Up until the Hundred Years’ War in the 14th and 15th centuries, royal European governments were expected to be funded more or less out of the pockets of the ruling family. Levying taxes directly on the subjects was rare, as governments were obliged to follow the legal maxim of cessante causa cessare debet et effectus (“when cause fails, the consequence should fail”). In other words, taxes could only be levied in exceptional circumstances (such as for a war), and when the circumstance ended, so did the tax. In the nearly fifty-year reign of Henry III during the 13th century, for example, taxes were levied directly on royal subjects only five times. Because the Hundred Years’ War lasted so long, however, taxes began to be collected more and more frequently, and soon enough annual taxation became a normal occurrence.
Occasional flights of fancy notwithstanding, it is not often that I would consider living in the 13th century as preferable to present day–yet fiscal policy seems to have been, in its own way, far more sensible. Of course, if I had lived in the Late Middle Ages, one out of every three people I knew would have been dead by the time I turned eighteen.
Still, everything has its trade-offs. I remain ambivalent.