. The people of the dynasty then acquire qualities of character related to cleverness. Their customs and needs become more varied because of the prosperity and luxury in which they are immersed. As a result, the individual imposts and assessments upon the subjects, agricultural laborers, farmers, and all the other taxpayers, increase. Every individual impost and assessment is greatly increased, in order to obtain a higher tax revenue. Customs duties are placed upon articles of commerce and (levied) at the city gates, as we shall mention later on. Then, gradual increases in the amount of the assessments succeed each other regularly, in correspondence with the gradual increase in the luxury customs and many needs of the dynasty and the spending required in connection with them. Eventually, the taxes will weigh heavily upon the subjects and overburden them. Heavy taxes become an obligation and tradition, because the increases took place gradually, and no one knows specifically who increased them or levied them. They lie upon the subjects like an obligation and tradition.
The assessments increase beyond the limits of equity. The result is that the interest of the subjects in cultural enterprises disappears, since when they compare expenditures and taxes with their income and gain and see the little profit they make, they lose all hope. Therefore, many of them refrain from all cultural activity. The result is that the total tax revenue goes down, as (the number of) the individual assessments goes down. Often, when the decrease is noticed, the amounts of individual imposts are increased. This is considered a means of compensating for the decrease. Finally, individual imposts and assessments reach their limit. It would be of no avail to increase them further. The costs of all cultural enterprise are now too high, the taxes are too heavy, and the profits anticipated fail to materialize. Thus, the total revenue continues to decrease, while the amounts of individual imposts and assessments continue to increase, because it is believed that such an increase will compensate (for the drop in revenue) in the end. Finally, civilization is destroyed, because the incentive for cultural activity is gone. It is the dynasty that suffers from the situation, because it (is the dynasty that) profits from cultural activity.
If (the reader) understands this, he will realize that the strongest incentive for cultural activity is to lower as much as possible the amounts of individual imposts levied upon persons capable of undertaking cultural enterprises. In this manner, such persons will be psychologically disposed to undertake them, because they can be confident of making a profit from them.
Chapter III, part 37: In the later (years) of dynasties, customs duties are levied.
It should be known that at the beginning, dynasties maintain the Bedouin attitude, as we have stated. Therefore, they have few needs, since luxury and the habits that go with it do not (yet) exist. Expenses and expenditures are small. At that time, revenue from taxes pays for much more than the necessary expenditures, and there is a large surplus.
The dynasty, then, soon starts to adopt the luxury and luxury customs of sedentary culture, and follows the course that had been taken by previous dynasties. The result is that the expenses of the people of the dynasty grow. Especially do the expenses of the ruler mount excessively, on account of his expenditures for his entourage and the great number of allowances he has to grant. The (available) revenue from taxes cannot pay for all that. Therefore, the dynasty must increase its revenues, because the militia needs (ever) larger allowances and the ruler needs (ever) more money to meet his expenditures. At first, the amounts of individual imposts and assessments are increased, as we have stated. Then, as expenses and needs increase under the influence of the gradual growth of luxury customs and additional allowances for the militia, the dynasty is affected by senility. Its people are too weak to collect the taxes from the provinces and remote areas. Thus, the revenue from taxes decreases, while the habits (requiring money) increase. As they increase, salaries and allowances to the soldiers also increase. Therefore, the ruler must invent new kinds of taxes. He levies them on commerce. He imposes taxes of a certain amount on prices realized in the markets and on the various (imported) goods at the city gates. (The ruler) is, after all, forced to this because people have become spoiled by generous allowances, and because of the growing numbers of soldiers and militiamen. In the later (years) of the dynasty, (taxation) may become excessive. Business falls off, because all hopes (of profit) are destroyed, permitting the dissolution of civilization and reflecting upon (the status of) the dynasty. This (situation) becomes more and more aggravated, until (the dynasty) disintegrates.
Much of this sort happened in the Eastern cities during the later days of the ‘Abbasid and ‘Ubaydid(-Fatimid) dynasties. Taxes were levied even upon pilgrims making the pilgrimage. Salah-ad-din Ibn Ayyub abolished all such institutions and replaced them with good works. The same also happened in Spain at the time of the reyes de ta’ifas. Yusuf b. Tashfin, the Almoravid amir, put an end to it. The same has also been happening in the cities of the Jarid in Ifrigiyah, ever since their chiefs gained control over them.
Chapter III, part 39: The ruler and his entourage are wealthy only in the middle (period) of the dynasty.
The reason for this is that at the beginning of the dynasty, the revenues are distributed among the tribe and the people who share in the ruler’s group feeling, in accordance with their usefulness and group feeling and because they are needed to establish the dynasty, as we have stated before. Under these circumstances, their leader refrains in their favor from (claiming) the revenues which they would like to have. He feels compensated for (his restraint) by the control over them that he hopes to establish. They can put pressure on him, and he needs them. His share of the revenues is restricted to the very small (amounts) he needs. Consequently, the members of his entourage and company, his wazirs, secretaries, and clients, usually can be observed to be destitute. Their position is restricted, because it depends on the position of their master, and the authority of (his position) is narrowed down by the competition of the people who share in his group feeling.
Then, when royal authority has come into its own and the ruler has obtained control over his people, he prevents them from getting (any part of) the revenues, beyond their official shares. Their portions shrink, because their usefulness to the dynasty has diminished. Their influence has been checked, and clients and followers have come to share with them in the support of the dynasty and the establishment of its power. At this time, the ruler disposes alone of the whole income from taxes, or the greater part of it. He keeps this money, and holds it for spending on important projects. His wealth grows. His treasuries are filled. The authority of his position expands, and he dominates all his people. As a consequence, the men of his entourage and retinue, the wazir, the secretary, the doorkeeper (hajib), the client, and the policeman, all become more important, and their positions expand. They acquire property and enrich themselves.
Then, when the dynasty starts to become senile, as the result of the dissolution of group feeling and the disappearance of the tribe that founded it, the ruler needs supporters and helpers, because there are then many seceders, rivals, and rebels, and there is the fear of (complete) destruction. His revenues then go to his allies and supporters, military men who have their own group feelings. He spends his treasures and revenues on attempts to restore (the power of) the dynasty. Moreover, the revenue from taxes decreases, as we have stated before because there are many allowances to be paid and expenditures to be made. The revenues from the land tax decrease. The dynasty’s need for money becomes more urgent. The intimates, the doorkeepers (hajib), and the secretaries no longer live under the shadow of prosperity and luxury, as their positions lose importance and the authority of the ruler’s (position) shrinks.
Chapter III, part 41: Injustice brings about the ruin of civilization
It should be known that attacks on people’s property remove the incentive to acquire and gain property. People, then, become of the opinion that the purpose and ultimate destiny of (acquiring property) is to have it taken away from them. When the incentive to acquire and obtain property is gone, people no longer make efforts to acquire any. The extent and degree to which property rights are infringed upon determines the extent and degree to which the efforts of the subjects to acquire property slacken. When attacks (on property) are extensive and general, extending to all means of making a livelihood, business inactivity, too, becomes (general), because the general extent of (such attacks upon property) means a general destruction of the incentive (to do business). If the attacks upon property are but light, the stoppage of gainful activity is correspondingly slight. Civilization and its well-being as well as business prosperity depend on productivity and people’s efforts in all directions in their own interest and profit. When people no longer do business in order to make a living, and when they cease all gainful activity, the business of civilization slumps, and everything decays. People scatter everywhere in search of sustenance, to places outside the jurisdiction of their present government. The population of the particular region becomes light. The settlements there become empty. The cities lie in ruins. The disintegration of (civilization) causes the disintegration of the status of dynasty and ruler, because (their peculiar status) constitutes the form of civilization and the form necessarily decays when its matter (in this case, civilization) decays.
Note: This is something worth watching today. Martin Armstrong talks about it constantly (not surprisingly given his situation).
One of the things you’ll notice is that the great discoveries regaring the Magic Formula (low taxes, stable money) are only appreciated when people are in the right frame of mind. There was a time when you could say that these things were somewhat unknown. However, here in the United States, we already went through the Supply Side Revolution in the 1980s. An immense amount of investigation was done, and it was more or less a success. Just in the past ten years, another 25 or so governments have adopted flat-tax systems, with pretty much a 100% success rate.
The right frame of mind seems to happen most often after some terrible disaster. All of the old systems and structures have been discredited. The country is in ruins. There is no more “business as usual” because it has all been blown to bits. This might have been after the fall of the Soviet Union, or after World War II, and to some degree at the end of the difficult 1970s. After three or five years of very hard times, people come together — maybe like the “tribe” that Khaldun speaks of. They decide, as a society: “Enough is enough! We deserve better than this!” Then — and only then! — they rediscover the eternal secrets of success and failure that we aim to describe here. And, they are willing to cooperate to make it all happen.
Today, we have a government in the United States which has clearly rotted away. Nobody wants to take any action that is for the good of the whole. It has become very clear to everyone involved that those who suck resources (bank bailouts, asset liquidations, defense contracts, pork) out of the government prosper, and those that do not, do not prosper. At this late stage, even regular business has become disadvantageous. The most successful “businesspeople” today are those that collude with the government to channel existing weatlh and assets into their possession, rather than creating new wealth.
Thus, the primary goal of all involved is to strip wealth and assets from the government, and indirectly from the population as a whole. Charles Hugh Smith calls it “strip mining the populace,” and that is a good term. There is little interest in reducing tax rates today because that appears to be contrary to the primary operating principle of strip-mining the government and the populace. Nor is there a whiff of real interest in reducing spending either.
Eventually, the government loses all legitimacy. It has become plain to see, despite the constant stream of lies being told, that the government has become nothing but a gang of criminals. I would call this a dissolution of “group feeling” that Khaldun writes about. Certainly there are many that feel this way today, but not a majority yet.