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Jewish World Review Nov. 4, 1999 /23 Mar-Cheshvan 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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And you thought the IRS
was heartless -- THIS MORNING'S REPORT does not exactly qualify as breaking news -- it happened, oh, about 300 years ago -- but it does have relevance to today's political atmosphere.

It concerns taxes -- specifically, it concerns perhaps the meanest single tax in the history of the world. When I heard about it the other day (I'm sometimes a little slow catching up on things), I thought it must be a joke. But it's true.

It is (or was) the Window Tax.

And as Americans discuss the relative merits of compassion versus economic realism, of welfare reform versus lending a helping hand to the poor, the Window Tax is a reminder that as rotten as we can seem at times, we've never done anything quite this dastardly.

The Window Tax -- levied in England during the 1690s, in the era of King William III and Queen Mary II -- was just what it sounded like. If you had windows, you had to pay a tax on each of them -- give money to the government.

So the poor -- who were having a hard enough time of things as it was -- faced a choice:

Have light in their homes for their families to read by, to eat meals by, to look at each other by.

Or become totally destitute by paying taxes on their windows.

"I agree, it was a terrible tax," said history professor emeritus Walter Arnstein of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "They were essentially placing a tax on light -- there has never been anything quite like it."

England was fighting a war against France at the time, professor Arnstein said, and money was needed. Still, this particular tax. . . .

"(Humankind) is favorable toward light," he said. "This tax literally seemed to cast society into darkness."

Some families had to brick up their windows, professor Arnstein said -- if the choice was between living in darkness or paying taxes to the government for one's windows, certain families had no choice: The windows ended up being replaced by bricks or boards.

"Even the way the tax was set up had a deliberate reason," he said. "There was the longstanding belief in England that `a man's home is his castle.' Homeowners did not like to allow the tax collector inside.

"But with the Window Tax, the government did not have to go inside a house -- just count the windows from the outside, and figure up the tax."

At Purdue University, Melinda Zook, associate history professor, said the Window Tax was intended as a kind of luxury tax: "It was the wealthy people who had the windows, and that's where the tax money was supposed to come from."

But, of course, the Window Tax acted as a damper on middle-class or lower-middle-class families who otherwise would have aspired to do better: Why work so that you can buy a nice house, if you're going to have to brick up the windows so you can afford to stay there?

"In some houses, the only light coming in was from the chimney," professor Zook said. "But there was a hearth tax, too -- the government taxed homes for the hearths that were there."

Another University of Illinois professor -- John Dussinger, who teaches literature and history -- said, "I do think that people suffered real hardships because of the Window Tax. You would expect some mercy from the government toward people who wish to have light in their homes -- but I don't think it ever occurred to the tax collectors exactly what they were doing to people.`"

Looking back on it, professor Dussinger said, "It was an awful tax -- just awful."

Which brings us to today -- and how our political leaders are always accusing each other of being insensitive and coldhearted.

Today's politicians have the capacity to do some wretched things -- but would anyone ever dare propose a Window Tax? Would any politician have the temerity to suggest that families should be taxed on the very light that flows into their homes?

"I don't think so," said professor Dussinger, laughing.

"It doesn't seem likely," said professor Zook.

"I don't think you're going to see a Window Tax here," said professor Arnstein.

But -- just in case you are thinking our current-day politicians are so sneaky that they are able to come up with ways to get our money that are as cruel as the Window Tax, but that don't sound as bad -- professor Arnstein said that government leaders in the Window Tax days of England were just as devious.

Those families who bricked up their windows to spare themselves from the Window Tax? Who lived in houses with no sunlight?

"There was a tax on candles, too," professor Arnstein said. "So the tax collectors got you either way. If you had any light at all in your house, then you were going to pay up."

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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