Gauri Natarajan, July 24, 2023
It is common for us to see our systems of taxation as extremely convoluted and confusing. It is a generally held belief that doing one’s taxes is a daunting task, and people often put them off to the last minute, citing the unbearable amount of paperwork that goes into it. This is something that doesn’t vary by country – indeed, citizens across the world spend countless hours and currency complying with various tax requirements.
But have you ever considered why it is so? Is there a reason that we all view our taxation systems as being this complicated? What do they hide by being this way?
After all, if we are unable to understand or even comprehend the complexity of our taxes, how can we truly know what kind of factors are at play here?
Of course, our governments use these taxes for a variety of purposes, not just increasing government revenue. So, it can be argued that there is a certain necessity in this system. However, the complex bureaucracy of our taxation system hides other, much more sinister realities.
In this blog, I would like to argue that the complex nature of our taxation systems aids in hiding the biases therein, and create a kind of “invisibility” in their discrimination. Drawing from the works of Henricks and Seamster (2016), I would like to take you through the ways in which taxes can create inequalities, especially racial inequalities.
Through the course of US history, tax reform strategies were pursued to protect white resources. This dates back to the inception of federal taxes itself – this is deeply tied to the status of Black American slaves – were they property or people? If they were defined as property, then white Americans would have been taxed more on their wealth. On the other hand, if they were defined as people, the institution of slavery could be called into question. Back then, a seemingly “colourblind” tax policy was adopted, the “impost” proposal. According to this, a flat 5% duty on “imported goods” was adopted in order to pay off war debts. But the entanglement of wealth and race did not end there.
Simply put, the construction of taxation here is not simply about how much money is paid where – but rather, who influences budgeting decision and how. In a process Camille Walsh describes as taxpayer citizenship, “taxes are a currency for civic belonging, and a pretext for racial exclusion.” (pp. 172). This can clearly be seen in the practice of property tax limitations – an idea once framed through a colourblind lens, but found in actuality to have greatly disadvantaged Black Americans.
But what about theorizing taxes that most of us don’t even really consider taxes in the first place?
“Though in the so-called postracial era, no one racial group can be legally subjected to pay a tax another group does not, at least on paper if not practice, some taxes nonetheless carry implicit biases. A consequence of reconfiguring the fiscal state in this way is that it changes obligations for who pays for the state. It creates (and in some cases expands) a dual tax structure organized along racial lines in the process.” – pp 174.
Using what Henricks and Seamster refer to as redistribution (of tax liability), we can see that there are certain forms of taxes that members of specific communities pay, which do not really make them taxpayers in the general sense. Take, for example, the levying of petty fines and fees, a common practice in the United States. In Ferguson, about 10% of the city revenue was generated through these fines, most of which are levied for minor infractions, which can be imposed at the police’s discretion and judgement. The racial implications of these policies can be clearly understood in this regard.
But the situation is even worse when we consider the usage of “police quotas” – the implicit or explicit expectation for police officers to hit numerical goals in a specific time period. These quotas, too, are tied to racially biases, with Black and Latino populations falling victim to the enforcement of low-level violations, such as stop-and-frisks, tickets, etc. This is but another common method for local governments to use policing to raise revenues.
The reason that I bring up this specific example, however, is to use it to illustrate one of the other key characteristics of taxation – the people who benefit from this form of discrimination are not the same people directly carrying it out. This does not mean that they are any less complicit, however.
“Often presumed as arcane and dreary, the tax system’s complexity, along with its lack of transparency, work to conceal its discriminatory nature. Taxation is insulated within layers of bureaucracy, lending its corrosive effects and slow devastation to communities of color a certain “killing them softly” quality […] Rarely is taxation theorized from this vantage point, however.” – pp. 175
We can thus see that historical practices of taxation take forms of racism that might be implemented at an interpersonal level and institutionalize them. This process is often hard to uncover, however, especially when our understandings of taxation are so underdeveloped in the first place. It is difficult to see whether there is a solution to this problem, but acknowledging the very existence of this problem might be a starting place.
If you are interested in learning more about the history of the American federal taxation system and its ties to slavery, please have a look at “Wealth, Slavery, and the History of American Taxation” by Christopher F. Petrella (https://www.aaihs.org/wealth-slavery-and-the-history-of-american-taxation/)
Henricks, Kasey; Seamster, Louise (2017): Mechanisms of the Racial Tax State. In: Critical Sociology 43(2), S. 169–179. DOI: 10.1177/0896920516670463.
(2022, July 6): Outlawing Police Quotas. Brennan Center for Justice, 6 July 2022.
Petrella, Christopher F (2022, April 6) Wealth, Slavery, and the History of American Taxation. AAIHS. www.aaihs.org/wealth-slavery-and-the-history-of-american-taxation
Lotta Björklund Larsen, Aug. 5, 2020
Shaping Taxpayers. Values in Action at the Swedish Tax Agency
By Lotta Björklund Larsen
Published in 2017 by Berghahn Books
My monograph is an ANT inspired ethnography based on three years of fieldwork at one of Sweden’s most esteemed bureaucracies, the Swedish Tax Agency (STA), from 2010 to 2013.
As taxation is often deemed utterly boring, my aim was to make this ethnography a vivid and intimate account of knowledge-making. I depict a STA that mediates the application of tax law while it vigorously strives to earn legitimacy in society in its collecting of taxes while minimizing tax faults. Although this book is about a government agency and its citizenry, the leading character is a report which is created as the result of a risk assessment project performed at this Agency.
Based on unparalleled and up-close fieldwork, I follow the creation of this report from its inception, through the research phase, over the deliberations on how the finished report should be communicated to the Swedish public, and ultimately during the process of implementing the changes in routines that followed from the report.
The Agency’s project involved hundreds of people, but eventually came up with results that were deemed too controversial for external publication.
Results from the report emerged as a potential threat to the maintenance of the Agency’s credibility, and the legitimacy it had built up over decades was put at risk.
The book follows a risk assessment project from its inception, through the research phase, in presentations throughout the STA to its final abandonment as the results and conclusions reached did not align with the STA's strategies. Following this project reveals how diverse knowledge claims—legal, economic, and cultural—compete to shape taxpayer behaviour.
Voices about the book:
“How tax compliance is shaped merits much more attention than it has received in anthropology and the social sciences. The book offers a wonderful rendering of the true strangeness and contingency of familiar routines – something the best social theory does.”
-Liz McFall, Open University
“Shaping Taxpayers will be a significant, indeed, ground-breaking study that will propel this vein of interdisciplinary scholarship, concerned with social studies of finance, cultural economy, fiscal sociology and bureaucratic practice, into the mainstream.”
-Bill Maurer, Univ. of California, Irvine
Do you have anything to write about taxes? Book review? Your own book announcement? Insights into or reflections on a specific area of tax in society? A short ethnographic vignette that didn't fit into an article but you'd like to share?
Anything you would like to write that relates to tax can be published here!
Please contact me with the form to the right!
Want to be in touch?
Please fill in this form