Underrated or overrated? A critical evaluation of the Swedish wealth tax records of 1800.
Between the wealth taxes of the 1710s and the introduction of a wealth tax in 1911, there was only one occasion when a wealth tax was levied on Swedish citizens – and when national wealth was assessed for tax purposes. The parliamentary session in Norrköping in 1800 decided that a one-time nationwide wealth tax would be collected in Sweden. The purpose of the tax was to finance a part of the redemption of paper notes, which had been issued in excess by the National Debt Office during the 1790s. The redemption was an element of the monetary reform that was also adopted in Norrköping. Tax assessment committees were set up all over the country and they worked hard between June 15 when the tax was announced and November 1, which was the final date for the tax assessment.
The article makes a critical evaluation of the usefulness of the tax assessment material from 1800 as a historical source. For example, can it be used to contribute to the research on wealth accumulation and distribution over long time periods, such as Thomas Pickety’s comparative and Daniel Waldenström’s Swedish work? The answer depends on the specific aim of such research. For various reasons, the usefulness of the source is uneven. Firstly, the purpose of the wealth assessment was not to assess the country’s aggregate wealth but to raise money for a currency reform. This reduces the usefulness of the source in certain respects. For example, negative wealth was not accounted for, as debts were not part of the tax assessment. In addition, valuations were low, just as the case was in contemporary probate records. On the other hand, real estate assessments were remarkably complete and probably quite accurate. Real estate constituted around 80 percent of total assets and this fact points to the value of the tax records as a historical source. Secondly, assessments were done in a fair manner. In order to avoid the free-rider problem, i.e. that someone would hide his assets and let others pay the pre-defined amount needed for the monetary reform, false declarations were strongly denounced. Thirdly, even if the tax committees’ work seems to have been somewhat inconsistent, there is much information in the committees’ protocols and in individuals’ self-declarations that make the tax records a very useful source for future research.