1. To discourage something, as part of a broader policy. The state doesn't want everyone to wear imported fabric when local fabric will do, so imported fabric is heavily taxed.
2. To raise revenue. Raising existing taxes is often difficult. Rates are set by tradition; adjust them and people might rebel. New taxes are safer. The state doesn't care how many windows you have. Windows are just a convenient measurement of building size, occupancy, etc... until people start making buildings without windows.
The second method leads to ludicrous or counterintuitive taxes. If a thing is legible to a state, it has been taxed at some point. To make a setting weirder (but never as weird as real life), take a thing and imagine how a slightly disorganized state would tax it. The more legible, the better. Counting is very legible. Weight and volume are tricky. Emotions, names, etc. are next to impossible.
People will try anything to get out of paying taxes. I remember a vague quote I can't source that goes something like, "Since the poor cannot pay, and the rich will not pay, the burden falls ever on the middling sort." For more information (and things to argue about), see Seeing Like A State (Scott, 1998) and/or The Art of Not Being Governed (Scott, 2009).
1d20 Ludicrous Taxes
1. Distance Tax
Pay for perspective. The state is shrouded in a fog-like effect. Pay to wear an amulet that grants 10', 50', 100', etc. of clear air. Peasants navigate by ropes and painted floors; the rich display art on billboards. Amulets expire monthly.
2. Language Tax
The state wants polyglots. The more languages you can demonstrate, the less tax you pay. Monoglots have to wear a special hat (and pay for it, of course). With fluency in five or more languages, you are exempt from the salt tax and road tax, but have to spend an hour a week instructing the youth (who will lob spitballs at you with unnerving accuracy).
3. Sword Tax
To discourage violence and rebellion, swords are heavily taxed. Maces, bows, cannons, tridents, etc. are not as heavily taxed. Outlandish weapons proliferate. Desperate tax inspectors search for anything that could potentially be a sword, including cutlery, daggers, elves (around the ears), etc.
4. Gravity Tax
Pay up or float off. Your local Civic Mage pours some gravity into you every Thursday if you've paid your taxes. If not, gravity fades over a few weeks until you drift upwards like an untethered balloon. Peasants wear lead shoes and shuffle. Misers and the elderly bounce around indoors, eating off the top of wardrobes. Maybe the entire state is inverted?
5. Vwl Tx
Xpnsv. Brdn flls mstly n wrtrs. Xprmntl vwls.
6. Left Turn Tax
Inspectors on every street corner directing traffic and collecting coins. Continual urban smuggling. Pedestrians unaffected unless carrying more than 20lbs; relay chains sometimes employed on market days.
7. Stair Tax
A prosperity tax without the need for accurate records (in theory). Promotes sprawling buildings, or, where that isn't possible, ladders and bucket elevators.
8. Hat Tax
Hats (or at least some form of head covering) are mandatory (and vital, given the local climate). Arguments over what constitutes a hat, what materials are allowable, etc. dominate all discussions. Hoods are popular among the peasantry, as they are taxed as shirts. Among the nobility, enormous convoluted constructions or shoes with head-sheltering backs proliferate. Tax inspectors are fed up and have started attacking milliners in the dead of the night.
9. Height Tax
The state wants tall soldier-citizens. The state doesn't have the right to ask a citizen to remove their footwear. I'm sure you can work out the rest. Epidemic of broken ankles and bruised foreheads.
10. Frog Tax
The state hates frogs. If you have a frog on the premises, even a depiction of a frog, or even an item that could be mistaken for a frog by an overworked inspector, expect a very heavy fine. The Resistance operates frog farms, smuggles them into the homes of the loathsome nobility. Frog-hunting terriers are prized.
|Pieter Brueghel the Younger|
11. Colour Tax
Another prosperity tax. How many colours can an inspector see when they look at your house, your clothes, or your place of work? Dyes and paints proliferate. Families choose a shade and slather it on everything. Arguments over hue and tone pit tax collectors against artists and dye-makers. Tax collectors carry painted wood chips for reference.
12. Travel Tax
To discourage emigration and searching for better work (and also to use up a surplus of strong dvangerworm cord). Citizens are assigned a home ring (iron, bolted to the foundations), and are physically tethered to it with cord. Can buy additional 100' lengths of cord for a fee. Cord colours and banding patterns change annually. Streets are a tangle. Doors have gaps. Nobles have carts with miniature houses and portable rings. Anyone without a cord is shunned or mobbed. Foreigners escorted from the border to their residence under armed guard. Lengths of cord lopped off as punishment for crimes. Maximum cord lengths sometimes tattooed on arms.
13. Nipple Tax
A convenient measure of household membership and livestock. Poultry is popular, as are snails. Mutilation doesn't get you out of the tax, but does inspire proverbs and epithets. "Nipplesnipper here doesn't want to pay."
14. Furrow Tax
Fields taxed by furrows, by walking along one end and counting the number of lines. Farmers plough in spirals, ovals, or curls. Same methodology applied to village road layout, with similar results. General cultural distaste for hard edges and terminating lines.
15. Clerical Tax
Polytheism is more-or-less mandatory, since different gods control crop growth, weather, metallurgy, commerce, travel, childbirth, etc. Each quarter, or for a special fee at any time, citizens select the number of gods they wish to invoke and pay the appropriate tax. Priests of various gods are jealous of their own portfolio, yet try to add more domains to increase revenue. Invoking a god without paying the correct tax sometimes attracts divine wrath, as the gods also get a cut (via state-sponsored rites and sacrifices).
16. Infernal Tax
Selling souls (or other services) to a select cadre of devils is culturally acceptable, but in return, the state demands its share. The devils like the arrangement (for both fiendish and economic reasons), and form a shadow bureaucracy. The state trades its share to the devils for additional benefits.
17. Pot and Bucket Tax
Any container that can contain the owner's head is taxed and stamped. Buckets, barrels, pots, and cauldrons develop elongated forms, narrow necks, or simply disappear. Massive wine and oil decanting stations on the border. Pans (with lips shorter than a thumb's breadth) are taxed as shields.
18. Sobriety Tax
Used to maintain the oligarchy. If everyone is inebriated, the sober have a monopoly on clear-headed decisions. Somewhat hampered by the need for skilled labour, the desire of the nobility to get drunk and stay drunk, and constant supply chain issues. Little streams of alcohol trickling from the rocks cause erosion. Burning braziers of herbs in public locations. Probably a bad idea, but all the reform-minded folks are absolutely smashed and can't agree on a course of action.
19. Shoe Tax
Foreign shoes are ruining the state's economy! Foreign nails, foreign leather, foreign fashions! Shoe imports are taxed, forcing most visitors to buy new shoes at the border and ceremonial burn their old footwear (or sell it to eager vendors). Nobles wear additional imported shoes on the end of their regular shoes and display dazzling cabinets of impractical footwear.
20. Tax Tax
A surcharge applied to a household or citizen's tax total, based on the number of taxes paid, the difficulty of collection, and the whims of the tax collector. A tax tax tax is applied to the tax collectors.