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How About a Beard Tax?

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When you think about government, innovation isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind. Just last week, CNN reported that the US Department of Defense still uses 1970s era computing systems that require “eight-inch floppy disks.” Some of these ancient computers run US nuclear weapon systems:

Such disks were already becoming obsolete by the end of that decade, being edged out by smaller, non-floppy 3.5 to 5.25-inch disks, before being almost completely replaced by the CD in the late 90s. Except in Washington that is. The GAO report says that US government departments spend upwards of $60 billion a year on operating and maintaining out-of-date technologies.”

But when it comes to finding ways to wring money out of their citizens, governments suddenly become exceptionally innovative.

beard token

A British barber and businessman recently floated the idea of a “beard tax.”

Anthony Kent, who owns a salon chain called UK Barber Shops, proposed a £100 tax on bushy beards. Men who keep their facial hair neat and trimmed would catch a break with only a £50 levy. Kent formally presented his idea to Chancellor of the Exchequer as a way to cash in on fashion trends in Britain, and plug holes in the national budget.

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Now, this probably seems far-fetched – a publicity stunt by some guy who would obviously benefit from a beard tax. It would certainly be good for the barber business. But as crazy as a beard tax sounds, historical precedent actually exists. Atlas Obscura recounts how Kent came up with the idea:

According to the Worcester News, Kent discovered tales of Henry VIII’s 16th-century tax levied on the bearded men of England, and inspiration struck. He explained, ‘My head started whirring away and I started thinking you might be onto something here. I thought—they need to reduce the deficit, so maybe they can start taxing beards with them being so prevalent at the moment!’”

Turns out, King Henry’s beard tax is historically dubious, but there is well-documented historical evidence that facial hair was taxed in Russia during the reign of Peter the Great. After his return from a tour of Western Europe, the Russian monarch decided his country was behind the times and needed to modernize. A clean shave was all the rage in Europe, and Peter wanted his country to follow suit:

Long, flowing beards were considered a symbol of manhood, integrity, and piety according to Orthodox ideals, with Ivan the Terrible writing, ‘Shaving the beard is a sin the blood of all martyrs will not wash away. It would mean blemishing the image of man as God created him.’ Given this cultural preference for beards, Peter turned to taxation to incentivize shaving; with an exception for priests, men who refused to shave their beards were taxed 100 roubles a year—a small fortune at the time, according to Russia Today. Peasants were held to a modified version of the tax and only required to shave when entering a city (or pay a fine of one kopek to keep their luxurious facial locks).”

The government produced beard tokens that were handed out once the tax was paid. Without a token, officials could forcibly shave a bearded man. The beard tax remained on the books in Russia until 1772.

Now, you might think modern beard tax just a silly proposal by some Brit trying to create some publicity for himself and his business. Surely no modern official would consider taxing beards, right?

But really, would a beard tax truly surprise you? And there is evidence a New Jersey state legislator once proposed a state beard tax.

Regardless, the beard tax proposal and its historical precedent teach us some very valuable lessons about the nature of government. There is virtually nothing it won’t try to control – even facial hair. And the story reminds us that there are always people like Kent around – those who benefit from government action and work diligently to harness government power to advance their own personal interests.

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