Wednesday, 9 July 2014
A Tax on Dogs
In 1796 a seemingly innocuous piece of tax legislation caused uproar in England. The new law provoked a debate about the very nature of the human spirit and whether owning a dog was a right or a luxury.
At the end of the 18th century the English government was desperate for money to finance the on-going war with France. One way of raising the necessary cash was taxation. Tax was raised on everything from soap, to tea, tobacco, windows and lace – and indeed it didn’t stop there. Servants were a taxable asset under the auspices of the Male Servants’ Tax bill 1777- 1852 and the Female Servant’s Tax bill 1795 – 1852- but fortunately (or unfortunately?) wives and children were not taxable assets!. There was a Horse Tax (for owners of carriages and saddle horses), a Farm Horse Tax (for horses and mules used in trade) – but none of these taxes created quite the same stir as the imposition of the Dog Tax in 1796.
The crux of the disquiet lay in the very English relationship between man to dog. It raised a serious debate about whether a dog was a luxury or a natural part of being human. The tax tapped into questions about the emotional bond between the two. By putting a tax on dogs it implied a shift in relationship from one of nurturing and caring, to servility and subordination – and dog owners were enraged. To many this was tantamount to taxing spouses and children , and people weren’t happy. This wasn’t about the financial aspect of the tax, but the moral implication and feelings ran high.
Those that supported the bill pointed out that pet dogs were a luxury, and consumed food that could have been better used to feed the poor. Opposers argued back that to need things beyond the essential – such as a dog – was a distinctly human trait. These people considered pets to be their friends, and putting a tax on them turned the language of friendship to that of slavery and service.
Interestingly, the idea behind the dog tax may have originated in France (the very country the English needed to raise funds to fight!) In 1770 a French census suggested a population of four million dogs –an arithmetic extrapolation of the amount of food they consumed was equivalent to feeding a sixth of the population. The French dog tax was proposed to discourage dog ownership, as a means of disease control and to increase food availability.
French authorities also insisted dogs belonging to the poor spread disease – especially rabies. This was considered a disease of dirty and hungry dogs, so poor labourers who – “Can scarcely feed themselves” should be discouraged from owning dogs by means of a tax.
The difference between France and England was that in the former the tax remained as a proposition, whereas in the later it was acted upon. Whatever the moral argument the English government won in the end – the Dog Tax was imposed and stayed in place until 1882.