Front Page Titles (by Subject) [V.ii.j] Capitation Taxes - Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence Vol. 2b An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Vol. 2
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[V.ii.j] Capitation Taxes - Adam Smith, Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence Vol. 2b An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Vol. 2 
An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Vol. I and II, ed. R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner, vol. II of the Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
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2Capitation taxes, if it is attempted to proportion them to the fortune or revenue of each contributor, become altogether arbitrary.1 The state of a man’s fortune varies from day to day, and without an inquisition more intolerable than any tax, and renewed at least once every year, can only be guessed at. His assessment, therefore, must in most cases depend upon the good or bad humour of his assessors, and must, therefore, be altogether arbitrary and uncertain.
3Capitation taxes, if they are proportioned not to the supposed fortune, but to the rank of each contributor, become altogether unequal; the degrees of fortune being frequently unequal in the same degree of rank.
4Such taxes, therefore, if it is attempted to render them equal, become altogether arbitrary and uncertain; and if it is attempted to render them certain and not arbitrary, become altogether unequal. Let the tax be light or heavy, uncertainty is always a great grievance. In a light tax a considerable degree of inequality may be supported; in a heavy one it is altogether intolerable.
5In the different poll–taxes which took place in England during the reign of William III. the contributors were, the greater part of them, assessed according to the degree of their rank; as dukes, marquisses, earls, viscounts, barons, esquires, gentlemen, the eldest and youngest sons of peers, &c.2 All shopkeepers and tradesmen worth more than three hundred pounds, that is, the better sort of them, were subject to the same assessment; how great soever might be the difference in their fortunes.3 Their rank was more considered than their fortune. Several of those who in the first poll–tax were rated according to their supposed fortune, were afterwards rated according to their rank. Serjeants, attornies, and proctors at law, who in the first poll–tax were assessed at three shillings in the pound of their supposed income, were afterwards assessed as gentlemen.4 In the assessment of a tax which was not very heavy, a considerable degree of inequality had been found less insupportable than any degree of uncertainty.
6 In the capitation which has been levied in France without any interruption since the beginning of the present century, the highest orders of people are rated according to their rank by an invariable tariff; the lower orders of people, according to what is supposed to be their fortune, by an assessment which varies from year to year. The officers of the king’s court, the judges and other officers in the superior courts of justice, the officers of the troops, &c. are assessed in the first manner. The inferior ranks of people in the provinces are assessed in the second. In France the great easily submit to a considerable degree of inequality in a tax which, so far as it affects them, is not a very heavy one; but could not brook the arbitrary assessment of an intendant. The inferior ranks of people must, in that country, suffer patiently the usage which their superiors think proper to give them.
7In England the different poll–taxes never produced the sum which had been expected from them, or which, it was supposed, they might have produced, had they been exactly levied. In France the capitation always produces the sum expected from it. The mild government of England, when it assessed the different ranks of people to the poll–tax, contented itself with what that assessment happened to produce; and required no compensation for the loss which the state might sustain either by those who could not pay, or by those who would not pay (for there were many such), and who, by the indulgent execution of the law, were not forced to pay. The more severe government of France assesses upon each generality a certain sum, which the intendant must find as he can. If any province complains of being assessed too high, it may, in the assessment of next year, obtain an abatement proportioned to the over–charge of the year before: But it must pay in the mean time. The intendant, in order to be sure of finding the sum assessed upon his generality, was impowered to assess it in a larger sum, that the failure or inability of some of the contributors might be compensated by the over–charge of the rest; and till 1765, the fixation of this surplus assessment, was left altogether to his discretion. In that year indeed the council assumed this power to itself. In the capitation of the provinces, it is observed by the perfectly well–informed author of the Memoirs upon the impositions in France, the aproportiona which falls upon the nobility, and upon those whose privileges exempt them from the taille, is the least considerable. The largest falls upon those subject to the taille, who are assessed to the capitation at so much a pound of what they pay to that other tax.5
8Capitation taxes, so far as they are levied upon the lower ranks of people, are direct taxes upon the wages of labour, and are attended with all the inconveniencies of such taxes.
9Capitation taxes are levied at little expence; and, where they are rigorously exacted, afford a very sure revenue to the state. It is upon this account that in countries where the ease, comfort, and security of the inferior ranks of people are little attended to, capitation taxes are very common. It is in general, however, but a small part of the publick revenue, which, in a great empire, has ever been drawn from such taxes; and the greatest sum which they have ever afforded, might always have been found in some other way much more convenient to the people.
[1 ]Poll taxes and hearth money are described as ‘improper taxes’ in LJ (A) v.141.
[2 ]1 William and Mary, sess.1, c.13 (1688).
[3 ]1 William and Mary, sess.2, c.7 (1688).
[4 ]3 William and Mary, c.6 (1691).
[5 ]‘C’est ici le lieu d’observer que dans la masse totale de cette imposition, la Capitation de la Noblesse & des Privilégies forme dans les provinces l’objet le moins considérable, la portion la plus forte est celle qui est répartie entre les taillables & non–privilégiés, au marc la livre de la Taille.’ (De Beaumont, Mémoires, ii.421.)