Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XVI.: revenue. - Political Institutions, being Part V of the Principles of Sociology
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
CHAPTER XVI.: revenue. - Herbert Spencer, Political Institutions, being Part V of the Principles of Sociology 
Political Institutions, being Part V of the Principles of Sociology (The Concluding Portion of Vol. II) (London: Williams and Norgate, 1882).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
§ 542. Broadly dividing the products of men’s labours into the part which remains with them for private purposes and the part taken from them for public purposes; and recognizing the truism that the revenue constituted by this last part must increase with the development of the public organization supported by it; we may be prepared for the fact that in early stages of social evolution, nothing answering to revenue exists.
The political head being at first distinguished from other members of the community merely by some personal superiority, his power, often recognized only during war, is, if recognized at other times, so slight as to bring him no material advantage. Habitually in rude tribes he provides for himself as a private man. Sometimes, indeed, instead of gaining by his distinction he loses by it. Among the Dakotas “the civil-chiefs and war-chiefs are distinguished from the rest by their poverty. They generally are poorer clad than any of the rest.” A statement concerning the Abipones shows us why this occasionally happens.
“The cacique has nothing, either in his arms or his clothes, to distinguish him from a common man, except the peculiar oldness and shabbiness of them; for if he appears in the streets with new and handsome apparel,. . . the first person he meets will boldly cry, Give me that dress. . . and unless he immediately parts with it, he becomes the scoff and the scorn of all, and hears himself called covetous.”
Among the Patagonians the burdens entailed by relieving and protecting inferiors, lead to abdication. Many “born Caciques refuse to have any vassals; as they cost thém dear, and yield but little profit.”
Generally, however, and always where war increases his predominance, the leading warrior begins to be distinguished by wealth accruing to him in sundry ways. The superiority which gains him supremacy, implying as it mostly does greater skill and energy, conduces to accumulation: not uncommonly, as we have seen, (§ 472) the primitive chief is also the rich man. And this possession of much private property grows into a conspicuous attribute when, in the settled state, land held by the community begins to be appropriated by its more powerful members. Rulers habitually become large landowners. In ancient Egypt there were royal lands. Of the primitive Greek king we read that “an ample domain is assigned to him [? taken by him] as an appurtenance of his lofty position.” And among other peoples in later times, we find the monarch owning great estates. The income hence derived, continues to the last to represent that revenue which the political head originally had, when he began to be marked off from the rest only by some personal merit.
Such larger amount of private means as thus usually distinguishes the head man at the outset, augments as successful war, increasing his predominance, brings him an increasing portion of the spoils of conquered peoples. In early stages it is the custom for each warrior to keep whatever he personally takes in battle; while that which is taken jointly is in some cases equally divided. But of course the chief is apt to get an extra share; either by actual capture, or by the willing award of his comrades, or, it may be, by forcible appropriation. And as his power grows, this forcible appropriation is yielded to, sometimes tacitly, sometimes under protest; as we are shown by the central incident in the Iliad. Through later stages his portion of plunder, reserved before division of the remainder among followers, continues to be a source of revenue. And where he becomes absolute, the property taken from the vanquished, lossened only by such portions as he gives in reward for services, augments his means of supporting his dependents and maintaining his supremacy.
To these sources of income which may be classed as incidental, is simultaneously added a source which is constant. When predominance of the chief has become so decided that he is feared, he begins to receive propitiatory presents; at first occasionally and afterwards periodically. Already in §§ 369–71, when treating of presents under their ceremonial aspects, I have given illustrations; and many more may be added. Describing the king among the Homeric Greeks, Grote writes—“Moreover he receives frequent presents, to avert his enmity, to conciliate his favour, or to buy off his exactions.” So, too, of the primitive Germans, we are told by Tacitus that “it is the custom of the states to bestow by voluntary and individual contribution on the chiefs, a present of cattle or of grain, which, while accepted as a compliment, supplies their wants.” And gifts to the ruler voluntarily made to obtain good will, or prevent ill will, continue to be a source of revenue until quite late stages. Among ourselves “during the reign of Elizabeth, the custom of presenting New Year’s gifts to the sovereign was carried to an extravagant height;” and even “in the reign of James I. the money gifts seem to have been continued for some time.”
Along with offerings of money and goods there go offerings of labour. Not unfrequently in primitive communities, it is the custom for all to join in building a new house or clearing a plot of ground for one of their number: such benefits being reciprocated. Of course the growing predominance of a political head, results in a more extensive yielding of gratuitous labour for his benefit, in these and other ways. The same motives which prompt gifts to the ruler prompt offers of help to him more than to other persons; and thus the custom of working for him grows into a usage. We read of the village chief among the Guaranis that “his subjects cultivated for him his plantation, and he enjoyed certain privileges on division of the spoils of the chase. Otherwise he possessed no marks of distinction.” And the like practice was followed by some historic races during early stages. In ancient Rome it was “the privilege of the king to have his fields tilled by taskwork of the burgesses.”
§ 543. Growth of the regular and definite out of the irregular and indefinite, variously exemplified in the foregoing chapters, is here again exemplified very clearly. For, as already said, it is from propitiatory presents and services, at first spontaneous and incidental, that there eventually come taxes specified in their amounts and times of payment.
It needs but to observe how such a custom as that of making wedding-presents has acquired a partially coercive character, to understand how, when once there begins the practice of seeking the good will of the headman by a gift, this practice is apt to be established. One having gained by it, another follows his example. The more generally -the example is followed the greater becomes the disadvantage to those who do not follow it. Until at length all give because none dare stand conspicuous as exceptions. Of course if some repeat the presents upon such occasions as first prompted them, others have to do the like; and at length the periodic obligation becomes so peremptory, that the gift is demanded when it is not offered. In Loango, where presents are expected from all free subjects, “if the king thinks they do not give enough, he sends slaves to their places to take what they have.” Among the Tongans, who from time to time give their king or chief “yams, mats, gnatoo, dried fish, live birds, &c.,” the quantity is determined “generally by the will of each individual, who will always take care to send as much as he can well afford, lest the superior chief should be offended with him, and deprive him of all that he has.” At the present time in Cashmere, at the spring festival, “it is the custom. . . for the Maharajah’s servants to bring him a nazar, a present.… This has now become so regulated that every one is on these days [festivals] obliged to give from a 10th to a 12th of his monthly pay.… The name of each is read from a list, and the amount of his nazar is marked down: those that are absent will have the sum deducted from their pay.” Traces of a like transition are seen in the fact that in ancient times crowns of gold, beginning as gifts made by dependent states to Eastern rulers, and by Roman provinces to generals or pro-consuls, became sums of money demanded as of right; and again in the fact that in our own early history, we read of “exactions called benevolences.”
Similarly with the labour which, at first voluntarily given to the chief, comes, as his power grows, to be compulsory. Here are some illustrations showing stages in the transition.
In ancient Mexico “the personal and common service which furnished the water and wood required every day in the houses of the chiefs, was distributed from day to day among the villages and quarters.”
It was the same in Yucatan: “the whole community did the sowing for the lord, looked after the seed, and harvested what was required for him and his house.”
So in the adjacent regions of Guatemala and San Salvador, “the tribute was paid by means of the cultivation of estates.” And in Madagascar “the whole population is liable to be employed on government work, without remuneration, and for any length of time.”
Occurring among peoples unallied in blood and unlike in their stages of civilization, these facts show the natural growing up of a forced labour system such as that which existed during feudal times throughout Europe, when labour was exacted from dependents by local rulers, and became also a form of tribute to the central ruler; as instance the specified numbers of days’ work which, before the Revolution, had to be given by French peasants to the State under the name of corvée.
After presents freely given have passed into presents expected and finally demanded, and volunteered help has passed into exacted service, the way is open for a further step. Change from the voluntary to the compulsory, accompanied as it necessarily is by specification of the amounts of commodities and work required, is apt to be followed eventually by substitution of money payments. During stages in which there has not arisen a circulating medium, the ruler, local or general, is paid his revenue in kind. In Fiji a chief’s house is supplied with daily food by his dependents; and tribute is paid by the chiefs to the kind “in yams, taro, pigs, fowls, native cloth, &c.” In Tahiti, where besides supplies derived from “the hereditary districts of the reigning family,” there were “requisitions made upon the people;” the food was generally brought cooked. In early European societies, too, the expected donations to the ruler continued to be made partly in goods, animals, clothes, and valuables of all kinds, long after money was in use. But the convenience both of giver and receiver prompts commutation, when the values of the presents looked for have become settled. And from kindred causes there also comes, as we have seen in a previous chapter, commutation of military services and commutation of labour services. No matter what its nature, that which was at first spontaneously offered, eventually becomes a definite sum taken, if need be, by force—a tax.
§ 544. At the same time his growing power enables the political head to enforce demands of many other kinds. European histories furnish ample proofs.
Besides more settled sources of revenue, there had, in the early feudal period, been established such others as are typically illustrated by a statement concerning the Dukes of Normandy in the 12th century. They profited by escheats (lands reverting to the monarch in default of posterity of the first baron); by guardianships and reliefs; by seizure of the property of deceased prelates, usurers, excommunicated persons, suicides, and certain criminals; and by treasure-trove. They were paid for conceded privileges; and for confirmations of previous concessions. They received bribes when desired to do justice; and were paid fines by those who wished to be maintained in possession of property, or to get liberty to exercise certain rights. In England, under the Norman kings, there were such other sources of revenue as compositions paid by heirs before taking possession; sales of wardships; sales to male heirs of rights to choose their wives; sales of charters to towns, and subsequent re-sales of such charters; sales of permissions to trade; and there was also what was called “moneyage”—a shilling paid every three years by each hearth to induce the king not to debase the coinage. Advantage was taken of every favourable opportunity for making and enforcing a demand; as we see in such facts as that it was customary to mulct a discharged official, and that Richard I. “compelled his father’s servants to repurchase their offices.”
Showing us, as such illustrations do, that these arbitrary seizures and exactions are numerous and heavy in proportion as the power of the ruler is little restrained, the implication is that they reach their extreme where the social organization is typically militant. Evidence that this is so, was given in § 443; and in the next chapter, under another head, we shall meet with more of it.
§ 545. While, in the ways named in the foregoing sections, there arise direct taxes, there simultaneously arise, and insensibly diverge, the taxes eventually distinguished as indirect. These begin as demands made on those who have got considerable quantities of commodities exposed in transit, or on sale; and of which parts, originally offered as presents, are subsequently seized as dues.
Under other heads I have referred to the familiar fact that travellers among rude peoples make propitiatory gifts; and by frequent recurrence the reception of these generates a claim. Narratives of recent African explorers confirm the statements of Livingstone, who describes the Portuguese traders among the Quanga people as giving largely, because “if they did not secure the friendship of these petty chiefs, many slaves might be stolen with their loads while passing through the forests;” and who says of a Balonda chief that “he seemed to regard these presents as his proper dues, and as a cargo of goods had come by Senhor Pascoal, he entered the house for the purpose of receiving his share.” Various cases show that instead of attempting to take all at the risk of a fight, the head man enters into a compromise under which part is given without a fight; as instance the habitual arrangement with Bedouin tribes, which compound for robbery of travellers by amounts agreed upon; or as instance the mountain Bhils of India, whose chiefs have “seldom much revenue except plunder,” who have officers “to obtain information of unprotected villagers and travellers,” and who claim “a duty on goods passing their hills:” apparently a composition accepted when those who carry the goods are too strong to be robbed without danger. Where the protection of individuals depends mainly on family-organizations and clan-organizations, the subject as well as the stranger, undefended when away from his home, similarly becomes liable to this qualified black mail. Now to the local ruler, now to the central ruler, according to their respective powers, he yields up part of his goods, that possession of the rest may be guaranteed him, and his claims on buyers enforced. This state of things was illustrated in ancient Mexico, where—
“Of all the goods which were brought into the market, a certain portion was paid in tribute to the king, who was on his part obliged to do justice to the merchants, and to protect their property and their persons.”
We trace the like in the records of early European peoples. Part of the revenue of the primitive Greek king, consisted of “the presents paid for licences to trade”—presents which in all probability were at first portions of the commodities to be sold. At a later period in Greece there obtained a practice that had doubtless descended from this. “To these men [magistrates of markets] a certain toll or tribute was paid by all those who brought anything to sell in the market.” In western Europe indirect taxation had a kindred origin. The trader, at the mercy of the ruler whose territory he entered, had to surrender part of his merchandise in consideration of being allowed to pass. As feudal lords, swooping down from their castles on merchants passing along neighbouring roads or navigable rivers, took by force portions of what they had, when they did not take all; so their suzerains laid hands on what they pleased of cargoes entering their ports or passing their frontiers: their shares gradually becoming defined by precedent. In England, though there is no clear proof that the two tuns which the king took from wine-laden ships (wine being then the chief import) was originally an unqualified seizure; yet, since this quantity was called “the king’s prisage” we have good reason for suspecting that it was so; and that though, afterwards, the king’s officer gave something in return, this, being at his option, was but nominal. The very name “customs,” eventually applied to commuted payments on imports, points back to a preceding time when this yielding up of portions of cargoes had become established by usage. Confirmation of this inference is furnished by the fact that internal traders were thus dealt with. So late as 1309 it was complained “that the officers appointed to take articles for the king’s use in fairs and markets, took more than they ought, and made a profit of the surplus.”
Speaking generally of indirect taxes, we may say that arising when the power of the ruler becomes sufficient to change gifts into exactions, they at first differ from other exactions simply in this, that they are enforced on occasions when the subject is more than usually at the ruler’s mercy; either because he is exposing commodities for sale where they can be easily found and a share taken; or because he is transferring them from one part of the territory to another, and can be readily stopped and a portion demanded; or because he is bringing commodities into the territory, and can have them laid hands on at one of the few places of convenient entrance. The shares appropriated by the ruler, originally in kind, are early commuted into money where the commodities are such as, by reason of quantity or distance, he cannot consume: instance the load-penny payable at the pit’s mouth on each waggon-load to the old-English kings. And the claim comes to be similarly commuted in other cases, as fast as increasing trade brings a more abundant circulating medium, and a greater quantity of produced and imported commodities; the demanded portions of which it becomes more difficult to transport and to utilize.
§ 546. No great advantage would be gained by here going into details. The foregoing general facts appear to be all that it is needful for us to note.
From the outset the growth of revenue has, like that growth of the political headship which it accompanies, been directly or indirectly a result of war. The property of conquered enemies, at first goods, cattle, prisoners, and at a later stage, land, coming in larger share to the leading warrior, increases his predominance. To secure his good will, which it is now important to do, propitiatory presents and help in labour are given; and these, as his power further grows, become periodic and compulsory. Making him more despotic at the same time that it augments his kingdom, continuance of this process increases his ability to enforce contributions, alike from his original subjects and from tributaries; while the necessity for supplies, now to defend his kingdom, now to invade adjacent kingdoms, is ever made the plea for increasing his demands of established kinds and for making new ones. Under stress of the alleged needs, portions of their goods are taken from subjects whenever they are exposed to view for purposes of exchange. And as the primitive presents of property and labour, once voluntary and variable, but becoming compulsory and periodic, are eventually commuted into direct taxes; so these portions of the trader’s goods which were originally given for permission to trade and then seized as of right, come eventually to be transformed into percentages of value paid as tolls and duties.
But to the last as at first, and under free governments as under despotic ones, war continues to be the usual reason for imposing new taxes or increasing old ones; at the same time that the coercive organization in past times developed by war, continues to be the means of exacting them.