TAIWAN: León 1188: The first parliament, taxes, and the Tai Ji Men case

Taxpayers’ rights are not just one among many matters Parliaments should control. They are the historical reasons why Parliaments were created.

By Massimo Introvigne*

Bitter Winter (01.07.2024) – On the International Day of Parliamentarism, it is interesting to return to the old question what was the first Parliament in history. Some believe it was the Alþingi or Althing in Iceland, which dates back to the year 930 CE. However, the Alþingi and other early Parliaments only included aristocrats and clergy, without representatives of the common people, and were not a legislative branch clearly separated from the executive and judiciary powers.

For these reasons, several scholars and the UNESCO regard as the first Parliament the Cortes of the Spanish Kingdom of León, one of the independent states that later merged into Spain. This Parliament was summoned by King Alfonso IX in 1188 in the Basilica of San Isidoro in the city of León. It was indeed the first Parliament that included representatives of non-aristocrat citizens and enacted laws. The fact that commoners were later excluded did not change this historical fact.

It is important in this webinar to reflect on the crucial connection between the first Parliament in the world and taxes. “No taxation without representation” is the most famous slogan of the American Revolution, although it had been used before in the United Kingdom. It means that taxes imposed without passing through a Parliament where the taxpayers are represented by their elected representatives is a form of tyranny. However, the sentence “No taxation without representation” was first used at the beginning of the 17th century by a Spanish Jesuit Catholic priest and historian, Juan de Mariana, who thus summarized the main result of the León Parliament of 1188. He noted that those who attended the Cortes of León agreed that the King had no right to create taxes without the approval of the representatives of the people. Scholars have found an influence of the Cortes of León when the same principle became part of the British “Magna Carta” of 1225. The violation of this principle by Spanish Kings generated revolts in Spain and later in Latin America. The principle was also connected with peace, and the Parliament of León legislated that the King cannot start a war without Parliamentary approval, since wars normally increase the tax burden on citizens.

We can thus see that since its very beginning at the core of Parliamentarism was the idea that the legislative power, i.e., the Parliament, should be the arbiter of taxpayers’ rights and the institutional seat where critical issues about these rights are solved.

It is important to reflect on this principle when we discuss the Tai Ji Men case. The Parliament of Taiwan, the Legislative Yuan, held hearings and discussed the Tai Ji Men case several times. According to an article published in July 2021 by three Taiwanese scholars, before that date “over 300 legislators from different parties had been using different methods, such as conducting endorsements, proposing bills, coordinating meetings, as well as holding interpellation sessions, press conferences, and public hearings, directly pointing out the taxation bureau’s violations of law and demanding the NTB to revoke the tax bills” against Tai Ji Men. This concerned in particular the tax bill for the year 1992, which tax authorities decided to maintain after tax bills for all the other years had been corrected to zero, based on the technical argument that for 1992 a “final” decision had been rendered and no further appeal was possible. Obviously, how Tai Ji Men operated in 1992 was substantially not different from the other years, and it is a general legal principle that obviously wrong decisions can always be revised.

The Legislative Yuan held a public hearing on June 17, 2010, where the then Deputy Minister of Finance, Chang Sheng-Ford, and the National Taxation Bureau for the Central Area agreed to withdraw the enforcement for the 1992 tax bill, and to resolve the Tai Ji Men tax case within two months. After the public hearing, Finance Minister Lee Sush-Der wrote to three legislators (Tien Chiu-Chin, Twu Shiing-Jer, and Justin Chou), stating that he had asked the National Taxation Bureau for the Central Area to solve the case without delay.

However, these commitments were not honored and the hearings and other meetings at the Legislative Yuan were ignored. This was an egregious example of the modern attitude of tax bureaucrats and even governments, which expropriate the Parliaments of their rights to be the ultimate arbiters in controversial tax issues and on taxpayers’ rights.

The historical origin of Parliamentarism in the Cortes of León demonstrates that the matter of taxes is not one among many Parliaments have both the right and the duty to regulate. It is the core of their functions. It is the function that led Parliaments to be born. It is one without which democracies die. “No taxation without representation.” The Tai Ji Men case should be taken away from bureaucrats and returned to politics.

*Introduction to the webinar “Parliaments, Democracy, and Tai Ji Men,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on June 30, 2024, United Nations International Day of Parliamentarism.

Photo 1:  King Alfonso IX of León (1171–1230), who summoned the Cortes of León when he was just 17 years old. Credits.

Photo 2: Cloister of the Basilica of San Isidoro in León, where the Cortes were held in 1188. Credits.