Medieval Muslim Historian: Low Taxes Build, High Taxes Destroy Civilization

Making Wisdom Popular

Ibn Khaldun.JPG

Ibn Khaldûn isn’t exactly a household name—but he should be, especially for conservatives, classical liberals, and libertarians.  A medieval Muslim from modern day Tunisia, Khaldûn wrote the greatest Islamic history of the pre-modern era, The Muqaddimah, in the 14th century.  The work was a monumental, “universal” history—an attempt to synthesize all known (or at least, important) history from an Islamic perspective, and elucidate lessons he hoped would benefit Islamic civilization.  Perhaps the closest Christian equivalent from the pre-modern period would be Augustine’s City of God

So it is rather fascinating to see what he had to say about what continues to be a hot topic today: taxes.  In short, Khaldûn believed that low taxes helped build civilization, and high taxes helped destroy civilization.  Not only that, but he observed that lower taxes tended to bring in more revenue, while higher taxes tended to bring in less revenue.

He didn’t arrive at this position through abstract theorizing, but by carefully studying the facts of history—both before, and during his own times.

Taxes, Taxes, Taxes

Khaldûn summarized his position on taxes in Chapter 3, §36 of The Muqaddimah as follows:

It should be known that at the beginning of a dynasty, taxation yields a large revenue from small assessments.  At the end of the dynasty, taxation yields a small revenue from large assessments.[1]

For Khaldûn, this could be ascribed to Islam—religious law limited the type and amount of taxes a ruler could impose:

The reason for this is that when the dynasty follows the ways of Islam, it imposes only such taxes as are stipulated by the religious law, such as charity taxes, the land tax, and the poll tax.  These have fixed limits that cannot be exceeded.[2]

“Desert Attitude” vs. “Sophistication”

Khaldûn then makes a fascinating observation: a society with a “desert attitude” is strong, and could get along just fine with lower taxes.  The “desert attitude” was a reference to the sort of Bedouin approach to life that was common in the Middle East at that time (and continues to this day in some places).  This didn’t mean that only Bedouins could build civilizations. Rather, the Bedouin ethic of independence, along with moderation and restraint, built civilizations.

However, civilizations who lost this approach to life, and became overrun by luxury and materialism (usually more urban societies), Khaldûn called “sophisticated.”  But he didn’t mean that in a good way.  Rather, it meant that their desire for material luxuries and superfluous goods increased, and with it their greed and decadence.

First, let’s see how Khaldûn describes the “desert attitude,” and why it was more compatible with lower taxes:

When the dynasty follows the ways of group feeling [Asabiyyah] and (political) superiority [by which Khaldûn means something akin to the common good], 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.[3]

In other words, the “desert attitude” enables lower taxes, which in turn better enables the “cultural enterprises” that advance civilization.  This is all possible because there is an ethic undergirding the “desert attitude,” a shared group feeling of solidarity which Khaldûn called Asabiyyah.  For him, cultures which had high Asabiyyah flourished—those who had low Asabiyyah decayed and eventually collapsed.  Like the great Scottish economist Adam Smith, who wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments before he wrote his famous Wealth of Nations, Khaldûn understood that a marketplace requires individual initiative, yes, but also a shared ethic, and a sense of solidarity with others. The marketplace is the Golden Rule in action: a place where you do, but “as you would have others do to you.” You do through service to others. Such is the essence of the “cultural enterprises” he speaks of—the fruit of the “desert attitude,” which leads to Asabiyyah, and is characterized by what I will call the “five virtues”:

(1) Kindness;
(2) Reverence;
(3) Humility;
(4) Respect for property; and
(5) An unwillingness to take that property away (except in rare cases).

These virtues encourage individual initiative tempered by an appropriately communal restraint. They encourage mutually beneficial exchanges within a marketplace. They encourage the cultivation of one’s own property. They prevent the undue burdening of others in the use of their property. They are thus inherently opposed to high taxation.

Finally, Khaldûn describes how the “desert attitude” is more compatible with what he calls “political” authority.  He later contrasts this with “royal” authority—a contrast also observed by the 15th century English Chancellor, John Fortescue, in his relatively unknown, and under-appreciated In Praise of the Laws of England.  While the details are for another blog, in short, “political” authority relies on a shared societal consensus, whereas “royal” authority is driven by a single man or tyrant, and is thus more arbitrary.  It’s important to note, however, because Khaldûn observed that urbanized “sophisticated” societies tended toward low Asabiyyah, and thus often fell into “royal,” as opposed to “political” authority. “Political” authority requires buy-in, and is therefore more compatible with, and tends to proceed from Asabiyyah, whereas “royal” authority is the opposite.

Let’s now see how Khaldûn described the “sophistication” of a decaying civilization, and why it is invariably (partially) caused by, and leads to even higher taxes:

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 impost 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.  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.[4]

Thus, whereas a strong civilization has a “desert attitude,” a Bedouin disposition characterized by high levels of Asabiyyah which results from the “five virtues,” a decaying society becomes “sophisticated” through the proliferation of riches. These, in turn, encourage lifestyles which are more sedentary and luxurious, more “clever” (in the beguiling sort of way).  This leads to higher taxes so that the inflamed desires of the populace—typically the elites in government most of all—may be satisfied.

The results are catastrophic. The incentives to engage in “cultural enterprises” decrease. With fewer “cultural enterprises” producing revenue, along with an increasing appetite for taxation, the state feels a need for even greater taxation, which only continues the destructive cycle:

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 individual assessments go down.  Often, when the decrease is noticed, the amounts of individual impost 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.  Finally, civilization, is destroyed, because the incentive for cultural activity is gone.  It is the dynasty that suffers from the situation, because it profits from cultural activity.[5]

Economic Freedom Leads to Prosperity

Khaldûn concludes with an enthusiastic endorsement of low taxation, a position he justifies not merely by appealing to historical experience, but the common sense psychology of allowing people to benefit from their own labor:

If one 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.[6]

In other words, low taxes not only help increase the revenue of the state, but the prosperity of society as a whole. When individuals are allowed to profit as much as possible from their own efforts, they are more likely to engage in such efforts, “cultural enterprises” as Khaldûn calls them.  They have an incentive to do so.  Taxation doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and neither does the building of the “cultural enterprises” which are so essential to an enduring civilization—let alone an enduring bottom line. 

Once the ethic of the “desert attitude” is abandoned—an ethic of mutual respect, and an unwillingness to appropriate someone else’s property for yourself—the group feeling, or Asabiyyah of a civilization decreases. How could it not? If your property can be more easily and severely appropriated by your neighbor, or your government, you would necessarily have a decreased sense of solidarity with them. Your “group feeling” would increasingly become a feeling for yourself in the interests of your own protection (or, in the case of others, their own aggrandizement).  This in turn discourages the entrepreneurial effort of some, and enables the sedentary, luxurious, selfish lifestyles of others (especially those in the government). These are the hallmarks of what Khaldûn called a “sophisticated” civilization.

“Desert Attitude” (lower taxes)

Has the “five virtues”
Bedouin qualities (more rural)
Lower taxes
Higher revenue
More “cultural enterprises”
More incentives to work and create
High Asabiyyah (more social cohesion)
More compatible with “political” authority
Less corrupt leaders
More free

“Sophistication” (higher taxes)

Lacks the “five virtues”
Luxurious and sedentary (more urban)
Higher taxes
Lower revenue
Less “cultural enterprises”
Less incentives to work and create
Low Asabiyyah (less social cohesion)
More compatible with “royal” authority
More corrupt leaders
Less free

The Favorite of an American President

For conservatives, classical liberals, and libertarians, none of this should come as a surprise.  In fact, it should serve as a confirmation of our position on taxes—a position that is not unique to some parochial American political factions, but is in fact based on universal truths of the human condition.  This isn’t the position of greedy old white guys, but includes brown, medieval, Muslim Africans as well (along with many others). When our Leftist friends spring their typical racial and other epithets at us, we should use their own weapons against them: “You mean you think the Islamic, African Ibn Khaldûn was wrong, or lying, when he supported the same thing?” It’s unfortunate we live in such a political environment where race and religion have been weaponized against conservatives—but it’s the world we have, and we must behave accordingly. “Wise as serpents, harmless as doves.” Would that conservatives would use the rhetorical weapons with which history is so willing to equip us!

But, wherever possible, we should do so with the disarming charm and grace of a great American President who, as it turns out, was a big fan of Khaldûn: Ronald Reagan. “The Gipper” quoted him throughout his Presidency no less than ten times (including in the video clip above).

Low Taxes Help Build, and Preserve, Great Civilizations

So the next time one of our Leftist friends call out those of us who prefer lower taxes for our supposed “trickle-down economics,” or our supposed love of “the 1%” at the supposed expense of everyone else, my suggestion is to remind them about Ibn Khaldûn.  Remind them that ours is not merely a political position, but an empirical fact, observed by great minds of many cultures and times—lower taxes benefit everyone.  Remind them that the same great minds predicted, indeed observed, that a society constantly seeking higher and more frequent taxation is a decaying society. It’s a society that wants exactly what they want—higher taxes, bigger government, less property rights. Remind them that societies characterized by what we want, historically, tend to flourish. Societies characterized by what they want, historically, tend to flounder.

In other words, with the help of Ibn Khaldûn, kick them in the Asabiyyah with the facts of history.


[1]Ibn Khaldûn, The Muqaddimah (1377); Ibn Khaldûn, Franz Rosenthal, trans., The Muqaddimah (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 230.



[4]Id. 230-31.

[5]Id. 231.