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Facial share

By Toby Fehily

A beard tax? Not by the hairs of our chinny chin chins, says the Beard Liberation Front.

A rift tore through the United Kingdom last year, threatening to plunge the country into chaos. It wasn’t Brexit, nor even the English soccer team’s shock loss to Iceland, but a British barber who believed the bearded were skimping on their dues.

The barber, Anthony Kent, wanted a beard tax.

All beard owners, he told the press, should pay an annual £100 levy for their facial hair. Those sporting stubble under two centimetres in length could slip past with a mere £50, he conceded.

As strange as it all sounded, his proposal, if accepted, wouldn’t be the first beard tax in history.

Still, Kent, who admitted to being unable to grow more than a paltry goatee, claimed that it wasn’t a vendetta. The extra revenue, he explained, could go towards reducing the national budget deficit, which now sits at approximately £19.1b – around 191 million full beards’ or 382 million stubble patches’ worth of debt.

Big hairy audacious tax

For the most part, Kent simply wanted to draw attention to the broader state of taxation in the hairdressing industry. In particular, he was protesting how the United Kingdom’s VAT consumption tax applied to salons, which he saw as unfair. The beard tax, he said, was just a way to make things fairer.

In response, the Beard Liberation Front (BLF), a British pro-beard group, rallied its troops. Founder Keith Flett slammed the proposal, citing a need for a Beard Inspectorate to ensure compliance. The costs involved with running this beard bureau, he argued, would shave away at any additional revenue raised by the tax.

But their hands weren’t entirely clean either. Just a few months prior to Kent’s campaign, the BLF proposed its own tax – a “budget shaving tax” of £100 for anyone smooth-cheeked at the beginning of each financial year.

“The BLF says that shaving is environmentally unfriendly,” read a press release, “and a shaving tax would do a good deal to address carbon reduction targets by reducing use of electric shavers and power used to make shaving products.”

Clipping the ticket

At the time of writing, the British government has not yet ceded to the demands of the barber or the BLF and the country, for now, has narrowly avoided descending into civil unrest. Other countries, however, haven’t been so lucky.

From 1698 to 1772, at the behest of Peter the Great, Russia had its very own beard tax.

Like Kent, Peter the Great considered himself a barber of sorts. But unlike Kent, he didn’t necessarily have the consent of his customers. Returning from a European tour in 1698, the monarch waltzed into a reception, pulled a pair of razors out of his bag and began slicing the beards of the people present, from the commander-in-chief of the army on down.

Unable or unwilling to cut every beard in Russia, Peter issued a decree outlawing facial hair for all except the clergy and peasants. Officials swarmed the country, forcibly shaving offenders on the spot.

But when an alarming number of officials began turning a blind eye for a bribe, Peter, in 1705, turned to tax instead. The progressive tax saw the wealthier on the hook for as much as 100 rubles per year, while the poorer only had to cough up a couple of kopeks on entering or leaving a city’s gates. In return, beard taxpaying citizens received a copper or silver token that essentially served as a beard permit. Many were minted over the years, some featuring the words “БОРОДА ЛИШНѦѦ ТѦГОТА” – “the beard is a superfluous burden”.

Taking it on the chin

Part of the reason for the tax was to help fund Russia’s war with the Swedish Empire. But a big part of it was Peter the Great’s desire to keep the country in step with the rest of the western world. Throughout Europe, being clean shaven was all the rage and beards were increasingly perceived as barbaric. But while Peter may have thought he was introducing a sin tax, many in Russia at the time considered beardlessness the sin.

From the Middle Ages onwards, the Russian Orthodox Church, itself exempted from the tax, held the beard as a symbol of piety and obedience – to shave was to abandon tradition and God himself. For years, priests refused to bless the beardless.

“The shaving of beards is not only foolishness and a dishonour,” explained Patriarch Adrian, “it is a mortal sin.”

Others saw the beard tax and Peter’s other reforms as affronts to their way of life, going so far as to claim Peter was an imposter or the Antichrist himself. Violent revolts against the tax started cropping up across the country like stubborn ingrown hairs. One such uprising, the Astrakhan Revolt from 1705 to 1706, managed to scare Peter into lifting beard legislation in a number of towns.

Even so, the tax didn’t go away. It wasn’t until 1772, 47 years after Peter’s death, that the tax was finally revoked by Catherine the Great. But it didn’t stop there – it grew back. In the early 20th century, on the other side of the Bering Strait, New Jersey had a close shave with a similar tax.

Shave and save

On April 2 1907, assemblyman Johnston Cornish of Essex introduced a bill for a beard tax, updated to match the cumbersome complexity of the modern taxation system.
According to the New York Times, the bill called for US$5 for “ordinary whiskers”, US$8 for “side whiskers”, US$10 for a “Van Dyke beard”, US$15 for “mutton chops” and a whopping US$50 for a “billygoat”.

Ginger beards would incur an additional 20% charge. Cornish claimed that men only grow beards to skimp on barbers’ bills or to conceal their faces for “ulterior and often base motives”. To back up these assertions, the preamble to the bill made reference to a number of not-so-likeable people who wore whiskers: “Holmes the Trunker Murderer” and “Palmer the Poisoner”.

Soon afterwards, British satirical magazine Punch reached out to comic writer Frank Richardson, “the greatest English authority on whiskers”, for comment. “It would be the best thing in the world,” he said sarcastically, “the idea is splendid. A similar bill ought to be introduced in England at the earliest opportunity.”

With tongue in (bearded) cheek, Richardson made some additional suggestions. “The tax should be at least US$100 a whisker,” he proposed. “I’ve never seen a man wearing a single whisker, but I don’t see why it should not be done, just as a single eyeglass is worn.

“If men insist upon going about like blots on the landscape I don’t see why they do not pay a big price for the privilege.”

The bill never passed, and the reasons for Cornish’s intense dislike of the ginger beard remain a mystery. But from Peter the Great’s desire to westernise Russia to Anthony Kent’s protest of VAT, there appears to be a wide range of reasons why people have wanted to tax beards throughout history.

Face it

And there are more. “Your beard is ruining the economy,” cried an Esquire headline in 2014, after consumer goods giant Proctor & Gamble announced a 15.5% drop in earnings due to flat sales in its grooming business. P&G CFO Jon Moeller blamed it on the beards, calling out moustache-growing charity event Movember and the “mainstreaming of the three-day stubble ‘hipster’ look”.

At the same time, though, there is evidence to suggest that beards aren’t ruining the economy. Instead, as evolutionary biologist Professor Rob Brooks suggests, there’s good reason to believe that the economy is already ruined and that beards are only the messenger.

“The proportion of men who grow facial hair goes up when things are politically uncertain,” Brooks told SBS. “When the economy tanks, beards go up. The rise of beards in western societies that were largely clean shaven in recent years likely had some of its genesis in the 2008 global financial crisis.”

It’s good news for the hirsute: if there’s a surge in beards, then the economy is likely not faring too well and could probably do without the additional strain, making a reasonable government less inclined to pass a beard tax.

Conversely, if beards are on the wane, then they won’t necessarily attract as much attention from the British barbers, Russian monarchs and New Jersey ginger-haters who would support a beard tax.

As such, despite a fraught history, the bearded shouldn’t worry too much about their beards – worry when everyone else starts growing one.

Tom Fehily is a freelance writer and the editor of Art Guide Australia.

This article was originally published in the April/May 2017 edition of Acuity.