For Good and Evil --- The Impact of Taxes on the Course of Civilization by Charles Adams

Reviewed by Bert A. Loftman, MD
Article Type: 
Book Review
Spring 1997
Volume Number: 
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Charles W. Adams, a U.S. tax attorney, states the purpose of his book is to "set taxation apart and bring it into focus as one of the most powerful forces at work structuring society, today as well as in the past." He points out this is a formidable task, that there is no formalized discipline on this subject and this book is "to help fill that void." He starts out with a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes, a well known Supreme Court Justice of the early 20th Century. The quote is over the entrance of the IRS building in Washington, D.C. and reads "Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society." Charles Adams goes on "but how we tax and spend determines to a great extent, whether we are prosperous or poor, free or enslaved, and most important, good or evil."

This is a formidable task and he does an admirable job of accomplishing it using interesting examples, pictures, and cartoons. The book is broken into 8 parts and 38 chapters. The first part begins with Taxes: What They Are and Where They Begin with the first chapter describing the tax system of ancient Egypt. The final part is The Monster That Laid the Golden Egg. The Monster is the income tax and he traces its history through the ages. The last chapter ends with the title "Taming the Monster."

Any book that tries to be complete in making the point that taxes fund nations and nations make history would be almost impossible because this would encompass all nations and all history. Notwithstanding this, there were some areas concerning major events of contemporary times that I felt he should have discussed. These include the impact of taxes, if any, on the beginnings and course of World Wars I and II. Communism was a significant event of the 20th Century but it seems to be an anomaly. It is essentially a government without taxes because it owned and ran the factors of production. I would have been interested to hear his thoughts on this subject.

He gives a solution in the final chapter, "Taming the Monster," by saying, "Great revenues are needed and Congress should have many sources, thereby spreading the burden over all wealth, not just income." He supports this pluralistic approach to taxation by suggesting that Alexander Hamilton agrees with him. However, in The Federalist Papers, Hamilton said that "indirect taxes prescribe their own limit, which cannot be exceeded without defeating the end proposed --- that is, an extension of the revenueif duties are too high, they lessen the consumption; the collection is eluded; and the product to the treasury is not so great as when they are confined within proper and moderate bounds This forms a complete barrier against any material oppression of the citizens by taxes of this class, and is itself a natural limitation of the power of imposing them." This shows Hamilton's aversion to a direct or income tax and his preference for only indirect taxes.

In "Tax Revolt in the Colonies," Adams favorably discusses the reason for our "founding fathers to place the Fourth Amendment (The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated...) in the Bill of Rights." He points out that "Although that great Amendment is not now used to restrain revenue agents, it was initially adopted to do just that." In this chapter Adams seems to argue against an income tax that requires government searches. This would be incompatible with a pluralistic approach to taxation which would include an income tax. On balance, this discrepancy detracts little from the overall goal of the book.

The real value in this book lies in the many examples of how taxes impact nations. The first chapter makes the point that all civilizations tax to fund their governments. The right type of moderate taxation leads to prosperity and the wrong type leads to downfall. He describes the very elaborate tax system of ancient Egypt where the scribes collected the pharaoh's taxes. The temples and priests had immunity from taxation as our religions do today. For the people there was little difference. If they lived on temple land, they paid their taxes to the priests. In 200 B.C., there was a period of excess taxation and impoverishment. Tax evaders either left the land or were imprisoned. When the pharaoh gave tax amnesty and lowered taxes, prosperity returned. An interesting anecdote describes how in 200 B.C. certain Egyptian families were excused from taxes. Their names were written in stone: the Rosetta Stone.

He makes a good case that Rome fell because of taxation. First it was over taxed, which was followed by tax evasion to the point that the Roman Empire no longer had the revenue to defend itself. He explains how the collapse was followed in the 7th and 8th Centuries by the Islamic Empire which conquered a willing people with the promise of low taxes. Adams contends that this changed when they tried to invade Spain. By that time, Islam had an oppressive tax system designed to humiliate Christians. The Spaniards resisted, and Islam, with its corrupt tax system, contracted.

Adams covers U.S. history very well. It starts with the British imposing the molasses tax of 1733. This was a tariff that led to tax evasion and the British indiscriminate searching of the colonialists' homes and warehouses. This was the inspiration for the Fourth Amendment for privacy.

Adams lays the blame for the Civil War on a tariff. The backbone of the Southern economy was cotton production from slave plantations. It was financially more lucrative for the South to buy and sell from Europe rather than the North. The North had more political clout and retaliated with a heavy tariff on incoming European goods. When the U.S. government tried to collect the tariff in Charleston, South Carolina, it provoked the South into attacking Fort Sumpter. The rest is history.

The Monster That Laid the Golden Egg concerns the income tax and is must reading to understand the origins of some of our present problems. Adams attributes the first income tax to the British in 1404. He states that it caused so many problems that the British destroyed most of the records concerning it. As late as 1803, British historians called it "a hideous monster without precedent." From there, Adams traces it to modern times.

For Good and Evil performs its stated purpose of bringing attention to the tremendous impact of taxes on prosperity, wars, the freedom of citizens, and the rise and fall of nations and cultures. It has innumerable examples from history about which we are all familiar but with the added insight of how taxes impact them. Although he does not touch on health care per se, he nonetheless sets the stage for further development of the impact of taxes on this and other aspects of our lives. This book fills a needed void and is recommended as necessary background for people interested in developing a better understanding into the problems of our nation.

Reviewed by Bert A. Loftman, MD
Atlanta, GA

Dr. Loftman is a neurosurgeon at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, and the Director of Health Care Reform for Citizens for an Alternative Tax System.

Originally published in the Medical Sentinel 1997;2(2):75-76. Copyright@1997Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS).

(For Good and Evil --- The Impact of Taxes on the Course of Civilization by Charles Adams 530 pp., $17.95 [Softcover], ISBN: 0-8191-8631-7, New York, NY, Madison Books, 1993)


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