Jewish World Review Nov. 4, 1999 /23 Mar-Cheshvan 5760
And you thought the IRS
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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