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Theory and practice of excise taxation

Selective taxes on goods and services, often referred to as excise taxes, are among the oldest forms of taxation in the world. The salt excise, for instance, was considered a gold mine for the European sovereign during the Middle Ages, because sources of supply were few and could be easily controlled.

Interestingly, the prominence of excise taxation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries owed much to the Dutch, whose duties on beer, sugar, salt, spirits, and other goods were called excijsen. In fact, excise taxation was so widely applied that an English observer noted that ‘a fish dish eaten in Holland pays 30 excises’. From la terre classique de la fiscalite´, as Holland was called at that time, excise taxation spread to other European countries.

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Many German states, for instance, followed the Dutch example, and the apparent success of the ‘new imposts’ also led to their introduction in England and its colonies, including the USA.

This volume and the conference that preceded it would not have been possible without the sponsorship of the International Tax and Investment Center in Washington DC. The hospitality of the Dutch Ministry of Finance and the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study, where this volume was completed, were much appreciated.

Excise taxes on smoking, drinking, gambling, polluting, and driving are very much in the news these days. Not only are these taxes convenient sources of government revenue, they can also be designed to reflect the external costs that consumers or producers of excisable products impose on other people.

Global warming, acid rain, traffic congestion, and the economic costs of cigarette and alcohol consumption are problems that can be corrected through selective excise taxes and other regulatory instruments. Excise taxes, moreover, are increasingly looked upon as revenue substitutes for distortionary taxes on capital and labour.