Tax season came and went in the U.S. this past month. And with it, there were undoubtedly scores of citizens cursing the tax code. But the truth is that, for us lawful, tax-code-abiding citizens, paying taxes is inevitable.
While that probably won’t relieve upset taxpayers who may owe money or felt their return was shorted, hopefully these eight absurd tax laws will put a smile on their faces. Let’s laugh together and forget about those pesky W-2s and 1099s with some absurdity from around the world.
8. The Decimation Tax
We’re all familiar with taxes being used as political ammo, but English Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell perhaps took it too far with his Royalist “Decimation Tax.”
Charged with leading a tumultuous England in the 17th century, Cromwell sought to quell his opposition party (the Royalists) with taxation. He collected 10% of Royalist property as part of his Decimation Tax, which he then used to fund militias set up to oppress the party. The Protectorate justified the tax as necessary because Royalist uprisings were the reasons the militias were formed in the first place.
The tax didn’t last long, and neither did Cromwell’s Protectorate government, which ended only six years after its introduction. But Cromwell almost achieved what many modern politicians would love: the opposition funding its own demise. And we thought our politics are cutthroat.
7. Romania’s Witch Tax
Superstition is a large part of Romanian culture. As the home of Dracula’s inspiration and countless witches, both “evil” and “friendly,” it’s no wonder there was outrage within the country whenthe government started taxing witchcraft.
It turns out that local witches were able to avoid the toil of income taxes because Romania’s labor code didn’t list witchcraft as a profession. This all changed in 2011, when the country began enforcing income tax on witches, astrologers and fortunetellers. While some rejoiced the designation as finally being recognized as professionals in the eyes of the nation, even more cursed their new burden.
The change in law was an attempt to alleviate economic downtown. A cauldron of protest boiled over their new 16% income tax, but it nonetheless spelled the end of Romanian witches’ tax-evading ways.
6. Tennessee Illicit Drug Tax
Drugs are bad, okay. But that doesn’t mean the government shouldn’t garner tax revenue from them. As such, in 2005, the state of Tennessee passed the “Crack Tax,” which sought to collect taxes on controlled substances, like cocaine, marijuana and moonshine.
The law required people who bought or sold drugs to buy a tax stamp for the drugs they possessed. If the druggie was caught with goods but no stamp, their property would be seized and their bank accounts frozen until the back taxes were paid. Citizens were allowed to anonymously pay the taxes, which couldn’t be used against them in a criminal case, but which also didn’t provide immunity from criminal prosecution.
Tennessee reportedly issued over 700 crack stamps in the first couple years of the law, although many were allegedly sold to stamp collectors as novelties. The state has collected more than $6 million from the tax, although most of the revenue came from seizures. Tennessee courts ruled the tax unconstitutional in 2009, an act likely unnoticed by local stoners and cokeheads.
5. Wacky British Taxes
We here in the States (especially Boston) have historically had issues with British taxes, so it’s not surprising that we found a couple we can poke fun at.
One such tax was introduced in the 18th century and was aimed at “painted, printed or stained” wallpaper. After paying the tax, citizens were issued a stamp to validate the payment. Not surprisingly, bootleg stamps started making their rounds, so to combat those dangerous wallpaper-tax dodgers, the U.K. made the forgery of the wallpaper stamps punishable—by death.
Other amusing taxes from Britain’s past include a “window tax” on houses with more than six windows, which resulted in windows being bricked up throughout the country, a quirk that can still be found in a number of buildings from the time. There was also a soap tax that compelled many to skip baths and a hat tax that required men to have a stamp embedded in the lining of their hats. The punishment for forgery of said stamp? You guessed it: death.
4. Swedish Tax Agency’s Naming Rights
This one may not be a tax code in the strictest of senses, but it’s nonetheless pretty confounding. The authority of the Swedish Tax Agency is apparently pretty pervasive, and it spreads all the way to their children, whose names must be approved by the agency within three months of their births.
The law was enacted in 1982 to prevent families using noble, offensive or confusing names for their children. It also applies to adults who wish to change their names. Non-approved names can result in a fine worth as much as 5,000 Swedish kroner, or about 770 U.S. dollars.
There have been a few notable protest names in recent years. Perhaps the most notable one came to light in the 1990s. In 1996, Swedish parents were fined for failing to register a legal name for their seven-year-old boy. In response to the fine, the parents proposed a new name, “A,” but the tax agency ruled against one-letter names. In response to this ruling, they proposed a 43-character name, “Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116,” which they said was pronounced “Albin.” Surprisingly, the tax agency rejected this name as well. Luckily for the kid and whoever else has to spell his name, his parents gave up their fight and settled on the normal spelling of “Albin.”
3. The Flatulence Tax
In an effort to get livestock producers to “internalize the costs of environmental challenges,” the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) proposed a tax on bovine flatulence, or in laymen’s terms, cow farts.
It turns out that cows release more greenhouse gases than cars, so much so that the UN suggests the environmental impact of cattle may be more damaging than the emissions of cars and trucks combined. The average cow apparently produces 4,000 grams of carbon dioxide every day and even more methane, which is 20 times more potent than CO2.
Ireland, Denmark, Estonia and other European nations have enacted tax laws on cow flatulence. And rumor has it that the U.S. is about to pass a gas tax of its own.
2. Russia’s Beard Tax
Hipsters, beware: this is your worst nightmare.
Throughout his reign, Russian Tsar Peter the Great sought to westernize his empire, so to get ideas for reform, he toured Western Europe in the late 17th century. In his travels, he noticed that the majority of noble men in the West were clean-shaven, a style he hoped his nation would embrace. When his court gathered for his return, he greeted them with scissors and hacked their long beards. Beards were a cultural tradition in Russia, and while his court probably didn’t appreciate the haircut, they nonetheless obeyed.
Peter the Great then announced a new tax on beards for all men except priests. The men had to pay a small fortune in exchange for a token they’d wear to indicate that their taxes had been paid. The token read: “The beard is a useless burden.”
Peter introduced many other reforms, but the beard tax was arguably the quirkiest. The law surprisingly lasted for decades, until bearded Russians rejoiced its appeal in 1772.
1. China Mandates Smoking
Amidst an economic crisis in 2009, Chinese officials in Gong’an County sought to boost tax revenues while encouraging the purchase of locally made goods. Their solution? Make people smoke.
To discourage residents from buying cigarettes made outside the Hubei province, the law mandated quotas of cigarette cartons for each of its villages. “The regulation will boost the local economy via the cigarette tax,” said a member of the Gong’an cigarette market team. And boost it did. Local officials were ordered to collectively smoke 230,000 locally manufactured cigs per year, an estimated worth of over $600,000 in smokes. Those who failed to meet quotas or were caught smoking non-Hubei cigarettes were subject to fines and “public criticism.”
The law was short-lived, as local and international criticism forced officials to reverse the edict, but the fact that it ever existed is a testament to how much value nations place on tax revenues above other social factors. Luckily, this law is something that we don’t have to deal with, but what taxes have we missed that should be included on the list?