A HISTORY OF TAXATION AND EXPENDITURE IN THE WESTERN WORLD by Carolyn & Aaron Wildavsky Webber
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A HISTORY OF TAXATION AND EXPENDITURE IN THE WESTERN WORLD

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The authors spent over 17 years getting this book into print. The result is an epic audit of government income and outgo from the earliest periods for which records exist to the present day. With precious few exceptions, making ends meet has not proved easy for any government down through the ages, observe the authors (both of whom are faculty members at the University of California, Berkeley). Despite a lack of budgeting tools, the rulers of ancient China, Egypt, India, and other lands employed fiscal management techniques remarkably similar to those currently in use. Local officials, to illustrate, conducted censuses on behalf of their sovereigns to determine liabilities for corvÉe (labor in lieu of tax) and head taxes; cattle were counted as well to calculate in-kind levies. During Europe's early-modern era (15th through 18th centuries), legislatures seized the power of the purse from monarchs. As one consequence, state financial policies (broadly defined as the ways in which money was raised and spent) were no longer formulated by fiat, but by ""a wider, more representative constituency."" Lawmakers' dominion helped produce substantive innovations (in particular, central banking and funded debt), which led to an expansion of the scale, then the scope, of government, starting in the 19th century. In the meantime, a remarkable sociopolitical consensus kept the US from the ranks of industrial democracies whose outlays outpaced their receipts. ""It took the depression. . .to create an American 'left' that viewed bigger government as both a counter to big business and a force for good,"" say the authors. Since the mid-1960's, the US has not been fundamentally different from the welfare states of Western Europe, to the extent that it has upped spending ""for redistributive purposes."" Throughout the West, though, serious (albeit largely unsuccessful) efforts are now under way to control public expenditures. Ultimately, the authors suggest, if history is any guide, economic growth could overtake government spending. They conclude, however, that the price of balanced budgets might include a loss of liberties and ""problems of which we are as yet unaware."" Probably so, but their tour-de-force canvass will be available to provide valuable perspectives on the difficulties ahead.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1986
Publisher: Simon & Schuster