Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION VI: Taxes examined with respect to their effects. 11 - Sketches of the History of Man, vol. 2
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SECTION VI: Taxes examined with respect to their effects. 11 - Henry Home, Lord Kames, Sketches of the History of Man, vol. 2 
Sketches of the History of Man Considerably enlarged by the last additions and corrections of the author, edited and with an Introduction by James A. Harris (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007). 3 Vols. Vol. 2.
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Taxes examined with respect to their effects.11
No other political subject is of greater importance to Britain than the present: a whole life might be profitably bestowed on it, and a large volume; but hints only are my task. Considering taxes with regard to their effects, they may be commodiously distinguished into five kinds. First, Taxes that increase the public revenue, without producing any other effect, good or bad. Second, Taxes that increase the public revenue; and are also beneficial to manufactures and commerce. Third, Taxes that increase the public revenue; but are hurtful to manufactures and com-merce. Fourth, Taxes that are hurtful to manufactures and commerce, without increasing the public revenue. Fifth, Taxes that are hurtful to manufactures and commerce; and also lessen the public revenue. I proceed to instances of each kind, drawn chiefly from British taxes.
Our land-tax is an illustrious instance of the first kind: it produces a revenue to the public, levied with very little expence: and it hurts no mortal; for a landholder who pays for having himself and his estate protected, cannot be said to be hurt. The duty on coaches is of the same kind. Both taxes, at the same time, are agreeable to sound principles. Men ought to contribute to the public revenue, as far as they are benefited by being protected: a rich man requires protection for his possessions, as well as for his person, and therefore ought to contribute largely: a poor man requires protection for his person only, and therefore ought to contribute little.
A tax on foreign luxuries is an instance of the second kind. It increases the public revenue: and it greatly benefits individuals: not only by restraining the consumption of foreign luxuries, but by en-couraging our own manufactures. Britain enjoys a monopoly of coal exported to Holland; and the duty on exportation is agreeable to sound policy, being paid by the Dutch. This duty is another instance of the second kind: it raises a considerable revenue to the public; and it enables us to cope with the Dutch in every manufacture that employs coal, such as dying, distilling, works of glass and of iron. And these manufactures in Britain, by the dearness of labour, are entitled to some aid. A tax on horses, to prevent their increase, would be a tax of the same kind. The incredible number of horses used in coaches and other wheel-carriages, has raised the price of labour, by doubling the price of oat-meal, the food of the labouring poor in many parts of Britain. The price of wheat is also raised by the same means; because the vast quantity of land employed in producing oats, lessens the quantity for wheat. I would not exempt even plough-horses from the tax; because in every view it is more advantageous to use oxen.* So little regard is paid to these considerations, that a coach, whether drawn by two horses or by six, pays the same duty.
As to the third kind, our forefathers seem to have had no notion of taxes but for increasing the public revenue, without once thinking of the hurt that may be done to individuals. In the reign of Edward VI. a poll-tax was laid on sheep. And so late as the reign of William III. marriage was taxed.12 I am grieved to observe, that even to this day we have many taxes detrimental to the state, as being more oppressive upon the people than gainful to the public revenue. Multiplied taxes on the necessaries of life, candle, soap, leather, ale, salt, &c. raise the price of labour, and consequently of manufactures. If they shall have the effect to deprive us of foreign markets, which we have reason to dread, depopulation and poverty must ensue. The salt-tax in particular is eminently detrimental. With respect to the other taxes mentioned, the rich bear the greatest burden, being the greatest consumers; but the share they pay of the salt-tax is very little, because they reject salt provisions. The salt-tax is still more absurd in another respect, salt being a choice manure for land. One would be amazed to hear of a law prohibiting the use of lime as a manure: he would be still more amazed to hear of the prohibition being extended to salt, which is a manure much superior, and yet a heavy tax on salt, which renders it too dear for a manure, surprises no man. But the mental eye resembles that of the body: it seldom perceives but what is directly before it: consequences lie far out of sight. Many thousand quarters of good wheat have been annually with-held from Britain by the salt-tax. What the treasury has gained, will not compensate the fiftieth part of that loss. The absurdity of with-holding from us a manure so profitable, has at last been discovered; and remedied in part, by permitting English foul salt to be used for manure, on paying four-pence of duty per bushel (a) . Why was not Scotland permitted to taste of that bounty? Our candidates, it would appear, are more solicitous of a seat in parliament, than of serving their country when they have obtained that honour. What pretext would there have been even for murmuring, had every one of them been rejected with indignation, in the choice of representatives for a new parliament?13
The window-tax is more detrimental to the people, than advantageous to the revenue. In the first place, it promotes large farms in order to save houses and windows; whereas small farms tend to multiply a hardy and frugal race, useful for every purpose. In the next place, it is a discouragement to manufactures, by taxing the houses in which they are carried on. Manufacturers, in order to relieve themselves as much as possible from the tax, make a side of their house but one window; and there are instances, where in three stories there are but three windows. But what chiefly raises my aversion to that tax, is that it burdens the poor more than the rich: a house in a paultry village that affords not five pounds of yearly rent, may have a greater number of windows than one in London rented at fifty. The plate-tax is not indeed hurtful to manufactures and commerce: but it is hurtful to the common interest; because plate converted into money may be the means of saving the nation at a crisis, and therefore ought to be encouraged, instead of being loaded with a tax. On pictures imported into Britain, a duty is laid in proportion to the size. Was there no intelligent person at hand, to inform our legislature, that the only means to rouse a genius for painting, is to give our youth ready access to good pictures? Till these be multiplied in Britain, we never shall have the reputation of producing a good painter. So far indeed it is lucky, that the most valuable pictures are not loaded with a greater duty than the most paultry. Fish, both salt and fresh, brought to Paris, pay a duty of 48 per cent. by an arbitrary estimation of the value. This tax is an irreparable injury to France, by discouraging the multiplication of seamen. It is beneficial indeed in one view, as it tends to check the growing population of that great city.
Without waiting to rummage the British taxes for instances of the fourth kind, I shall present my reader with a foreign instance. In the Austrian Netherlands, there are inexhaustible mines of coal, the exportation of which would make a considerable article of commerce, were it not absolutely barred by an exorbitant duty. This absurd duty is a great injury to proprietors of coal, without yielding a farthing to the revenue. The Dutch, many years ago, offered to confine themselves to that country for coal, on condition of being relieved from the duty; which would have brought down the price below that of British coal. Is it not wonderful, that the proposal was rejected? But ministers seldom regard what is beneficial to the nation, unless it produce an immediate benefit to their sovereign or to themselves. The coal-mines in the Austrian Netherlands being thus shut up, and the art of working them lost, the British enjoy the monopoly of exporting coal to Holland. And it is likely to be a very beneficial monopoly. The Dutch turf is wearing out. The woods are cut down every where near the sea; and the expence of carrying wood for fewel from a distance, turns greater and greater every day.14
The duty on coal water-born is an instance of the fifth kind. A great obstruction it is to many useful manufactures that require coal; and indeed to manufactures in general, by increasing the expence of coal, an essential article in a cold country. Nay, one would imagine, that it has been intended to check population; as poor wretches benummed with cold, have little of the carnal appetite. It has not even the merit of adding much to the public revenue; for, laying aside London, it produces but a mere trifle. But the peculiarity of this tax, which entitles it to a conspicuous place in the fifth class, is, that it is not less detrimental to the public revenue, than to individuals. No sedentary art nor occupation, can succeed in a cold climate without plenty of fewel. One may at the first glance distinguish the coal-countries from the rest of England, by the industry of the inhabitants, and by plenty of manufacturing towns and villages. Where there is scarcity of fewel, some hours are lost every morning; because people cannot work till the place be sufficiently warmed, which is especially the case in manufactures that require a soft and delicate finger. Now, in many parts of Britain that might be provided with coal by water, the labouring poor are deprived of that comfort by the tax. Had cheap firing encouraged these people to prosecute arts and manufactures, it is more than probable, that at this day they would be contributing to the public revenue by other duties, much greater sums than are drawn from them by the duty on coal. At the same time, if coal must pay a duty, why not at the pit, where it is cheapest? Is it not an egregious blunder, to lay a great duty on those who pay a high price for coal, and no duty on those who have it cheap? If there must be a coal-duty, let water-born coal at any rate be exempted; not only because even without duty it comes dear to the consumer, but also for the encouragement of seamen. For the honour of Britain this duty ought to be expunged from our statute-book, never again to show its face. Great reason indeed there is for continuing the duty on coal consumed in London; because every artifice should be practised, to prevent the increase of a capital, that is already too large for this or for any other kingdom. Towns are unhealthy in proportion to their size; and a great town, like London, is a greater enemy to population than war or famine.
[11. ]In 1st edition: “Examination of British Taxes.”
[* ]They are preferable for husbandry in several respects. They are cheaper than horses: their food, their harness, their shoes, the attendance on them, much less expensive; and their dung much better for land. Horses are more subject to diseases; and when diseased or old are totally useless: a stock for a farm must be renewed at least every ten years; whereas a stock of oxen may be kept entire forever without any new expence, as they will always draw a full price when fatted for food. Nor is a horse more docile than an ox: a couple of oxen in a plough require not a driver more than a couple of horses. The Dutch at the Cape of Good Hope plough with oxen; and exercise them early to a quick pace, so as to equal horses both in the plough and in the waggon. The people of Malabar use no other animal for the plough nor for burdens. About Pondicherry no beasts of burden are to be seen but oxen. The Greeks and Romans anciently used no beasts in the plough but oxen. The vast increase of horses of late years for luxury as well as for draught, makes a great consumption of oats. If in husbandry oxen only were used, which require no oats, many thousand acres would be saved for wheat and barley. But the advantages of oxen would not be confined to the farmer. Beef would be much cheaper to the manufacturer, by the vast addition of fat oxen sent to market; and the price of leather and tallow would fall; a national benefit, as every one uses shoes and candles.
[12. ]“our forefathers seem . . . marriage was taxed”: added in 3rd edition.
[(a) ]8° Geo. III. cap. 25.
[13. ]“What pretext would . . . a new parliament”: added in 2nd edition.
[14. ]“And it is . . . greater every day”: added in 2nd edition.