February 12, 2005

What We're Reading

WE RECENTLY had the good fortune to pick up a copy of Ibn Khaldun's The Muqaddimah: an Introduction to History at the bookstore. While we have not had a chance to really sit down and read it, the parts we have read have been downright amazing. We mean: wow. We don't think we've ever read a medieval history that has been so lucid, so clear, or so downright on the money it blows everything else out of the water.

Obviously, there's a lot of dated thinking in the book -- Ibn Khaldun did write it in the 14th century. But other parts of his work are incredibly advanced for someone who lived then. People often look to the past and grumble that they were born years or decades or centuries too late; but Ibn Khaldun was a man born about 500 years too early. For instance, he has a downright amazing grasp of economics -- and in some ways, is practically modern in his outlook on that.

That achievement is even more amazing when one considers the world history of the dismal science, an experience which can best be compared to a man in a dark room fumbling for several scattered light switches. The Greeks and Romans had the basics (private property, good! trade, good! currency, good!) figured out, but they were clueless when it came to figuring out larger stuff. That failure to do so sundered Europe for centuries -- and it wasn't until the Late Middle Ages that people started figuring things out again. Even then, it wasn't until Smith came along that people really started to get a handle on things.

So that's why Ibn Khaldun is such an amazing figure, because he gets it. Just consider the following section of his work:

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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 of Islam, it imposes only such taxes as are stipulated by the religious law, such as charity taxes, the land tax, and the poll tax. These have fixed limits that cannot be exceeded.

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, 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 propsperity 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. 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 individual assessments go down. Often, when the decrease is noted, 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. Finally, civilization is destroyed, because the incentive for cultural activity is gone. It is the dynasty that suffers from the situation, because it profits from cultural activity.

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Sound familiar?

Obviously, society still argues today about how low the low ought be, but the idea as a whole is generally accepted. So we look forward to reading the rest of Ibn Khaldun's work, to see what else he learned far before most of us.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at February 12, 2005 12:03 PM | TrackBack