Front Page Titles (by Subject) section ix: Can the present State of Agricultural Distress be attributed to Taxation? - The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, Vol. 4 Pamphlets and Papers 1815-1823
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section ix: Can the present State of Agricultural Distress be attributed to Taxation? - David Ricardo, The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, Vol. 4 Pamphlets and Papers 1815-1823 
The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, ed. Piero Sraffa with the Collaboration of M.H. Dobb (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005). Vol. 4 Pamphlets and Papers 1815-1823.
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First published by Cambridge University Press in 1951. Copyright 1951, 1952, 1955, 1973 by the Royal Economic Society. This edition of The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo is published by Liberty Fund, Inc., under license from the Royal Economic Society.
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Can the present State of Agricultural Distress be attributed to Taxation?
The present distress is caused by an insufficient price for the produce of the land, which it appears impossible, with any degree of fairness, to ascribe to taxation. Taxation is of two kinds, it either falls on the producer of a commodity in his character of producer, or it falls on him as a consumer. When a farmer has to pay an agricultural horse-tax, tithes, land-tax, he is taxed as a producer, and he seeks to repay himself, as all other producers do, by imposing an additional price, equivalent to the tax, on the commodity which he produces. It is the consumer, then, that finally pays the tax, and not the producer, as nothing can prevent the latter from transferring the tax to the consumer,1 but the production of too great a quantity of the commodity for the demand. Whenever the price of a commodity does not repay to the producer all the charges of every description which he is obliged to incur, it fails to give him a remunerating price; it places him under a disadvantage, as compared with the producers of other commodities; he no longer gets the usual and ordinary profits of capital, and there are only two remedies by which he can be relieved: one, the diminution of the quantity of the commodity, which will not fail to raise its price, if the demand do not at the same time diminish; the other, the relieving him from the taxes which he pays as a producer. The first remedy is certain and efficacious; the second is of a more doubtful description, because, if the price of the commodity did once remunerate the producer, after the tax was imposed, it could only fall afterwards from increased supply, or diminished demand.
The repeal of the tax will not diminish quantity; and if it does not further lower the price, it will not increase demand. If the price falls still lower, then the repeal of the tax will not afford relief to the producer. It is only in the case of the commodity falling no lower, although the producer is relieved from one of the charges of production, that he can be said to be benefited by the repeal of a tax on production; and a very reasonable doubt may be entertained, whether the competition of the sellers may not further diminish the price of the commodity in consequence of the repeal of the tax. That taxes on production may be the cause of an excess of the supply above the demand, is true, when the tax is a new one, and when the consumers are unwilling to re-pay, in the additional price, the additional charge imposed on the producer. But this is not the case in this country at the present moment; the taxes are not new ones; the prices of raw produce were sufficiently high, notwithstanding the taxes, to afford a remunerating price to the producer; and no doubt can exist, that if there had been no such taxes, raw produce would have been considerably lower than it now is. The same cause which made wheat fall from 80s. to 60s., or 25 per cent., would have made it fall from 60s. to 45s., if, in consequence of fewer taxes on the land, 60s. and not 80s. had been the ordinary average price. Some of the charges of production have actually been diminished, while there is every reason to conclude, that the quantity consumed by the people has been increasing.
The alteration in the value of money has been generally supposed to be favourable to the working classes, as their money wages are said not to have fallen in proportion to the increased value of money, and the fall in the price of necessaries. Their condition is then bettered, and their power of consuming increased; but prices can never stand against a great augmentation of quantity, and therefore there is no other rational solution of the cause of the fall of agricultural produce but abundance.
Taxes on consumers affect consumers generally, and will in no way account for the distress of a particular class, or for an insufficient price of the commodity which they grow or manufacture. The taxes on candles, soap, salt, &c. &c., are not only paid by farmers, but by all persons who consume those commodities. The repeal of those taxes would afford relief to all, and not to the agricultural class particularly.
Those who maintain, that on no reasonable grounds can it be shewn, that taxation is the cause of agricultural distress and of the low price of corn, are sometimes represented as maintaining that a repeal of taxes will afford no relief; such a conclusion shews a want of candour, or of intelligence, for it is perfectly consistent to maintain, that taxation is not the cause of some particular distress, and at the same time insist that a repeal of taxes would afford relief. When Lord John Russell’s horse falls because he trips over a stone, and is enabled to get up again when relieved from the burthen of his harness, it would surely be incorrect to say that the horse fell because he was burthened with harness; though it would be right to assert, that the tripping over the stone threw him down, while the relief from the confinement of the harness enabled him to get up again.1
For my own part then, being of opinion that almost all taxes on production fall finally on the consumer, I think that no repeal of taxes could take place which would have any other effect than to relieve consumers generally of a part of the burthens which they now bear. Although I am at all times a friend to the most rigid economy in the public expenditure, yet I am also convinced, that there are causes of distress, to the producers of a particular commodity, arising from abundant quantity, from which no practicable repeal of taxes could materially relieve, particularly if the commodity be agricultural produce, and if its ordinary price be kept above the level of the prices of other countries by restrictions on importation.
Against such distress no country, and more particularly no country having a bad system of corn laws, is exempted. If we were absolutely without any taxes whatever; if the public expenditure was the most economical possible, and was supported by a revenue drawn from lands appropriated for that purpose; if we had no national debt, no sinking fund, we yet should be exposed to a destructive fall of price from occasional abundance. It is impossible to read Mr. Tooke’s able evidence before the Agricultural Committee of 1821,1 without being struck with the surprising effects which an excess of supply produces on price, and for which there is in fact, no effectual remedy but a reduction of quantity. If there be any other remedy, why do not those who complain of the distress, and who have been in situations so favourable to make themselves heard, state it? With the exception of a reduction of taxation, new and additional protection against the competition of foreigners for every description of agricultural produce, direct purchases to be made by Government, or encouragements to others to make them, I have heard no remedies suggested; and as to the efficacy of these remedies, I must leave that to the reader’s judgment; my own opinion of them having been already most decidedly expressed.
On the causes which have produced the degree of abundance to which I attribute all that part of the fall of raw produce since 1819, which cannot fairly be ascribed to the alteration in the value of the currency* , it will not be necessary for me to say much; we are, I think, justified in ascribing it to a succession of good crops, to an increasing importation from Ireland, and to the increase of tillage which the high prices and the obstacles opposed to importation during the war occasioned? Many of the gentlemen who gave evidence before the Committee concurred in describing the harvests of 1819 and 1820 as unusually abundant. Mr. Wakefield said on the 5th April, 1821, “I think there is a wonderful quantity of corn in the country; I now think that there is as much corn left in the country, as generally, in common years, there is after harvest.” “I think, that if you were to have for the next two or three years, fair average crops, it would leave you with a great stock in hand.”1
Mr. Iveson. “I think, the last crop was abundant; the crop of 1820 was considerably beyond an average.” p. 338.
Mr. J. Brodie. “The crop in Scotland was very abundant last year.”
“The crop of the year before was above an average crop too.” p. 327.
Besides this abundant crop at home, the importations from Ireland were unusually great, as will be seen by the following account of the importation of oats, wheat, and wheat-flour, the production of Ireland imported into Great Britain, which was laid before the Agricultural Committee of 1821.2
It will be seen by the above account, how greatly the importation from Ireland has increased, which, coming in addition to the abundant quantity yielded by the harvests of 1819 and 1820 will, I think, sufficiently account for the depression of price.
To trace this abundance to its source is not, however, necessary in this case; it is sufficient to shew that the low price cannot have arisen from any other cause but an increased supply, or a diminished demand, to be convinced that the evil admits of no other effectual remedy but a reduction of quantity or an increased demand.
That an abundant quantity has been exposed to sale, will be shewn by the account1 of the sales in Mark Lane* . It will be found, too, that an unusually large quantity has arrived in the port of London from ports in Great Britain and Ireland.
It must, indeed, not be forgotten, that the fall of price is attributed to the abundant quantity actually in the market, and the reasoning founded on the doctrine of abundance being the cause of low price, would in no degree be invalidated, if, before the next harvest, our supply should be found to be below the demand, and there should be a great increase of price. We can have no unequivocal proof of abundance but by its effects. I believe in the existence of an abundant quantity, but I should not think my argument in the least weakened if corn should, before next harvest, rise to eighty shillings per quarter.
[1 ]Ed. 1 ‘producer,’ clearly an error.
[1 ]The allusion is to Lord John Russell’s speech in the House of Commons, on 21 February 1822, advocating a reduction of taxes as the only means of relieving the distress: ‘It was idle to say that heavy taxes were not a cause of distress. There was a manifest absurdity in the assertion. With just as much reason might it be said, that if a carriage broke down with the horses under it, it would be wrong to disengage them from the harness. If such a case occurred, and, as might happen, if the persons who came to assist were beginning to remove the harness by which the horses were kept down, some philosopher were to come up and say, “Oh, the removal of the harness is not the way to relieve them; they have been thrown down by a stone in the road, or some such cause; but the removal of the harness will do no good”—if such language were addressed to the by-standers, they would, he had no doubt, treat the advice with contempt, and proceed in the only effectual way by taking off the harness. So it was with taxation: it pressed and weighted down the people in every part of the country, and the only way in which they could be effectually assisted was, by a removal of part, at least, of the weight.’ (Hansard, N.S., VI, 574–5.)
[1 ]‘Minutes of Evidence’, pp. 224–32.
[1 ]Agricultural Report, 1821, ‘Minutes of Evidence’, p. 217.
[2 ]The table is based on accounts Nos. 17 and 19, of the Appendix to the Agricultural Report of 1821.
[1 ]From here to the end of the paragraph ed. i reads ‘of the quantity sold in Mark Lane, in the Appendix*, which I have every reason to believe correct.’ Cp. the corresponding changes made in Appendix B in eds. 2–4.
[* ]See Appendix B.
Above, p. 228.