The new head of government did not bring good news and glad tidings to tax collectors.
Things in the Empire were a mess when Diocletian took over. Rome was on the verge of collapse. Trade had become unsafe. The economy was a shambles. Wealthy landowners had taken so much power, they had effectively become the government in many areas, providing protection, administering justice as it served them.
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Taxes were still collected, and those taxes still went to the Empire. But landowners in many areas were not paying and the burden fell increasingly on the lower classes. The Empire couldn’t keep up with the cost of maintaining the military.
One of Diocletian’s moves was intended to reverse this.
Tax collection had been done through a farm system. Administrators representing the Empire determined how much should come from each geographic area. Tax collectors had a lot of discretion about who to tax and how much should be paid. The Empire really didn’t much care about such details as long as the money came in.
Tax collectors got what they got from the most accessible, the most vulnerable. It had always been that way. Augustus had put in reforms, but the effects were limited, and they faded.
The system was profitable for the collectors. They got everything they could. After they met their quota, they got to keep the rest. Tax collectors were the predators. Ordinary people were the prey.
Tax collectors paid for their position. Tax collection was auctioned off. The highest bidder got to be a tax collector.
Tax collectors, going after the most vulnerable, accumulating great wealth, using Roman military protection as enforcement for random extortion, were reviled. Many Christians know this from their Bibles. Hatred toward tax collectors did not come from hatred against taxes. It came from hatred of corruption, bending official rules for private enrichment, exploitation of the weakest and most vulnerable, collaboration with the occupiers.
Tax farming, as it is called, was the ancient equivalent of privatization. It was horrible.
Diocletian ended the system, and he managed to extend the life of the Empire by centuries. He put tax collectors on salary and assigned assessors to determine tax levels by formula rather than by discretion.
I was thinking of tax farming as I read analyses of the report by the Department of Justice about the police department in Ferguson.
Pressure on professional police officers has forced them to become Ferguson’s version of tax farmers. They do not enrich themselves. They simply keep their jobs by purposefully targeting the most vulnerable citizens.
Those judged to be vulnerable are mostly black.
Officials impose goals on police.
…unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year, it will be hard to significantly raise collections next year. What are your thoughts? Given that we are looking at a substantial sales tax shortfall, it’s not an insignificant issue.
– Ferguson finance director to the Ferguson police chief in March 2010
Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, US Department of Justice
City prosecutors instruct police officers to issue companion charges with traffic citations.
Supervisors are instructed to punish officers who do not issue enough tickets.
Officers sometimes write six, eight, or, in at least one instance, fourteen citations for a single encounter. Indeed, officers told us that some compete to see who can issue the largest number of citations during a single stop.
Fourteen citations? For one incident? As part of a jovial contest?
The effect on very real lives goes beyond city revenue spreadsheets. Jobs are lost. Opportunities are aborted. Ambitions are diverted from education to court appearances.
People spend time in jail or pay extreme fines for offenses too petty to consider seriously. $300 fines for Manner of Walking charges? Really? 95% of those convicted of Manner of Walking violations are black people.
Police in Ferguson are deprived of their role of protecting and serving the public. They are, in fact, punished if they try to focus on performing that role.
That does not exonerate individual officers. Many enthusiastically accept the role of generating city revenue. They deliberately target the growing minority population of Ferguson. Countless email messages document the glee with which they pursue their prey. The numbers reflect that targeting.
If we want to understand the fear and resentment in Ferguson and beyond, we can go to our history books.
The bitterness toward police in Ferguson is mirrored in other St. Louis County municipalities that follow similar practices. It is not a new hostility. It goes back to tax farming of antiquity. In occupied provinces during Roman times, the hatred was palpable and well known.
Police in Ferguson do not accumulate great wealth while targeting the vulnerable, while serving city bosses.
Ferguson tax farming is performed on the cheap.