I posted yesterday where I disagreed with Bruce Bartlett's article in The Cato Journal. To redress the balance, here is a gloss on where I agree.
In other respects, however, Julian was more enlightened. In the area of tax policy, he showed sensitivity and perception. He understood that the main reason for the state's fiscal problem was the excessive burden of taxation, which fell unequally on the population. The wealthy effectively were able to evade taxation through legal and illegal measures, such as bribery. By contrast, the ordinary citizen was helpless against the demands of the increasingly brutal tax collectors.
The taxation of Gaul in the 350s - indeed much of the Western empire - was badly implemented and inefficiently collected. Tax assessments were based on out-of-date information and they were not means-tested. War or a bad harvest was not taken into consideration.
The usual solution was to slap a supplementary tax on the few who had already paid.
Instead, Julian’s plan was to make sure that taxes were collected. What had muddied the books was the practice of indulgences, by which back taxes were periodically wiped out. In theory it was a windfall for all, but in practice it only benefited the better off. The poor had to pay their taxes on the nail, while the rich could cosy up to the collector and postpone payment until the next round of write-offs.
Genuinely taxing the rich worked. Over Julian’s four years in Gaul, taxes were reduced by more than two-thirds.
It wasn't easy. In one of his letters (Ep 4, Loeb numbering) he is clearly frustrated at official intransigence to his reforms:
“In a case like this, what was the right conduct for a zealous student of Plato and Aristotle? Should I have looked on while the wretched people were being betrayed to thieves, or to have helped them as far as I could, for they were already singing their swan song because of the criminal scams of men of that sort? It seems a disgrace that while I punish my military tribunes when they desert their posts (they ought to be put to death at once and not even granted a proper burial), I should myself desert my post which is for the defence of such wretched people; whereas it is my duty to fight against bandits of his sort, especially when god is fighting on my side, for it was he who posted me here. And if any harm to myself should come of it, it is no small consolation to have proceeded with good conscience.”