Ibn Khaldun, Taxes and the Rise and Decline of Empire
February 7, 2010
When I'm feeling lazy and Sunday is coming up, I grab something out of
my book. There's so much good stuff in there, it's a practically
endless resource. You should really buy a copy if you haven't yet.
Today, we have passages by Ibn Khaldun, an Arab genius of the 14th
century. Ibn Khaldun must have one of the most impressive resumes of
all history. He was born in Tunis to a family of high-level
bureaucrats. Although he held minor government offices from a young
age, his first high office, as prime minister, came about after he had
been plotting against a local monarch. He was thrown in prison; one of
his prison friends later became the monarch, and brought Khaldun into
his government. He was part of the court of the Sultan of Grenada, for
whom he successfully negotiated a peace treaty with the King of
Castile. Pedro the Cruel was so impressed by his abilities, he offered
Khaldun a place at his court, along with landholdings in the area that
had previously been in his family. More diplomatic positions followed.
Eventually, frustrated with the constantly changing alliances and
politics, he sought refuge wth one of the Berber tribes. For three
years, in a small village, he wrote the "Prolegomena," the first book
of an enormous history of the world that he had planned. The
"prolegomena" consisted of his theory of history, from which we get our
Finding that the small Berber town did not have the resources he needed
for his history, he migrated to Alexandria in Egypt. There, he held
high office within the justice system. His attempts to reform the
system produced conflict, however, and he was forced to resign. He then
made a four-year trip to Mecca. After his return, he continued to serve
as something like a high professor of law. During this time, his son
Faraj was sent to lead an army to relieve Damascus of a siege by the
Mongol conqueror Timur. Faraj, inexperienced and concerned about a
revolt in Egypt, abandoned his army in Syria, at which point Ibn
Khaldun assumed command. Khaldun surmised that his army was no match
for Timur's, and, in typical Khaldun fashion, arranged to be lowered
over the city's walls by ropes to begin long series of talks with
Timur. He returned to Egypt without hostilities. His last five years
were spent completing his epic history of the region, which British
historian Arnold J. Toynbee called "a philosophy of history which is
undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been
created by any mind in any time or place." The British philosopher
Robert Flint wrote: "As a theorist on history he had no equal in any
age… Plato, Aristotle and Augustine were not his peers."
Wikipedia on Ibn Khaldun
Chapter III, part 36: Taxation and the reason for low and high (tax revenues).
It should be known that at the beginning of the dynasty, taxation
yields a large revenue from small assessments. At the end of the
dynasty, taxation yields a small revenue from large assessments.
The reason for this is that when the dynasty follows the ways (sunan)
of the religion, it imposes only such taxes as are stipulated by the
religious law, such as charity taxes, the land tax, and the poll tax.
They mean small assessments, because, as everyone knows, the charity
tax on property is low. The same applies to the charity tax on grain
and cattle, and also to the poll tax, the land tax, and all other taxes
required by the religious law. They have fixed limits that cannot be
When the dynasty follows the ways of group feeling and (political)
superiority, it necessarily has at first a desert attitude, as has been
mentioned before. The desert attitude requires kindness,
reverence, humility, respect for the property of other people, and
disinclination to appropriate it, except in rare instances. Therefore,
the individual imposts and assessments, which together constitute the
tax revenue, are low. When tax assessments and imposts upon the
subjects are low, the latter have the energy and desire to do things.
Cultural enterprises grow and increase, because the low taxes bring
satisfaction. When cultural enterprises grow, the number of individual
imposts and assessments mounts. In consequence, the tax revenue, which
is the sum total of (the individual assessments), increases.
When the dynasty continues in power and their rulers follow each other
in succession, they become sophisticated. The Bedouin attitude and
simplicity lose their significance, and the Bedouin qualities of
moderation and restraint disappear. Royal authority with its tyranny,
and sedentary culture that stimulates sophistication, make their
appearance. The people of the dynasty then acquire qualities of
character related to cleverness. Their customs and needs become more
varied because of the prosperity and luxury in which they are immersed.
As a result, the individual imposts and assessments upon the subjects,
agricultural laborers, farmers, and all the other taxpayers, increase.
Every individual impost and assessment is greatly increased, in order
to obtain a higher tax revenue. Customs duties are placed upon articles
of commerce and (levied) at the city gates, as we shall mention later
on. Then, gradual increases in the amount of the assessments succeed
each other regularly, in correspondence with the gradual increase in
the luxury customs and many needs of the dynasty and the spending
required in connection with them. Eventually, the taxes will weigh
heavily upon the subjects and overburden them. Heavy taxes become an
obligation and tradition, because the increases took place gradually,
and no one knows specifically who increased them or levied them. They
lie upon the subjects like an obligation and tradition.
The assessments increase beyond the limits of equity. The result is
that the interest of the subjects in cultural enterprises disappears,
since when they compare expenditures and taxes with their income and
gain and see the little profit they make, they lose all hope.
Therefore, many of them refrain from all cultural activity. The result
is that the total tax revenue goes down, as (the number of) the
individual assessments goes down. Often, when the decrease is noticed,
the amounts of individual imposts are increased. This is considered a
means of compensating for the decrease. Finally, individual imposts and
assessments reach their limit. It would be of no avail to increase them
further. The costs of all cultural enterprise are now too high, the
taxes are too heavy, and the profits anticipated fail to materialize.
Thus, the total revenue continues to decrease, while the amounts of
individual imposts and assessments continue to increase, because it is
believed that such an increase will compensate (for the drop in
revenue) in the end. Finally, civilization is destroyed, because the
incentive for cultural activity is gone. It is the dynasty that suffers
from the situation, because it (is the dynasty that) profits from
If (the reader) understands this, he will realize that the strongest
incentive for cultural activity is to lower as much as possible the
amounts of individual imposts levied upon persons capable of
undertaking cultural enterprises. In this manner, such persons will be
psychologically disposed to undertake them, because they can be
confident of making a profit from them.
Chapter III, part 37: In the later (years) of dynasties, customs duties are levied.
It should be known that at the beginning, dynasties maintain the
Bedouin attitude, as we have stated. Therefore, they have few needs,
since luxury and the habits that go with it do not (yet) exist.
Expenses and expenditures are small. At that time, revenue from taxes
pays for much more than the necessary expenditures, and there is a
The dynasty, then, soon starts to adopt the luxury and luxury customs
of sedentary culture, and follows the course that had been taken by
previous dynasties. The result is that the expenses of the people of
the dynasty grow. Especially do the expenses of the ruler mount
excessively, on account of his expenditures for his entourage and the
great number of allowances he has to grant. The (available) revenue
from taxes cannot pay for all that. Therefore, the dynasty must
increase its revenues, because the militia needs (ever) larger
allowances and the ruler needs (ever) more money to meet his
expenditures. At first, the amounts of individual imposts and
assessments are increased, as we have stated. Then, as expenses and
needs increase under the influence of the gradual growth of luxury
customs and additional allowances for the militia, the dynasty is
affected by senility. Its people are too weak to collect the taxes from
the provinces and remote areas. Thus, the revenue from taxes decreases,
while the habits (requiring money) increase. As they increase, salaries
and allowances to the soldiers also increase. Therefore, the ruler must
invent new kinds of taxes. He levies them on commerce. He imposes taxes
of a certain amount on prices realized in the markets and on the
various (imported) goods at the city gates. (The ruler) is, after all,
forced to this because people have become spoiled by generous
allowances, and because of the growing numbers of soldiers and
militiamen. In the later (years) of the dynasty, (taxation) may become
excessive. Business falls off, because all hopes (of profit) are
destroyed, permitting the dissolution of civilization and reflecting
upon (the status of) the dynasty. This (situation) becomes more and
more aggravated, until (the dynasty) disintegrates.
Much of this sort happened in the Eastern cities during the later days
of the 'Abbasid and 'Ubaydid(-Fatimid) dynasties. Taxes were levied
even upon pilgrims making the pilgrimage. Salah-ad-din Ibn Ayyub
abolished all such institutions and replaced them with good works. The
same also happened in Spain at the time of the reyes de ta'ifas. Yusuf
b. Tashfin, the Almoravid amir, put an end to it. The same has also
been happening in the cities of the Jarid in Ifrigiyah, ever since
their chiefs gained control over them.
Chapter III, part 39: The ruler and his entourage are wealthy only in the middle (period) of the dynasty.
The reason for this is that at the beginning of the dynasty, the
revenues are distributed among the tribe and the people who share in
the ruler's group feeling, in accordance with their usefulness and
group feeling and because they are needed to establish the dynasty, as
we have stated before. Under these circumstances, their leader refrains
in their favor from (claiming) the revenues which they would like to
have. He feels compensated for (his restraint) by the control over them
that he hopes to establish. They can put pressure on him, and he needs
them. His share of the revenues is restricted to the very small
(amounts) he needs. Consequently, the members of his entourage and
company, his wazirs, secretaries, and clients, usually can be observed
to be destitute. Their position is restricted, because it depends on
the position of their master, and the authority of (his position) is
narrowed down by the competition of the people who share in his group
Then, when royal authority has come into its own and the ruler has
obtained control over his people, he prevents them from getting (any
part of) the revenues, beyond their official shares. Their portions
shrink, because their usefulness to the dynasty has diminished. Their
influence has been checked, and clients and followers have come to
share with them in the support of the dynasty and the establishment of
its power. At this time, the ruler disposes alone of the whole income
from taxes, or the greater part of it. He keeps this money, and holds
it for spending on important projects. His wealth grows. His treasuries
are filled. The authority of his position expands, and he dominates all
his people. As a consequence, the men of his entourage and retinue, the
wazir, the secretary, the doorkeeper (hajib), the client, and the
policeman, all become more important, and their positions expand. They
acquire property and enrich themselves.
Then, when the dynasty starts to become senile, as the result of the
dissolution of group feeling and the disappearance of the tribe that
founded it, the ruler needs supporters and helpers, because there are
then many seceders, rivals, and rebels, and there is the fear of
(complete) destruction. His revenues then go to his allies and
supporters, military men who have their own group feelings. He spends
his treasures and revenues on attempts to restore (the power of) the
dynasty. Moreover, the revenue from taxes decreases, as we have stated
before because there are many allowances to be paid and expenditures to
be made. The revenues from the land tax decrease. The dynasty's need
for money becomes more urgent. The intimates, the doorkeepers (hajib),
and the secretaries no longer live under the shadow of prosperity and
luxury, as their positions lose importance and the authority of the
ruler's (position) shrinks.
Chapter III, part 41: Injustice brings about the ruin of civilization
It should be known that attacks on people's property remove the
incentive to acquire and gain property. People, then, become of the
opinion that the purpose and ultimate destiny of (acquiring property)
is to have it taken away from them. When the incentive to acquire and
obtain property is gone, people no longer make efforts to acquire any.
The extent and degree to which property rights are infringed upon
determines the extent and degree to which the efforts of the subjects
to acquire property slacken. When attacks (on property) are extensive
and general, extending to all means of making a livelihood, business
inactivity, too, becomes (general), because the general extent of (such
attacks upon property) means a general destruction of the incentive (to
do business). If the attacks upon property are but light, the stoppage
of gainful activity is correspondingly slight. Civilization and its
well-being as well as business prosperity depend on productivity and
people's efforts in all directions in their own interest and profit.
When people no longer do business in order to make a living, and when
they cease all gainful activity, the business of civilization slumps,
and everything decays. People scatter everywhere in search of
sustenance, to places outside the jurisdiction of their present
government. The population of the particular region becomes light. The
settlements there become empty. The cities lie in ruins. The
disintegration of (civilization) causes the disintegration of the
status of dynasty and ruler, because (their peculiar status)
constitutes the form of civilization and the form necessarily decays
when its matter (in this case, civilization) decays.
Note: This is something worth watching today. Martin Armstrong talks about it constantly (not surprisingly given his situation).
One of the things you'll notice is that the great discoveries regaring the Magic Formula (low
taxes, stable money) are only appreciated when people are in the right
frame of mind. There was a time when you could say that these things
were somewhat unknown. However, here in the United States, we already
went through the Supply Side Revolution in the 1980s. An immense amount
of investigation was done, and it was more or less a success. Just in
the past ten years, another 25 or so governments have adopted flat-tax
systems, with pretty much a 100% success rate.
The right frame of mind seems to happen most often after some terrible
disaster. All of the old systems and structures have been discredited.
The country is in ruins. There is no more "business as usual" because
it has all been blown to bits. This might have been after the fall of
the Soviet Union, or after World War II, and to some degree at the end
of the difficult 1970s. After three or five years of very hard times,
people come together --
maybe like the "tribe" that Khaldun speaks of. They decide, as a
society: "Enough is enough! We deserve better than this!" Then -- and
only then! -- they rediscover the eternal secrets of success and
failure that we aim to describe here. And, they are willing to
cooperate to make it all happen.
Today, we have a government in the United States which has clearly
rotted away. Nobody wants to take any action that is for the good of
the whole. It has become very clear to everyone involved that those who
suck resources (bank bailouts, asset liquidations, defense contracts,
pork) out of the government prosper, and those that do not, do not
prosper. At this late stage, even regular business has become
disadvantageous. The most successful "businesspeople" today are those
that collude with the government to channel existing weatlh and assets
into their possession, rather than creating new wealth.
Thus, the primary goal of all involved is to strip wealth and assets
from the government, and indirectly from the population as a whole.
Charles Hugh Smith calls it "strip mining the populace," and that is a
good term. There is little interest in reducing tax rates today because
that appears to be contrary to the primary operating principle of strip-mining the government and the populace. Nor is there a whiff of real interest in reducing spending either.
Eventually, the government loses all legitimacy. It has become plain to
see, despite the constant stream of lies being told, that the
government has become nothing but a gang of criminals. I would call
this a dissolution of "group feeling" that Khaldun writes about.
Certainly there are many that feel this way today, but not a majority