Corruption of tax bureaucrats can destroy even the mightiest empires. This is why the Tai Ji Men protest should be supported.

by Massimo Introvigne*

*A paper presented at the webinar “Dialogue, Diversity, and Freedom: Reacting to the Tai Ji Men Case,” organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on May 24, 2021.

An article already published in Bitter Winter on June 2nd, 2021.

The Publican, painting by Marinus van Reymerswaele (1490–1546).
The Publican, painting by Marinus van Reymerswaele (1490–1546). Credits.

All Christians who read the Bible know the word “publican.” They know that in Jesus’ time “publicans” were so corrupted that the fact that some of them were converted by Jesus’ words and became honest greatly contributed to the success of Christianity. One of the authors of the four canonical Gospels, Matthew, knew this better than anybody else. Before being converted by Jesus and becoming one of his twelve Apostles, Matthew was a publican himself.

The Calling of Matthew, painting by Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588–1629). He was still busy working as a publican when Jesus came and converted him. Credits.
The Calling of Matthew, painting by Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588–1629). He was still busy working as a publican when Jesus came and converted him. Credits.

Who were the publicans? Why had their name become a synonym of corruption? Publicans were, basically, the tax bureaucrats of the Roman Empire. Their position has been created before the Empire, by the Roman Republic, and was initially perceived as part of a good system. The publicans did not receive a salary, and were self-employed rather than civil servants. They had to pay to become publicans. Then, they collected taxes on behalf of the government. Whatever they managed to collect beyond a sum agreed upon with the government was a bonus they could keep for themselves.

It would seem an encouragement to greed and dishonesty but, at the time of the Republic, it was not necessarily so. There were draconian measures against dishonest publicans, and ways for the taxpayers to complain directly to the Senate in Rome. Publicans who used their function to tax citizens arbitrarily and unjustly ran the risk of being executed.

With the end of the Republic and the end of the Empire, the Senate lost much of its power, and certainly lost its ability to effectively control and sanction bureaucrats, who started answering directly to the Imperial court. At the time of Jesus, publicans in the Middle East were already considered proverbially greedy and dishonest, yet the first Roman Emperors still tried to keep them in check.

With the decadence of the Roman Empire, publicans acquired an enormous power. They promised to the Emperors the huge sums they needed for their late military campaigns, sums they had trouble putting together because of a demographic crisis that eroded the taxpayers’ base. The Emperors reacted as many governments do. To get more taxes, they looked the other side when the extraordinary corruption of the publicans was reported to them. The publicans started cheating and falsifying documents to steal as much money they could from the citizens. In part, they sent this money to Rome, but they knew that the bonus system allowed them to keep a good part for themselves.

As modern economists would have predicted, when citizens no longer trust the tax bureaucrats, they become highly creative in evading taxes. The result of the publicans’ corruption was that taxes did not grow, but collapsed. In the last century of the Roman Empire, tax revenues went down 90% in 100 years, which was one of the reasons why the Empire collapsed.

This did not happen because of corruption only, and as usual demography was important (less population means less taxes, as even Mainland China is now considering), but the widespread corruption of the publicans was certainly a main factor. There was even a religious liberty factor, as families sympathetic to Christianity when Christians were persecuted were among those targeted by tax collectors with more viciousness.

Although Taiwan does not use the tax farming system of the Roman Empire, the Tai Ji Men case is largely a story of rogue publicans. Both the National Taxation Bureau and the Administrative Enforcement Agency emerge from the Tai Ji Men case as plagued by bureaucrats who do not care for the rights of taxpayers, nor for honesty and justice, but deeply care for their own power, and for the bonuses they can collect.

Problems are not solved by moving from private tax collectors to governmental bureaucrats. Private collectors did not disappear with the Roman Empire. They were a key part of the Ottoman tax system, and in Italy for example they continued to function until 1990. The public agency that replaced them was even more unpopular. Government bureaucrats may be as corrupted as private publicans, and the situation may even get worse, as public employees are assisted by a sort of presumption of honesty, and their corruption is more difficult to denounce.

Early modern European tax collector, painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564–1638).
Early modern European tax collector, painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564–1638). Credits.

As it happened in the Roman Empire, spiritual groups that somewhat disturb the powers that be are specially targeted. This happened to Tai Ji Men, even though, as the videos in this webinar confirmed, their cultural activities have been highly praised by Taiwan’s highest political and police authorities, as well as by authorities abroad. The situation encountered by Tai Ji Men is different from others in that there is no tax evasion, no tax due, and no violation of any law. Since its establishment in 1966, it has operated in accordance with national laws and regulations. Nevertheless, the leader of Tai Ji Men and his disciples have been unlawfully persecuted by the Taiwanese government, and the National Taxation Bureau has repeatedly issued illegitimate tax bills to the leader, and even illegally confiscated his land intended for a Tai Ji Men self-cultivation center.

Recently, I examined an extraordinary document. It is a request by the Hsinchu Branch of the Administrative Enforcement Agency to the Shilin Branch, to split the performance credits, i.e., the bonuses on the Tai Ji Men case. It is dated March 2, 2020. The document was stamped on March 5, 2020, with the seals of the Administrative Enforcement Officer of Hsinchu Branch, who auctioned the land intended for a Tai Ji Men self-cultivation center. It shows how deeply interested these modern publicans are in bonuses.

The March 2, 2020 bonus splitting document.
The March 2, 2020 bonus splitting document.

The tax problems of the Roman Empire have a wider sociological significance. They show that rogue tax bureaucrats may claim that they make countries richer by stealing money from citizens. But in the long run, they make their countries poorer, and may even destroy them. Because the people no longer trust those in power, as they are not only denied the rights and benefits they are entitled to, but may even be persecuted inexplicably. Corrupted publicans were one of the factors that caused the collapse of the Roman Empire. If such a large empire could collapse, any state or government can follow the same course. This is a lesson for modern states, and one Taiwan should seriously consider when dealing with the Tai Ji Men case.