Today, for the majority of the Novel Ninja audience, is tax day. April 15th, over half a year away from elections, because they hope we’ll forget how many extra forms they added by then.

As I described in another post (about the historical significance of March 25th), the US gets the date of April 15th by rounding off from the UK’s April 6th, which was shifted from March 25th by a medieval bigshot in Rome updating the calendar. The Canadians couldn’t let themselves be outdone by their cousins to the south, and delayed it all the way to the end of April. Australia, the land of reversed seasons, decided to flip their tax calendar and made it October 31st (yep, Monster Day). New Zealand decided to split the difference and stuck theirs in July.

The point is, everyone has different dates, and everyone knows the headaches involved. Yet taxes are often like the location of the toilet on the USS Enterprise: it’s got to be around here somewhere,  but you never see the characters interact with it. 

Taxes are pretty necessary. They keep things going, and while we might disagree on what’s necessary, some things are necessary. Some of those necessities, like roads and the military, tend to be things that your characters will encounter in a book. A lot of times, they show their importance by their absence.

Depending on whether you’re writing sci-fi or fantasy, your characters’ taxes are going to be different. In a developed society, taxes tend to get more intrusive, because of the necessities of certain technologies. It’s very hard to have open travel when every road has tolls. Fire brigades and police are now common, but weren’t supportable in the past due to either technological or support issues (as with a standing army, you need a society that can produce enough to feed, equip, and support people who are just standing around waiting for something bad to happen). Telegraph, telephone, and electricity wires are effectively impossible as anything other than a government or government-supported monopoly. Radios require regulation if only so that you can get people from drowning each other out with a bigger signal.

In a space setting, these issues still don’t go away. Communication issues remain, and you also have to have traffic control similar to airports, only with a lot more math. Eventually, you might even need the orbital equivalent of street-sweepers, clearing out junk from spacecraft that might not completely burn up after falling to the planet below (which is a bigger problem around an airless moon, or a thin-atmosphere planet like Mars).

But while taxes become more intrusive, they also become less obvious as well. As we see in the present day, it’s a lot easier to handle taxes digitally. That wouldn’t stop in the future, even with a light-speed delay on the information.

What isn’t so obvious is what gets taxed. Is everything an income tax in the future? Does Mal Reynolds (Firefly) only have to pay taxes on his reported income, or does he also have to pay property taxes on Serenity, which is his source of income? (Knowing the Alliance, they’ll tax anything; but I’m just using an example.) In a way, property-based taxes would be easier, as he can slip the cash payments for smuggling jobs under the airlock more easily. I still find myself wondering if, had the series continued, we might have seen this side of the ‘Verse.

In more agrarian economies, income isn’t so much an issue. We’re so used to everything being represented by cash these days that we forget our society isn’t how it’s always been. The whole reason why we have property taxes is that they used to be real wealth. Your property was how you gained money. Cash merely represents wealth. Your medieval farmer’s land, crops, and livestock are wealth. That’s why you have the cliche of the poor peasant pleading with the sheriff that the crops were poor this year and he has none left to give in taxes; the government assumed a certain minimum production, and assigned taxes based on that. Harsh? Yep. But also a lot more practical than trying to determine hard income in a partial-barter economy.

Oh, and there’s a reason why the sheriff was the one collecting the taxes. A sheriff wasn’t a police officer until recently; he was the shire reeve, the manager responsible for the shire under the feudal system. He was the one responsible for making certain everything went smoothly; if it didn’t, he was to blame. As with many entrenched positions, that let corruption fester. You can play around with that in a novel, showing what happens when someone good is put in the middle of a corrupt system. No one likes the tax man, even if he’s trying to be fair.

No matter the setting, the government has to track people to figure out who pays what in taxes. That’s a large part of why the feudal system required people to stay on their own land. It’s also the primary reason for a census. Today, the census provides statistical information for political purposes (for example, to determine and apportion population districts for democratic elections), but in centuries past it had only two true purposes: to figure out who owes what in taxes, and to figure out who would be called up in a time of war.

In other words: death and taxes.

You can play around with this in fiction, but its details depend on different factors. Is the society segmented (as with either a feudal or federal system), or uniform? Do information and goods travel quickly, or do they take time? What does the government need to support with taxes, and how much comes from government monopolies and tariffs?

It’s tempting to say that any large nation requires a lot in taxes, but the Roman Empire used far less than a typical first-world nation today, as a percentage of income. Technology changes things. On the other hand, it’s easy to grow taxes a little more, year after year, in a slow rise that people don’t quite notice, and it becomes easier when people see the benefits their taxes produce. It’s one reason why politicians like showing of what tax money is being used for, whether they’re honest politicians or not. (Heh. Honest politicians . . . I crack me up.)

The one certain thing is that taxes are something everyone can understand, from the moment they get their first job. Tax issues can be used in a story to flesh out worldbuilding, to present an obstacle for a character, to give a reason to go play Robin Hood, or just be played up for laughs as bureaucrats get in the way. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a fantasy or science fiction setting; it’s a universal concept that can be used to immerse your reader in your world.