The rise of the modern fiscal state is closely tied to the development of the personal income tax (PIT). From modest beginnings in the early 19th century, by the 1950s it generated around half of governments' tax revenues, signifying the transformation from the old fiscal system based on tariffs to the modern fiscal state based on direct taxation.Footnote 1 The revenues it generated laid the foundation for a vast increase in the scope of government, for instance by funding the emerging welfare state. Not only has it been a cornerstone of government budgets for almost a century, scholars also routinely use income tax revenue as an indicator of fiscal capacity (Rogers and Weller, Reference Rogers and Weller2014). Given the emphasis in the literature on war and democracy, it is surprising that most PITs were introduced by non-democratic states in peacetime. In a sample of 77 countries, only nine introduced a permanent PIT in wartime, and only 24 introduced it while being democratic.Footnote 2 In the majority of cases – 53 – the PIT was introduced in the absence of both democracy and war. This fact is not well explained by the dominant theories of state-building and fiscal capacity. In order to explain the rise and spread of the PIT, we need to understand tax reform in non-democratic states.
I propose that in autocracies, the income tax should be analyzed as an investment in fiscal capacity – not as a tool for redistribution or as a way to finance war. This shifts the focus to the ability of autocratic political systems to solve commitment problems related to investments. I claim that these problems are more readily solved in countries with institutionalized power-sharing arrangements buttressed by executive oversight – for example, through legislatures with the power to monitor the ruler.
The empirical analysis – covering up to 25 autocracies from 1870 to 2012 – reveals that countries with more extensive institutional oversight generate more revenue from income taxes and are also more likely to introduce them in the first place. These results are robust to the inclusion of a number of controls such as war, economic development, and government ideology, as well as to different econometric specifications. A short case study of the adoption of the PIT in Sweden provides evidence on the plausibility of the mechanism.
The paper is related to previous research on institutions, development, and taxation. One of the better-known explanations for tax reform is war. Warfare leads to a sharp increase in government spending that needs to be financed, for example by a tax on income (Tilly, Reference Tilly1990). A related argument is that richer societies build capacity in order to protect themselves from predation (Geloso and Salter, Reference Geloso and Salter2020). Interestingly, while war seems to be linked to taxation in Europe, this is not the case in Latin America (Centeno, Reference Centeno1997). There are two additional problems with explaining the adoption of permanent income taxes with interstate warfare. First, it takes time to develop a bureaucracy to administer the tax, too much time to be useful in an emergency such as a war. Second, when the war is over there is no longer a need for the tax. Thus, we should be more likely to observe loan finance and temporary taxes in times of war instead of permanent investments in fiscal capacity. Alternatively, states can extract more revenue from existing taxes in times of war (Morgan and Prasad, Reference Morgan and Prasad2009). However, a permanent increase in the likelihood of armed conflict, or a protracted war, may lead to more comprehensive reforms. In other words, while warfare does not have to lead to a permanent change in tax regime, there are circumstances in which war, or the threat of war, plays a more important role.
Others emphasize the redistributive potential of taxation and link income taxes to inequality and democratization (e.g. Acemoglu and Robinson, Reference Acemoglu and Robinson2001; Boix, Reference Boix2003; Meltzer and Richard, Reference Meltzer and Richard1981). Democracy grants effective representation to previously excluded poor citizens that demand more progressive taxation. The empirical evidence, however, is mixed: Aidt and Jensen (Reference Aidt and Jensen2009a) find that an extension of the franchise increases the likelihood of PIT introduction, but only when the suffrage is already fairly wide, while Mares and Queralt (Reference Mares and Queralt2015) present evidence that autocracies in fact pioneered the tax. Others suggest that democracies increase regressive taxes (Timmons, Reference Timmons2010), and that democratization leads to an increase in income tax revenues only in urbanized states (Andersson, Reference Andersson2018).
If the PIT is not only the result of redistributive demands or by the immediate exigency of war, what is missing? A recent explanation is offered by Mares and Queralt (Reference Mares and Queralt2015), where PIT introductions are still explained by redistribution, but redistribution between different elites. The tax is introduced in order for the old landed elite to check the increasing economic influence of the new industrial elite, or when the franchise is tied to payment of tax.
The notion that political institutions matter, and under some circumstances facilitate taxation, is not new (see e.g. Besley and Persson, Reference Besley and Persson2011; Dincecco, Reference Dincecco2009; North and Weingast, Reference North and Weingast1989) but explaining the general rise in overall taxation is not the same as explaining the origins of specific fiscal capacity investments. Focusing on one tax allows for a closer study of the mechanisms behind the decision compared to focusing on the overall development of tax revenue over a longer period of time. This strategy also reduces the risks of conflating capacity investments with a general willingness to pay, or taxation in exchange for representation, which is the case with earlier research focusing on the general rise in revenues and more fundamental constitutional changes.
My argument is related to work emphasizing representative and/or constraining institutions as key for the development of the fiscal state (e.g. Karaman and Pamuk, Reference Karaman and Pamuk2013; Ricciuti et al., Reference Ricciuti, Savoia and Sen2019). Scholars have argued that executive constraints in autocracies allow governments to credibly commit to honor promises (with respect to, e.g. private property rights and loans), thus allowing the state to borrow at a lower interest rate (Cox, Reference Cox2016; North and Weingast, Reference North and Weingast1989; Stasavage, Reference Stasavage2002) and attract more private investment (Gehlbach and Keefer, Reference Gehlbach and Keefer2011). Boix and Svolik (Reference Boix and Svolik2013) present cross-sectional data from the 1980s and 1990s suggesting that autocracies with legislatures and at least one party are more capable of collecting statistics and of managing their petroleum sectors.
I build on this literature but diverge from it in important ways. First, this literature primarily stresses commitment problems between the state and the private sector, but is largely silent on public investments in fiscal capacity and commitment problems within the ruling class.Footnote 3 Second, earlier research has mainly been concerned with how constitutions are linked to a general rise of government revenue and economic growth in the early modern period (for an exception, see Gehlbach and Keefer, Reference Gehlbach and Keefer2011), while this paper is concerned with the last two centuries, during which the foundation of the current fiscal system was laid. Moreover, instead of focusing on the general increase of tax revenues or the interest rate on government bonds, I am concerned with a specific political investment in fiscal capacity: the income tax. My approach is also different in its focus on oversight rather than constraints on the executive.
While the first permanent PITs were introduced in the 19th century (e.g. the United Kingdom introduced the tax in 1842), others were introduced much later. Thus, a long-term perspective is crucial in order to properly investigate the origins of the PIT. Earlier efforts with a historical perspective (e.g. Mares and Queralt, Reference Mares and Queralt2015) have been constrained geographically by focusing heavily on Europe and English-speaking off-shoots (analyzing samples of 15–17 democratic and non-democratic countries). Using newly available data on tax introductions and revenues I am able to analyze a much larger sample of 25 autocracies in Europe, both Americas and Japan.Footnote 4
The next section outlines how institutional oversight can explain PIT adoption in undemocratic states. Section 3 presents the data and the statistical analyses. In section 4 I provide a short case study of the PIT-adoption in Sweden. The final section concludes.
2. Fiscal capacity and the income tax
Rogers and Weller (Reference Rogers and Weller2014) demonstrate that the income tax is not only theoretically but also empirically a valid indicator of capacity. Income taxes are particularly challenging for a state to collect and require significant investments in administration and bureaucracy (Grabowski, Reference Grabowski2008; Lieberman, Reference Lieberman2002). For these reasons, the share of revenue from income taxes is frequently used as an indicator of fiscal capacity (e.g. Dincecco and Wang Reference Dincecco, Wang, Jenkins and Rubin2022). Hanson and Sigman (Reference Hanson and Sigman2021) go further by interpreting the share of income taxes as an indicator not of extractive capacity but of administrative capacity.
During the time period under consideration – the late 19th and 20th centuries – the income tax was arguably the most important tax reform. In the evolution of the modern tax state, income taxes appeared after taxes on estates and before general sales taxes. Modern inheritance taxes were first introduced already in the 18th century and had spread to many countries by the mid-19th century (Genschel and Seelkopf, Reference Genschel, Seelkopf, Genschel and Seeelkopf2021). With increasing need for revenue in the second half of the 19th and first half of the 20th century, countries began introducing income taxes. By the time general sales taxes (and modern value-added taxes) were implemented, most countries already had income taxes in place (Ibid.). The rise of the income tax coincides with a shift away from the old fiscal system based on volatile and non-scalable tariffs to a modern tax system based on stable, scalable direct taxes on income.Footnote 5
The PIT is usually explained with reference to redistribution, where poor voters support it due to its progressivity. Thus, the spread of PITs should be linked to the extension of the suffrage (following Meltzer and Richard, Reference Meltzer and Richard1981). But in non-democratic states redistribution should be less salient as a motivation since the (poor) majority of the population is excluded from power, thus making the PIT less relevant in terms of class-based redistribution (an exception might be regimes where redistribution is part of the ruling ideology).Footnote 6 Therefore, an explanation for PIT adoption in non-democratic states requires a different approach. I suggest that in non-democratic states the PIT is less about redistribution and more about fiscal capacity.
2.1. Institutional oversight and investments
Many key reforms to fiscal systems – such as the adoption of PITs – were made in the 19th century, a time in which non-democracy was the norm. Investments in fiscal capacity are often associated with a dilemma. While regime insiders gain from a stronger, more effective state – by increasing the potential monetary rewards, and by increasing the resilience of the regime to challengers – there is a risk involved: after the reform is implemented, how can they be sure that the capacity of the state will not be used against them? There are two features of the PIT that pose a risk to the support coalition (the group of elites whose support is needed for the ruler to stay in power). First, an income tax can be used to effectively redistribute resources by implementing a highly progressive rate while targeting spending away from the support coalition. Second, since a working income tax is based on the assessment of income, it implies a powerful tax administration with the ability to collect information on members of the elite. Not only will an income tax increase what Seligman (Reference Seligman1911: 34–35) calls ‘bureaucratic inquisition’, but also the record-keeping requirements for taxpayers (Penndorf, Reference Penndorf1930).
There are two reasons for an autocratic leader not to impose an income tax without the consent of the support coalition even in the absence of institutional oversight. First, the elite might shift their support to a potential challenger, jeopardizing the survival of the regime.Footnote 7 Second, without at least the tacit support of the elite, widespread evasion might render the tax ineffective in terms of generating revenue. Put differently, potential resistance constrains the effectiveness of a tax without elite support. Thus, when introducing a tax, the ruler needs to be able to commit to using this new tool in line with the preferences of the support coalition, or they will not support its introduction. In the absence of a commitment device there is nothing stopping the ruler in a future period from reneging on promises made when the income tax was introduced.
This commitment problem can be solved by political institutions. In autocracies, the main role of institutions such as legislatures is not as a constraint on executive policy-making – as in democracies – but rather as a forum for interaction between elites and the dictator, and as a way for regime insiders to get information and to exercise oversight (Myerson, Reference Myerson2008; Svolik, Reference Svolik2012: ch. 4). With legislative oversight, transgressions may be detected and the ruler can be punished if she or he deviates from a previous agreement. It is important to note here that there is a distinction between two different functions of legislatures: constraints and oversight. Since the constraint the support coalition exercises over the ruler emanates from the threat of revolt, the oversight function becomes more important.
The emphasis on institutional oversight sets my argument apart from previous work concerned with constraining executive power directly. For instance, Besley and Persson (Reference Besley and Persson2011) focus on the fraction of years a country had the highest score (7) on the Polity IV executive constraints index. A score of 7 means that ‘A legislature, ruling party, or council of nobles initiates much or most important legislation’ and that ‘The executive (president, premier, king, cabinet, council) is chosen by the accountability group and is dependent on its continued support to remain in office (as in most parliamentary systems)’ (Marshall et al., Reference Marshall, Gurr and Jaggers2017: 24–25). In general, Polity emphasizes the ability of a legislature to initiate and block legislation. Similarly, Cox (Reference Cox2016) stresses the importance of de jure parliamentary power over budgets. Constraints – such as veto power over budgets or the constitutional ability to remove the executive – are different from oversight. The latter help facilitate autocratic power-sharing by making it easier for the support coalition to police bargains. However, I share with these authors the view that institutional mechanisms limiting executive power (either through de jure rules or through oversight) are distinct from elements of electoral democracy.Footnote 8
In sum, a political system of regularized interaction wherein compliance and loyalty are exchanged for power over how tax revenue is used is beneficial for both the leader and the support coalition. With institutionalized power-sharing the ruler gains from a high-yielding income tax with lower levels of evasion and low risk of rebellion, while the support coalition, in exchange for paying more in tax, has real influence over the budget. This is not possible without effective monitoring of the executive. In practice, monitoring and oversight can be implemented in a range of different ways, but the most important avenue – and the one I will focus on in the empirical section – is the legislature.Footnote 9
3.1. Measuring income taxation
I use two measures: the share of revenues from income tax and the permanent adoption of the PIT. The income tax share is frequently used as a proxy for fiscal capacity, and Rogers and Weller hold that ‘In terms of state reach and administrative difficulty, the individual income tax may be the most challenging tax a state collects’ (Reference Rogers and Weller2014: 199). While frequently used as an indicator of fiscal capacity, previous research has been constrained by the lack of comparable historical data. In this paper I significantly push the historical and geographical dimension by using two newly available historical datasets over tax revenues and tax introductions.
First, I use a new dataset over government budgets and their composition from 31 states in Western Europe, the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan (Andersson and Brambor, Reference Andersson and Brambor2019).Footnote 10 From this dataset I take the first dependent variable: income tax revenue as a share of total central tax revenues.Footnote 11 Until recently, historical revenue data have not been available beyond a few countries in Western Europe.
Second, I use the Tax Introduction Dataset (TID) (Seelkopf et al., Reference Seelkopf, Bubek, Eihmanis, Ganderson, Limberg, Mnaili, Zuluaga and Genschel2021) to obtain tax introduction dates. While earlier contributions covered only small samples of Western states, the TID covers 220 countries that existed at some point between 1750 and 2015. I use the variable indicating a permanent adoption of a personal income tax (PIT), which is a ‘tax levied on the directly assessed income of a personal taxpayer’ (Genschel and Seelkopf, Reference Genschel and Seelkopf2019: 5).Footnote 12 Focusing on permanent adoptions means temporary taxes implemented during wars or other crises are not included. Also excluded are taxes that were only in place a short time before being abolished (for instance if technological challenges associated with tax collection could not be overcome). Focusing as I do on the central level means that tax adoptions and revenue expansion also imply greater centralization, which in itself strengthens fiscal capacity (in line with Brennan and Buchanan Reference Brennan and Buchanan1980).
Both indicators have weaknesses. Tax revenues combine the will and the capacity to tax. Rising revenues can be the result of factors outside of government control, such as increased tax morale. PIT adoption does not suffer from this weakness and focuses on a discrete decision to expand the fiscal toolbox. An additional tax increases capacity regardless of the extent to which it is actually used, what matters is to have the capacity to generate revenues if needed. For instance, a country with a modern income tax in place when a war breaks out is in a better position to extract much needed revenue than a country without such a tax. However, tax adoption as an indicator is not unproblematic. For example, a tax might exist only on paper without the necessary administrative capacity to collect it. In fact, PIT introductions often preceded administrative improvements in tax collection, such as the automatic payroll deduction. It is reasonable to expect this ‘paper tiger’ bias to decrease over time as states moved to a more efficient tax collection administration. Finally, the purpose of a PIT may change over time, playing a different role in its early years compared to decades later. The existence of a tax also says nothing about the tax base (which is important for its revenue capacity). By using both indicators I am more confident that the results reveal something meaningful about fiscal capacity.
3.2. Measuring institutional oversight
Previous research on the effects of autocratic institutions (e.g. Meng, Reference Meng2020; Weeks, Reference Weeks2012; Wright, Reference Wright2008) focuses on the period after the World War II, but when explaining the origins of fiscal capacity, a longer period of study is crucial. For example, it was already in the 19th century that governments started to expand their capacity to collect and analyze information about their citizens through statistical agencies, population registries, and censuses (Brambor et al., Reference Brambor, Goenaga, Lindvall and Teorell2020). It was also during the 19th century that states started to provide broad, modern, public services such as police, healthcare, and education (Ansell and Lindvall, Reference Ansell and Lindvall2020). Most crucial for this paper, it was during the 19th century that countries began to tax income.Footnote 13
Previous studies of the impact of autocratic institutions relied on rough proxies such as the mere existence of a legislature (Wright, Reference Wright2008), whether rulers were ‘personalistic’ or not (Weeks, Reference Weeks2012), or how the legislature was selected (Svolik, Reference Svolik2012). None of these indicators are able to speak directly to the ability to monitor and exercise oversight. For example, the mere existence of a legislature can mean anything from a strong, democratically elected, parliament with extensive influence over policy, to a ‘rubber stamp’ legislature lacking the power to constrain or to monitor.
In order to measure the degree of legislative oversight vis-à-vis the executive, I use the V-Dem legislative constraints on the executive index (Coppedge et al., Reference Coppedge, Gerring, Lindberg, Skaaning, Teorell, Altman, Bernhard, Fish, Glynn, Hicken, Knutsen, Krusell, Lührmann, Marquardt, McMann, Mechkova, Olin, Paxton, Pemstein, Pernes, Sanhueza Petrarca, von Römer, Saxer, Seim, Sigman, Staton, Stepanova and Wilson2020). This index presents information on the extent to which the legislature (and other government agencies such as ombudsmen) questions officials, investigates in practice, exercises executive oversight, and the degree to which there are legislative opposition parties. The emphasis is on de facto behavior, not de jure provisions. It takes values from 0 to 1, where higher values indicate a higher degree of oversight. This measure is not strongly correlated with elements of electoral democracy such as suffrage (r = − 0.13). The V-Dem dataset is the most comprehensive, and detailed, historical dataset over political institutions available. Unprecedented in its temporal and geographic scope, it covers (at most) 201 countries from 1789 to 2011.Footnote 14
I restrict the sample to closed autocracies and electoral autocracies using the Regimes of the World indicator in V-Dem. Electoral autocracies hold de jure elections for the legislature and the executive, but lack one or more important democratic factors, such as elections being free and fair, parties not being banned, or broad rights to participate. Closed autocracies hold no multiparty elections for the executive or the legislature. Electoral and liberal democracies are dropped from the sample.Footnote 15 Restricting the sample in this way, combined with the limited data on tax revenues (31 countries) and some of the covariates (e.g. information on ideology are only available from 1870 to 2012) means that the analyses in the following sections are based on 23–25 non-democratic, sovereign states from 1870 to 2012.Footnote 16 While some countries are stable democracies or autocracies throughout the period, others move between categories. For instance, Venezuela is coded as democratic from 1953 until 2003, when it reverted back to autocracy. In some cases, the regime remained stable after the introduction of the PIT, in others not. The sample contains countries that introduced the PIT under democracy and later reverted to autocracy – such as Germany and Spain – but also countries that introduced the tax as non-democratic states and later democratized (such as Italy and the United Kingdom).
3.3. Institutional oversight and tax revenues
In this section I analyze the link between institutional oversight and income tax revenue.
Formally, I estimate the following equation:
where i and t represent country and year, respectively. A lagged dependent variable is included in models 2 and 4. The term δi represents country fixed effects (present in all model except for model 4), and ζt represents year fixed effects. Xit −1 is a vector of controls.
There are several possible confounders that need to be controlled for. First, it is possible that war causes both institutional change (as predicted by Svolik, Reference Svolik2009), and an expansion of taxation (Tilly, Reference Tilly1990). In the models that follow I therefore control for whether a country was involved in a war using data from V-Dem (Coppedge et al., Reference Coppedge, Gerring, Lindberg, Skaaning, Teorell, Altman, Bernhard, Fish, Glynn, Hicken, Knutsen, Krusell, Lührmann, Marquardt, McMann, Mechkova, Olin, Paxton, Pemstein, Pernes, Sanhueza Petrarca, von Römer, Saxer, Seim, Sigman, Staton, Stepanova and Wilson2020, based on Brecke, Reference Brecke2001). Another important factor is economic development, affecting taxation (Karceski and Kiser, Reference Karceski and Kiser2020) as well as political institutions (Lipset, Reference Lipset1959). I control for GDP per capita (logged) using data from Bolt et al. (Reference Bolt, Inklaar, de Jong and van Zanden2018). This control also partly alleviates the concern that technological development is driving tax adoptions (I thank a reviewer for pointing this out). Third, in order to account for the potential effect of partisanship, I include a binary variable indicating whether the head of government was left-wing or not using data from Brambor et al. (Reference Brambor, Lindvall and Stjernquist2014). Fourth, the elite competition approach suggests that an influential rural elite should affect tax policy in non-democratic states. For instance, the rural elite might support an income tax in order to shift taxation onto the industrial elite, or elite conflict might affect the extent to which a new income tax is used to replace old taxes on international trade. Using information in V-Dem, I construct a variable indicating whether the most important regime support group in a particular year was either the aristocracy or agrarian elites. Fifth, even though institutional oversight and the extent of voting rights are negatively correlated (r = − 0.13), there might be a concern that institutional oversight is related to democratization. Therefore, I include a control for the share of population with suffrage (also from V-Dem). Finally, government ideology might not sufficiently pick up on the redistributive tendencies of the government. Using the information in Rasmussen (Reference Rasmussen2016), I add a variable indicating the number of social policies (such as old-age, unemployment, and sickness programs) in place.Footnote 17
I include country fixed effects to control for country-level features that do not change over time and year fixed effects to control for common shocks. Models 2, 4, and 5 also include a lagged dependent variable to mitigate serial correlation. An additional advantage of including this variable is that it controls for the recent composition of tax revenues. All independent variables are lagged one year, and standard errors are clustered by country. To alleviate concerns about including both country fixed effects and a lagged dependent variable, models 3 and 4 present results dropping the lagged dependent variable and country fixed effects, respectively.Footnote 18
A final concern is stationarity. If the series are non-stationary, there is a risk of spurious regression. However, both the dependent variable – income tax share – and the independent variable of interest – institutional oversight – are bounded, and thus cannot have an infinite variance. Bounded variables cannot be explosive, and an argument can be made that they therefore cannot be non-stationary (Williams, Reference Williams1992).Footnote 19 An alternative approach is to estimate error correction models, which are appropriate both for stationary and non-stationary data (De Boef and Keele, Reference De Boef and Keele2008). The results (presented in section A4 of the appendix) remain unchanged.
In line with the predictions, Table 1 reports a consistent positive and statistically measurable association between institutional oversight and the income tax share.Footnote 20 The associations are sizeable even when including a lagged dependent variable, fixed effects, as well as a full battery of controls.
Note: *p < 0.10; **p < 0.05; ***p < 0.01. Country-clustered robust standard errors in parentheses.
Source: author's compilation.
Going from Italy under Mussolini – with very little opportunity for the legislature to monitor the executive – to the Netherlands in 1893 (when PIT was introduced), which had a high degree of oversight over the executive (but with a suffrage rate of 14%, far from democratic), implies an increase in the income tax share of around 15 percentage points (using the estimates in model 3). Model 5 – which is the most demanding in terms of controls – suggests a long-run effect (which is the preferred quantity given the inclusion of a lagged dependent variable) of roughly 26.Footnote 21 This implies that going from a level of legislative oversight in the Brazilian Fourth Republic (around 0.6) to the military regime that succeeded it (around 0.1) is associated with a long-run decrease in the share of income tax of around 13 percentage points. After the coup in 1964 the share of income taxes did indeed decrease. A similar pattern is visible in Italy after Mussolini took power (and drastically reduced the level of oversight). These results indicate that autocracies with significant institutional oversight rely more on income taxes.Footnote 22
3.4. Institutional oversight and PIT adoption
The typical PIT was introduced in the decades before World War II, but the variation in introduction year is large (see figure 2 in Seelkopf et al., Reference Seelkopf, Bubek, Eihmanis, Ganderson, Limberg, Mnaili, Zuluaga and Genschel2021). The median time from entering the sample to adopting the tax is 95 years, and the majority of countries had introduced it after 150 years.
Standard methods for estimating models with binary dependent variables such as probit and logit regressions are problematic since they ignore the temporal dimension of the data. In particular, the assumption that observations are temporally independent is likely to be violated since the probability of adopting PIT probably increases over time, which could inflate t-values.
A common way to solve this problem is to run logit/probit models and introduce polynomials of time to correct for temporal dependence (Carter and Signorino, Reference Carter and Signorino2010). This is also the method used in earlier research (e.g. Mares and Queralt, Reference Mares and Queralt2015). A problem with this approach is that tax adoptions are rare events. It has been shown that logit estimates are biased and inefficient in these situations (King and Zeng, Reference King and Zeng2001). This problem – and others such as separation (Anderson et al., Reference Anderson, Bagozzi and Koren2020; Zorn, Reference Zorn2005) – can be addressed by using the penalized maximum-likelihood (PMLE) estimator suggested by Firth (Reference Firth1993). I present results using both approaches.
A country is defined as being at risk of introducing an income tax if it does not currently have one, and if it is independent according to V-Dem (Coppedge et al., Reference Coppedge, Gerring, Lindberg, Skaaning, Teorell, Altman, Bernhard, Fish, Glynn, Hicken, Knutsen, Krusell, Lührmann, Marquardt, McMann, Mechkova, Olin, Paxton, Pemstein, Pernes, Sanhueza Petrarca, von Römer, Saxer, Seim, Sigman, Staton, Stepanova and Wilson2020, based on Gleditsch and Ward, Reference Gleditsch and Ward1999).Footnote 23
The models in Table 2 include the same controls as previously: economic development, warfare, left-wing head of government, rural elite, suffrage, and social policy laws. While the models in Table 1 included country fixed effects, this is inappropriate for binary dependent variables (Beck and Katz, Reference Beck and Katz2001). In order to account for unobserved characteristics of the Old World, the models below all include Europe fixed effects.
Note: *p < 0.10; **p < 0.05; ***p < 0.01. Models 1–3: logit with country-clustered robust standard errors. Models 4–5: logit with PMLE function.
Source: author's compilation.
Finally, a concern might be that states with many modern taxes in place are more likely to introduce reforms increasing institutional oversight, and at the same time be less likely to introduce new taxes (since the capacity is already high). Moreover, existing taxes might make the introduction of a PIT more likely (e.g. through already existing administrative capacity in the tax authority), while at the same time create demand for more transparency. Therefore, I have included controls for the previous introduction of inheritance taxes (INH), corporate income taxes (CIT), social security contributions (SSC), and general sales taxes (GST).Footnote 24 However, since including other taxes as controls might introduce post-treatment bias, I also report results without them.
Models 1–3 of Table 2 present results using logistic regression with duration dependence, with model 2 adding controls for ideology, rural elite, economic development, war, suffrage, and social policy legislation, and model 3 adding controls for existing taxes. Models 4 and 5 use the PMLE approach, with model 5 including controls for existing taxes.
Across specifications there is a clear positive association between institutional oversight and the likelihood of PIT introduction. The magnitude remains similar regardless of which estimator is used. In section A5 of the appendix I include a range of robustness checks including several controls (population, elite cohesion, legal tradition, democratic history), different samples, and interaction effects (e.g. ethnic fractionalization). The conclusions remain unchanged.
3.5. Summary of results
The results present a robust association between institutional oversight and the introduction and expansion of income taxes. However, one should be careful about drawing causal conclusions from this. Future research using in-depth case studies with more detailed data will be crucial in order to investigate this relationship further. The next section takes a first step in that direction by looking closer at the adoption of the PIT in Sweden.
4. The non-democratic introduction of the income tax in Sweden
When Sweden adopted the PIT in 1902, it was undemocratic but did have extensive institutional oversight.Footnote 25 Already in 1809, the office of ombudsman was established for the legislature to exercise oversight over the executive branch. This office, answering exclusively to the parliament, was a key component in upholding shared power between the king and the Diet of the estates. After the constitutional reform of 1866, in which the four-estate Diet was turned into a bicameral parliament, institutional oversight increased even more (the indicator from V-Dem increased from 0.795 to 0.826 on a scale from 0 to 1).
At the time of the tax reform of 1902, the parliament had considerable influence, but it could be dissolved by the king, who could also veto laws unilaterally. Democratic participation was very limited both in terms of who could run for parliament and in terms of who could vote. There were income and property requirements for the franchise, and more than 80% of the adult population lacked voting rights.
An inheritance tax and taxes on land were already in place. Different types of inheritance taxes existed throughout the 19th century, and a modern version of the tax was adopted in 1884 (Seelkopf et al., Reference Seelkopf, Bubek, Eihmanis, Ganderson, Limberg, Mnaili, Zuluaga and Genschel2021). These existing sources of revenue were insufficient to cover increasing expenditures, which was an important impetus for tax reform.
The story about the income tax of 1902 starts with a major reform to defense and taxation in 1892. Ancient taxes on farmland were to be removed step by step during a 10-year period, reducing the tax by 10% each year until 1902. At the same time, the old allotment system staffing – and to some degree financing – the armed forces was to be phased out by 1904 (Gårestad, Reference Gårestad1987). Thus, new defense financing was needed.Footnote 26
The late 19th century also saw structural economic changes that facilitated income taxation (Rodriguez, Reference Rodriguez1981). For instance, in 1905 industry surpassed agriculture in economic importance (Dahlgren, Reference Dahlgren1990). Arguments in favor of the PIT not only stressed the need for more defense spending but also the need for more spending on infrastructure. There was a political consensus that the state needed to become more active in the economy, but to do so it needed stronger finances. The PIT was seen as an attractive tool since it was less volatile and not as dependent on international circumstances as tariffs. Evidence that the income tax could be an effective money raiser came both from the earlier experience of the tax in 1809 and from neighboring states such as Prussia (Ibid.).
However, many were also apprehensive of the tax; in particular, concerns were raised about the privacy of taxpayers. The system of personal tax returns was coupled with wide-ranging bureaucratic powers and sanctions for tax fraud. The information on taxpayers which would become available to government bureaucrats made many high-income earners anxious, and efforts were made to alleviate these concerns. For instance, revealing private information was made illegal and tax returns were made confidential (Paradell, Reference Paradell2010).
The fact that some members of parliament were worried about the increased power of authorities, and that there were alternative tax reforms put forth focusing on indirect taxes, suggests that the concerns were real.Footnote 27 They were overcome thanks to elements of the reform that increased the benefits to the elite, and reduced the risks. First, the conservatives in parliament favored a stable, and expanded, revenue system in order to be able to invest in infrastructure (from which they would benefit) and in order to modernize the defense (Dahlgren and Stadin, Reference Dahlgren and Stadin1990). The price they paid was low since the tax rate was modest and progressivity weak. In addition, since they had many different sources of income, the tax was not a major threat economically (Stenkula, Reference Stenkula, Henrekson and Stenkula2015). Second, the tax reform was implemented in a way to ensure that there were constitutional checks protecting the elite from government overreach. The taxes removed from 1892 and onwards were so-called ordinary revenues, controlled by the king. The new income tax was classified as an ‘extraordinary’ tax, and thus under firmer parliamentary control. In practice, this meant taxes could be changed by the legislature without the king being able to veto them (Dahlgren, Reference Dahlgren1990). Thus, the reform transferred revenue power from the executive to the legislature. Moreover, the tax did not affect the suffrage (at the time the franchise was linked to tax payments), which protected the elite against potential redistributive demands from lower classes. A final aspect of the 1902 reform that convinced sceptics was that it was supposed to be temporary.
Interestingly, among the main opponents to the new tax we find both landed nobility and business elites (since the old taxes on farmland did not hurt corporations) (Dahlgren and Stadin, Reference Dahlgren and Stadin1990). Recent research on the wealth of Swedish parliamentarians might explain why, while also casting doubt on the foundational assumptions of the elite competition approach. Bengtsson and Olsson (Reference Bengtsson and Olsson2018) present evidence showing that farmer parliamentarians in mid to late 19th-century Sweden were not only wealthy in terms of the amount of land they owned, but that they had diverse sources of income and wealth. Among the richest farmers in their sample (people who would most definitely belong to the ‘landed elite’), the largest share of their wealth was not in livestock or land, but in urban real estate and shares in modern-sector businesses such as railway and steamboat companies, and in banks. Moreover, wealthy farmers – as well as landed nobility – established modern factories. Thus, among the elite there were no clear urban–rural or industrial–agricultural divides with respect to assets: the elite were invested in both sectors. This also explains why there was a low level of conflict among the ruling classes in relation to the introduction of the income tax.
The new tax was successful: five years after its introduction, it generated 15% of total tax revenue, and overall revenues increased by almost 40%. The support coalition in Sweden at the time had no qualms about increasing the fiscal capacity of the state since it controlled parliament, through which it was able to effectively monitor the executive branch. They were also able to push through additional legal provisions protecting sensitive information contained in tax returns. It is likely that the behavior of the elite was influenced by the fact that they knew they could use their monitoring power to detect any executive transgressions in the future. This increased their confidence that the tax would not be used against their interests.
The rise of the fiscal state cannot be explained by democracy and war alone. Many important tax reforms were made by non-democratic states, a puzzle that has received limited attention thus far. The first point made in this paper is that income taxation is not only about redistribution but also about fiscal capacity. The second point is that there are important institutional differences between non-democratic states, differences that matter when explaining tax policy.
The empirical analysis suggests that institutional oversight is positively related to the adoption and expansion of income taxes in non-democratic states. The results indicate that when studying the origins of fiscal capacity, it is important to distinguish not only between democracy and autocracy, but also between different institutional configurations within non-democratic regimes.
The case study illustrated how the support coalition used political institutions to ensure power over the new tax by avoiding the royal veto. This was important since there was serious concern not only about the redistributive potential of the tax, but also about the increased capacity of the state to gather information on its citizens. The Swedish case also provided insights into the interests of elite groups: some members of the old landed elite and the new business class opposed the income tax, and many farmer politicians had a diverse portfolio of wealth and income, blurring the lines between rural and urban elite tax preferences.
The empirical analysis also hints at a different channel through which power-sharing leads to political stability: state capacity. Income taxes strengthen the state, making it easier for the ruler to defeat challengers and to co-opt the opposition.
My findings are also related to more historical literature on the relationship between rulers and elites in medieval Europe, and how this shaped state capacity and institutional constraints in the long run (e.g. Pavlik and Young, Reference Pavlik and Young2021; Salter and Young, Reference Salter and Young2019).
An important area for future research is communist states. Not only is this a distinct autocratic institutional configuration, but standard theories of taxation are likely to be less applicable in these cases. For instance, the political coalitions relevant to income taxes are likely to be different if all (or most) corporations are government owned.
The supplementary material for this article can be found at https://doi.org/10.1017/S1744137422000327.
I am grateful to Yuen Yuen Ang, Antonio Savoia, Kunal Sen, Jack Paine, Didac Queralt, Patrick Emmenegger, Adrián del Río, Jacob Frizell, Ellen Immergut, Jacob Hariri, Jeppe Vierø, Christoffer Cappelen, David Le Bris, Mathias vom Hau, Julian Garritzmann, Katren Rogers, Jan Teorell, Johannes Lindvall, Klas Nilsson, Oriol Sabaté, four anonymous referees, and seminar and conference participants at the 2018 ECPR General Conference, the 2019 EUI workshop on State-building in Non-democratic Societies, the 2019 ECPR Joint Sessions, the 2019 ESID conference, the 2019 Understanding State Capacity conference, the 2019 SSHA Annual Conference, the 2019 STANCE seminar, the 2020 CES Conference, the 2021 DAC-BIM seminar at the University of Copenhagen, the 2021 UNU-WIDER Fiscal States workshop, and the 2021 CMI Tax for Development webinar for comments and suggestions. All errors remain my own. I acknowledge generous financial support from the UNU-WIDER Fiscal States project (part of the Domestic Revenue Mobilization program), and from the Swedish Research council (grant no. 2019-00582).