Charging taxes on income is hard. Worldwide experiences show that less developed countries have difficulties raising revenue from income taxes. Below I have plotted GDP per capita and Income (and capital) tax share of total government revenue for 2005. It is reasonable that most countries have a hard time making people and firms pay income taxes, but richer countries clearly tend to do it more.
Source: World Development Indicators.
The income tax has not been common throughout history. For example, a century ago the income tax almost did not exist in the US. Most government revenue was from trade tariffs and consumption taxes. These are much easier to collect. You just need someone at the port of trade, or some random controls at shops. Look at the sale value and take a share. But income tax is harder. You need people to be capable of keeping track of their income and sum it. And then you also need them to be honest and report it. Finally you need to enforce it, with a system potentially capable of checking every person. However, in spite of all these difficulties, income tax now account for over 55%. How did this happen?
Well, as usual, first came a government in financial trouble: wars are the starting point of most taxes. The idea first floated during the 1812 war with the UK, but it was unsuccessful. Later, the civil war was bad enough to ensure the introduction of the income tax (and the beloved IRS!), focusing on rich individuals. How did they enforce people to pay? By encouraging people to report their neighbors to the IRS if they were driving a Ferrari (or the horse equivalent of the time). Some people even claim that the income tax was key for the victory of the north. So the income tax might have even stopped slavery!
But this was not enough. The war ended and so did many of the pressing needs. You may think it would have been reasonable to keep the tax to build a safety fund? Wrong. As soon as the war ended, rich people didn't want to keep paying. Moreover, they could afford the lawyers and the Supreme Court agreed with them. Surprising, ha? But you can always count on new government deficits. They currency and stock market crisis of 1907 meant funds were needed. So just before the First World War the constitution was changed, allowing the government to collect income tax. But it was still focused just on the rich. Less than 2% of the people paid taxes.
Once the Second World War arrives to the American coast, more money is needed. So they decided to expand the income tax to the middle class. They needed someone beloved, with credibility, charming to promote the tax: Donald the Duck. Yes, you read correctly. Here is the video:
And this is how the income tax came to be in the US. With an approval rate usually above 80%, it surpasses any politician I know. As Walt Disney appropriately said: "If you can dream it, you can do it."
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