Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter VII.: THE POLICY OF MPs. - Illustrations of Taxation (1. The Park and the Paddock, 2. The Haycock, 3. The Jerseymen Meeting, 4. The Jerseymen Parting, 5. The Scholars of Arneside)
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Chapter VII.: THE POLICY OF MPs. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Taxation (1. The Park and the Paddock, 2. The Haycock, 3. The Jerseymen Meeting, 4. The Jerseymen Parting, 5. The Scholars of Arneside) 
Illustrations of Taxation (1. The Park and the Paddock, 2. The Haycock, 3. The Jerseymen Meeting, 4. The Jerseymen Parting, 5. The Scholars of Arneside) (London: Charles Fox, 1834).
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THE POLICY OF MPs.
Owen’s visions had not all been realized. He had not yet got his thirty or forty pounds by publishing what he had to say on short-hand and universal language. He had not even published at all. This arose, first, from certain difficulties represented to him by Mr. Muggridge, and fully confirmed by a London bookseller; and, next, from his having grown modest as he grew enlightened. He was much less confident at L — than he had been at Arneside, that he could say anything very new and very valuable on a universal language.
The bookseller’s first difficulty was about Owen’s remarks being published as a pamphlet. He was right enough in saying that the young man did not know what he was about in wishing to publish a pamphlet. In order to intimate the risk, Mr. Muggridge told him that not one pamphlet in fifty pays the cost of its publication; and showed him how clearly impossible it was that any other result could take place. Pamphlets were triple taxed; and by what means could so small an article pay its expense of production, three kinds of tax, and the trouble of the publisher, and leave any surplus for the author? First, the paper was heavily excised; then there was the pamphlet duty of three shillings per sheet; and then the advertisement duty. And the risk of not selling the whole must not be forgotten. The duty must be paid upon every copy of the largest edition, before a single one was sold; and if no more than twenty were purchased, and all the rest went as waste paper to the tobacconist, there would be no drawback allowed: not even time given to see whether there would be any sale or not. There were no bonded warehouses, where books might be lodged between their manufacture and their sale. To issue a pamphlet must be a speculation of unavoidable hazard—
To all but the Government, who makes sure of the taxes beforehand.
To all but the Government! And what did the Government get by it? The practice tended to the suppression of pamphlets, and not to the profit of the treasury. The very oppressive pamphlet duty yielded to the Government 970l. a-year. For this mighty sum were hundreds of intelligent men kept silent who might have uttered thousands of opinions and millions of facts which would have been useful to their race, but who had neither power nor inclination to issue in expensive volumes thoughts which would have been worth setting forth in cheap tracts. For this mighty sum were thousands of rational beings subjected to that restriction of commerce which is the most to be deprecated, and the least capable of defence,—the commerce of thought. What would be said to regulations of commerce which should practically prohibit a silver coinage, while it allowed but a very minute supply of copper? What would be thought of the injury to those who had it not in their power to deal with gold? Yet in the far more important interchange of knowledge and opinion, this monstrous virtual prohibition subsisted for the sake of the 970l. a-year which it brought to the treasury!
Owen could scarcely believe that the produce of the tax could be so small till it was explained what its attendant expenses were. Fifty prosecutions in the year cannot be conducted for nothing; and the average of prosecutions in a year for the neglect of payment of the pamphlet duty was fifty. In some years, the average of prosecutions had been so much larger, or the horror of the tax had so availed in deterring from that mode of publication, that the Government had sustained an actual loss of 200l. under that head of duty. If Owen meant to publish at all, he had better swell his matter into a good thick volume—a ten shilling octavo, which would escape the pamphlet duty, and cost no more in advertising than an eighteen-penny pamphlet.
And what chance was there of his making it worth his while to publish a book? Owen would know. Little chance enough of his being recompensed for his toil, and rewarded for his talent; though he might perhaps recover the money he must lay out. If he printed five hundred copies, the expenses would be about 170l., of which 30l. would be tax of one kind or another. Then eleven copies must be given to various institutions—
But Owen did not mean to give any away, except two or three copies to old friends.
He must. There was a law by which eleven copies of every work entered at Stationers’ Hall must be presented to institutions where they are as sure to lie unread as if they were already the waste paper they will be some time or other. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge are among the eleven favoured places: those rich Universities, which are exempted from that paper-duty which must be paid by every little tradesman who issues a hand-bill about his stock, and every labourer who buys his daughter a Bible when she goes out to service, or puts half a quire of foolscap into her hand that she may write sometimes to her parents. Well; these expenses being all paid, there would remain to be divided between the author and the publisher, when every copy was sold, neither more nor less than 20l. That is to say, the treasury would take 35l., and the author and publisher together 20l., and this in the best possible case,—that of every copy being sold.
This statement disposed Owen to refrain from becoming an author at present,—at least till he had asked an experienced London publisher whether Mr. Muggridge did not labour under some mistake. The answer from London was that Mr. Muggridge’s statement was perfectly correct; and added that, in this country, not one-fourth of the books published pay their expenses, leaving out of view all recompense of the author’s ability and industry; that only one in eight or ten can be reprinted with advantage; and that, in the case of the most successful works,—works of which the very largest number is printed and sold,—the duties invariably amount to more than the entire remuneration of the author.
From this moment Owen applied himself to make some other use of his short-hand than publishing it. He became the principal reporter for the “Western Star.”
Now a power came into his hands of whose nature and extent he had not formed any conception before he made trial of his new occupation. Upon him it now depended how much the good people of L— and a wide district round should know of the law proceedings, of the public meetings and dinner speechifyings that took place in the town and neighbourhood. Upon Owen it depended whether the misdemeanours of certain citizens should be held up as a warning, or obligingly concealed; whether the corporation should be allowed to take its own way in quiet, or subjected to be watched by the townspeople; whether one side or both of a political question should be presented. There was no competition, as the “Western Star” was the only newspaper in the place; and nothing could be easier than it now would have been to Owen to influence the opinions of the whole reading public in L— as to all matters of general concern, by his own. Nothing could be easier than to give his own view of any question discussed at a public meeting. It was only laying down his pencil, and folding his arms till a speaker had done, and then making a note of his first and last sentence; while the best speakers on the other side had their best sayings put at length, and to the best advantage. As it was impossible to issue the whole of what every body said, the most natural process seemed to be to print what Owen liked most, and must therefore think the most worth carrying away. Owen himself felt that this was an unreasonable and pernicious power to be in the hands of any man; and, earnestly as he desired not to abuse it, he was so well aware that every man must have his peculiar tastes and political partialities,—he saw so clearly that no one report of his in the “Western Star” was in matter precisely what it would have been if prepared by any one else, that it offended his judgment and his conscience to be left in a state of irresponsibility in the discharge of a duty of such extreme importance. He felt that responsibility to any one mind was out of the question. If Mr. Muggridge, or any other censor, had been set over him, the only difference would have been that the public would have seen affairs through Mr. Muggridge’s medium, instead of through Owen’s: but there was another kind of responsibility to which he would fain have been subjected; and that was, public opinion. If he had known that other papers beside the “Western Star” would also publish the proceedings he was reporting, he must not only have avoided any gross act of suppression or embellishment, but must have vied with other reporters in selecting whatever was most weighty, by whomsoever said, and on whatever aspect of a question. In free competition alone, he saw, lay his security for his own perfect honesty, and that of the public for being truly informed about public proceedings.
Owen was now in a somewhat similar position to that of the reporters of the London newspapers, some years ago, when a very few journals, compromising matters among themselves, and, secure from competition, sported with public curiosity as they chose. If a fit of yawning seized those gentlemen in the midst of a parliamentary debate, they went to the next tavern to refresh themselves with a bowl of punch; and Burke and Fox might take their chance for its being known beyond the House that they had spoken at all. Thus, if Owen grew tired, he had only to go away, and add next morning that “the meeting separated at a late hour, highly gratified,” &c. &c. Again, the old London reporters did not like having to work three nights together, and gave themselves a holiday on Wednesdays. In like manner, Friday being a busy day with Owen, he might have skipped over all Friday doings, and have allowed a dead silence to rest on whatever happened on that unlucky day. He had been rather roughly treated by one of the opulent friends of the Mechanics’ Institution; and, if he had not been too honest, he might have omitted a hundred notices which he printed of this gentleman’s zealous exertions for the good of the town; or have made nonsense of the sentiments he uttered, or have taken care that his name should not remain upon record in the local history of which reporters are the faithful or unfaithful compilers. This is the way that Mr. Windham’s light was hid under a bushel for a whole session, when he was most conscious of his own brilliancy, and most eager to illumine the public. He had offended the reporters; and to punish him, the people of Great Britain were kept in the dark.
Besides the temptation which he had in common with them,—that of suppressing through pique and prejudice,—Owen was subjected to another. Again and again was he insulted by the offer of a bribe, or by an attempt at intimidation. One day, when he had been reporting in court, Mr. Arruther crossed over to him, and with a dubious manner, between shyness and condescension, asked him to drop in and take a glass of wine with him at his inn, that evening, as he had something to say to him.
Owen had never used any disguise as to his opinions of Mr. Arruther’s parliamentary conduct; and he therefore believed that if the gentleman bestowed any thoughts on him at all, they could scarcely be very affectionate ones. He was surprised, of course, at finding himself received with as much cordiality as a person of little sensibility could throw into his manner. The wine on the table was excellent; the invitations to partake of it hearty; and the object of the invitation presently disclosed.
Mr. Arruther could not conceive why Owen troubled himself to report all the law proceedings that took place in the court. Many of them could interest none but the parties concerned. What had the public to do, for instance, with his cousin Ellen’s quarrels with him about his mother’s property? Where was the use of printing law-suits,—dull things to read, as they were tiresome to manage? Owen explained that his business was to report. It was the affair of the readers of the paper what they would skip as dull, and what they chose to consider indispensable. He understood from his employer that no part of the paper was more narrowly watched than the law reports; and this was not surprising, as it was by means of these law reports alone that a great number of persons could gain accurate information respecting the laws to which they were subject. If he were obliged to regard the representations made to him as to what should be left out of the paper, there would soon be nothing left in it: for there were few kinds of intelligence that it was not the wish of some person or another to conceal: but, if he had to choose what particular department should be omitted, it should certainly be almost any rather than the law-reports. Other kinds of information had some chance of travelling round by some different means; but the newspapers were almost the only guides of the subjects of the State as to their duty to the State. He knew that Mr. Arruther was of opinion that the people had nothing to do with the laws but to obey them; but people could not well obey the laws without knowing what they were: so that Mr. Arruther, who wished the laws to be obeyed, should not grudge the people the little they might learn of them through the newspapers.
“Then, pray,” said the gentleman, “do not cut short that cause about Thirlaway’s road, that kept us all waiting such a confounded time this morning. Give it all; let them have every line of it; and if you find it likely to fill your paper, you can leave out my affairs, to make room for it.”
“I hope to be able to manage both, sir. The leading arguments on each side of all the causes tried this morning can be offered without transgressing our limits.”
“Better print the other entire. Do you know, Mr. Owen, I will give you a shilling a line to see how complete a thing you can make of it, provided you leave out mine to make room.”
“You do not know the person you have to deal with, Mr. Arruther. A man cannot be a reporter for a twelvemonth without knowing something of the practice of ‘feeing the fourth estate,’ as people say. I am upon my guard, sir, I assure you; and the less you say on this head the better, for your own sake.”
“On your guard! Bless me! What an expression,—as if I had said anything wrong! Do you suppose I do not know the customs of your craft? Till the management of a newspaper becomes a less expensive affair than it is at present, I do not know what better plan there can be than making out the pay of reporters for what they bring to the compositor, by letting them take fees for what they suppress. Such a custom is so convenient to all parties, that I wonder at your pretending to dislike it.”
“When you call it convenient to all parties, sir, you seem to forget the principal party concerned. However it may be with the proprietor of the paper, and with the reporter, and those who tender the fee, it is not very convenient to the public that their supply of information should depend on the length of a few purses, whose owners may wish to make private certain of their proceedings which ought to be public. It may prove convenient to some of your constituents, sir, if not to you, that it should be known exactly how you stand in that cause which was tried this morning. It is always convenient to electors to know as much as they can learn of the character of their representatives. I believe that I have no right to keep back such information; and the report will therefore appear to-morrow, at the same length as is generally allotted to causes of that nature.”
Mr. Arruther explained in vain how particularly provoking his mother’s will had been; how unexpected it was that his cousin Ellen should have been stirred up to sue him; how little idea he had till this morning of the extent to which his lawyer had deceived him about the merits of his own case; how glad he should be if the whole could now be dropped and privately arranged; and, finally and especially, how little the public had to do with whether he tried to keep his mother’s property, or quietly let it go to somebody else. It was in vain that he urged all this. Owen could not see why any of these considerations should interfere with the advantage which the readers of the paper would derive from the knowledge of Mr. Arruther’s proceedings. That this gentleman had a bad cause to maintain might be a very sufficient reason for his present condescension, and for his offering to double and treble his bribe; but it afforded the strongest possible inducement to Owen to publish the whole, for the guidance of those who had it in their power to withdraw this unworthy man from public life. Mr. Arruther grew angry when all the offers he could make for the suppression of the report were simply declined.
“I do not know, sir, what has made you my enemy,” he observed. “But you are my enemy, sir. Don’t deny it. Do you think I am not aware of what you have done, first in trying to deprive me of the support of the editor of the ‘Western Star;’ and, when you could not succeed in that, in exposing me privately wherever you could?”
“How do you use the word ‘privately,’ Mr. Arruther? If you mean that I have whispered things to your disadvantage, or used any kind of secrecy in what I have said, you are mistaken. If you mean that I have printed nothing against you, you are quite correct; but the reason is, that I have not had the power. If there had been any independent newspaper in the district, where I might have said what you allude to, it would have saved me the trouble of writing many letters, and have enabled me to do my duty much more effectually than it has been done. If you feel yourself aggrieved from the same cause; if you desire an opportunity of publicly contradicting what has been said about your scanty attendance at the House, and the course of your political conduct when there; if you really wish for a fair discussion of your public character, you will assist those of us who are anxious to set up a newspaper as nearly independent as the circumstances of the time will allow.”
“Not I. We have too many newspapers already. I shall not countenance the setting up of any more.”
“Too many already,” repeated Owen, smiling as his eye fell on a little table on which lay seven or eight newspapers, received this morning, and destined to be replaced by the same number to-morrow. “Too many! That depends on how they are divided. Perhaps you forget, sir, that while Members of Parliament have seven or eight to themselves every day, there are seven or eight thousand people who see but one paper, and seven or eight millions of persons who never see one at all. You may feel yourself ready for your morning ride before you have half got through such a pile of papers as lies there, and may find it a tiresome part of your duty to read so much politics every day; but if you steal into the dark bye-places of a town like this, and hear what people are saying in their ignorance against being governed at all; if you go out upon the sheep-walks, and see the country folks growing into the likeness of stocks and stones, for want of having their human reason exercised; if you will ride down any Saturday into our own village, and see the scramble there is for a single copy of an inferior provincial paper, you will presently lose the fancy that we have too many newspapers already.”
“Too many by that one copy you spoke of, in my opinion, Mr. Owen. The people in Arneside did very well without any newspaper when I was a boy, I remember. I wish you had been pleased to consult me before you took such a step as sending them one. You should know better than to fall into the propensity of the time, for pampering the common people. You talk as wisely as anybody about putting gin in their way, and I do not see that they want news any more than gin. That was one of the few good things my mother used to say. When some complaint came to her ears about the price of newspapers, she asked whether anybody thought any harm of taxing gin; and whether the common people could not do without news as well as without spirits. She was right enough, for once. The common people can do without news. News is a luxury, as somebody said.”
“O, yes. News can be done without; and so can many other things. You may lock a man into a house, and he will still live. You may darken his windows from the sun at noonday, and the stars at night, and he will still live. You may let in no air but what comes down the chimney, and he will still live. You may chain him to the bed-post, you may stuff his ears, and cover his eyes, and tie his hands behind him, and he can ‘do without’ the use of his limbs and his senses, and of God’s noblest works: but it was not for this that God sent his sun on its course, and set the stars rolling in their spheres, and freshened the breezy hills, and gave muscles to our strong limbs, and nerves to our delicate organs. He did not make his beautiful world that one might walk abroad on it, while a thousand are shut into a dark dungeon. Neither did he give men the curiosity with which they watch and listen, and the imagination with which they wander forth, and the reason with which they meditate among his works, that the one might be baffled, and the others fettered and enfeebled. And what does any one gain by such tyranny? Does the sun shine more brightly when a man thinks he has it all to himself, than when the reapers are merry in the field, and the children are running after butterflies in the meadow? Would Orion glow more majestically to any one man if he could build a wall up to the high heaven, and stop the march of the constellation, and part it off, that common eyes might not look upon it? If not, neither can any one gain by shutting up that which God has made as common to the race as the lights of his firmament, and the winds which come and go as he wills. That word ‘news’ is a little word and a common word; but it means all that is great as the results of the day, and holy as the march of the starry night. It is the manifestation of man’s most freshly compounded emotions, the record of his most recent experiences, and the revelation of God’s latest providences on earth. Are these things to be kept from the many by the few, under the notion that they are property? Are these things now to be doled out at the pleasure, and to suit the purposes of an order of men, as the priests of Catholic countries measured out their thimblefull of the waters of life, in the name of him who opened up the spring, and invited every one that thirsted to come and drink freely? To none has authority been given to mete out knowledge, according to their own sense of fitness, any more than to those priests of old; but on all is imposed the religious duty of providing channels by which the vital streams of knowledge shall be brought to every man’s door. If, in this day, any man who seeks to be a social administrator desires that the few should cover up their reservoirs lest they should overflow for the refreshment of the many, it is no wonder if his cistern grows so foul as to make him question in right earnest at last, whether there be not something more poisonous in the draught than in gin itself; and much that is perilous in the eagerness of the crowd who rush to lap whatever cannot be prevented from leaking out.”
“You mean to say that our universities are fouled reservoirs, I suppose? It would become you to speak more modestly till you have been there.”
“I know nothing of what is within the universities, further than by watching what comes out. The vague idea that I have of the knowledge that pervades them is perhaps as reverential as you, or any other son of such an institution, can desire: but I own that my reverence would be more ardent and affectionate if I could see that that knowledge made its partakers happier than it does.”
“Happier! How can you possibly tell? How should you know, when I am the only university-man, I believe, that you are acquainted with?”
“I judge by what I see. When men enjoy, the next thing is to communicate; especially when by communicating they lose nothing themselves. But it is not so in this case. What have the universities done towards showing the beauty and holiness of knowledge, as the most universal and the highest blessing which God has given to the living and breathing race of man? What have the universities done to diffuse their own treasures into every corner of the land? How have they applied their knowledge towards the promotion of the happiness of the state,—opening their doors to all who would come in, discovering or sanctioning the best principles of legislation and government, countenancing public and private virtue, and being foremost in proposing and enforcing whatever might fulfil the final purposes of knowledge by making the greatest number of rational beings as wise and happy as the circumstances of the age will admit? While I see nothing of all this attempted by our universities, I feel more respect and affection for the studies which are going forward within a mechanics’ Institution (crude and superficial studies, perhaps, but tending to promote the substantial happiness of the race), than for the pursuits of a university, or any other place, where intellectual luxury is reserved to pamper the few while the many starve.”
“I do not see much starving in the case, when we have not only too many regular newspapers, but scores of unstamped publications, which circulate their scores of thousands each. Precious stuff for your common people to batten upon!”
“When we once come to the question of quality, sir, there may be less to be said than about quantity. Is there anything here,—or here,”—taking up the “John Bull” and the “Age,” “that will make the public wiser and better than they would become by reading the ‘Twopenny Treat’ or the ‘Poor Man’s Guardian.’ That there is any such ‘precious stuff’ for readers to batten on is the fault of those who, by keeping up one newspaper monopoly, have created another.”
“What new monopoly, pray? And what public would ever endure two monopolies of the same article?”
“There are two publics to suffer by the two monopolies. While the tax-gatherers take five-pence out of every seven-pence that is given for a newspaper; while the practice of advertising is so kept down by the duty as to deprive the proprietors of their legitimate profits; while a capital of between thirty and forty thousand pounds is required to conduct a good daily paper, no journal will or can be honest, cheap, and successful; and the middle classes, who can afford to see only one paper, will suffer by the long-established monopoly of the old journals. While men of more wit than capital are tempted or driven to evade the law; while adventurers below the reach of the law are virtually invited to defy and vilify it, the large class of poor readers will suffer by the pernicious monopoly which not his Majesty nor all his Ministers can break up, as long as legal newspapers are made to cost seven-pence, while illegal ones may be had for two-pence.—Have you seen any of these illegal publications?”
“Yes. Precious stuff! Falsehoods in every sentence; blunders in every line; as any one who chose might show in a minute.”
“Unfortunately, no one will choose it, in the present state of affairs. It must be easy enough to controvert any publication so bad as you describe; but the opportunity is not allowed. These falsehoods and blunders are crammed down the people’s throats, and no one can unchoke them, because the law interferes to prevent the free circulation of opinions. I know of a young man at Arneside who actually believes that all master manufacturers make it a principle and a pleasure to oppress and worry their workmen, and that all rulers study nothing so regularly and strenuously as how to wring the hearts of the greatest number of people. He reads this (among a hundred better things) in one of these unstamped publications, which would either have never existed at all, or have treated very differently of politics, if the Stamp Commissioners had taught it no lesson of hatred against the law.”
“Ah! you mean that brother of yours. I heard how he was going, poor fool!”
“If he is a poor fool, what is it that has prevented his being wise? He has shown his disposition to become so by his eagerness after such reading as he can obtain; and if he has got so far as to learn the strength of a bad argument, alas for those who step in to prevent his getting farther, and learning its weakness in the presence of a better! If he cannot find sound political teachers, where lies the blame?”
“If you had newspapers quite free, who do you suppose would write for the common people? We should be inundated with blasphemous and seditious publications.”
“When a man goes with his money in his hand to purchase a newspaper, do you think he is asked whether he is one of the common people? And when newspapers sell for the cost of production and a fair profit, who is likely to produce the best, and sell the most,—the respectable and educated capitalist, or the ignorant and needy agitator? When newspapers have fair play, their success will depend, I fancy, like that of other articles, on their quality; and I never yet heard of any instance in which any class of people failed to purchase the better article in preference to the worse, when both were fairly set before them. Moreover, I never heard of a wise and kind government, whether of a single family, a city, or a nation, that did not desire rather than fear that its proceedings should be known and discussed.”
“Ah! that shows how little you know of the plague and mischief of being talked over, when any business is in hand. If you were in the place of those who have to transact affairs on the continent, and in our colonies, you would be too much vexed to laugh at the nonsense that people believe about us. There is nothing too monstrous or ridiculous to be credited. A plague on the foolish tongues that spread such things!”
“Or rather on the policy which allows such reports to be originated and to pass current. If a multitude of the King’s subjects at home, and of his allies abroad, believe all that is monstrous of his government, and all that is ridiculous of his people, it seems time that better means of knowledge should be given to both. While the world lasts, social beings can never be prevented discussing their rulers and their neighbours; and if we are annoyed at their errors, the alternative is not silence but truth. When newspapers circulate untaxed, and not till then, there will be an approach to a general understanding, and to social peace.”
“You are not exactly the person to talk of social peace, I think, Mr. Owen, when you are bent on setting me and my electors at variance by publishing my family quarrels, in spite of all I can say.”
Owen did not choose to remain to be insulted by further entreaties that he would take a bribe. He rose, observing that this was a case in which he had no more concern than with a quarrel in the Cabinet, and no more option than in announcing an earthquake at Aleppo. He was a reporter, and nothing more. If Mr. Arruther had anything further to say, he must make his appeal to the proprietors of the “Western Star.”
A few last words were vouchsafed to him before he left the room. Their purpose was to assure him that if this report appeared, he need never apply to Mr. Arruther for assistance, in case of his fool of a brother getting into any scrape, or he himself ever being tried for libel, or any disaster, public or private, befalling him. If Owen should, on consideration, decide to accommodate Mr. Arruther, that gentleman would see what he could do on any occasion when he might be of service.