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[SECT. I.—: OF TAXES IN GENERAL.—INTRODUCTORY.] - Dugald Stewart, Lectures on Political Economy, vol. 2 
Lectures on Political Economy. Now first published. Vol. II. To which is Prefixed, Part Third of the Outlines of Moral Philosophy, edited by Sir William Hamilton (Edinburgh, Thomas Constable, 1856).
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OF TAXES IN GENERAL.—INTRODUCTORY.]
It is evident that, in every political community, there are a variety of expenses which must be necessarily incurred by the sovereign for the public service. It is sufficient to mention the support of the Sovereign Dignity,—the Religious Establishment,—the Administration of Justice,—the National Defence,—besides Public Works, such as roads, ports, bridges, &c. These different objects of public expense (but, in a more especial manner, the exigencies of War) imply the necessity of a Public Revenue, to be at the disposal of the Sovereign, or of the Commonwealth. Something of this kind, therefore, may be considered as a necessary consequence of the Political Union; and the only difference among states, in this branch of their economy, consists, in the different sources from which the Public Revenue is drawn.
Among the nations of antiquity, the common practice appears to have been, to make provision for hostilities by hoarding up treasures during the intervals of peace which they enjoyed. Some good observations on this point of their policy may be found in the beginning of Mr. Hume’s Essay on Public Credit.1 It is unnecessary to prosecute the subject here, as their example has not been copied by any of the great European princes since the death of Henry IV. of France, with the exception of some of the last sovereigns in Prussia. Frederick William, at his death in 1740, is said to have left seven millions sterling in his treasury; and his son, Frederick the Great, (as we are assured by the Baron de Hertzberg,) accumulated twice the most considerable treasure that any prince ever possessed.1 It is, however, only by a very singular combination of circumstances that such a parsimonious spirit can exist for a length of time in a great monarchy in the present state of European manners. Nor is the case very different in our modern republics, of which many are in debt, and none are supposed to have amassed anything that deserves the name of a treasure but the Canton of Berne.
In great and civilized states, too, the progress of luxury and expense renders public stock and public lands altogether inadequate resources for supplying the necessary demands of Government. With respect to the former, a sufficient objection arises from the unstable and perishable nature of stock and credit, in consequence of which they cannot be trusted to with safety as the principal funds of a sure, steady, and permanent revenue; and as to the latter, it is asserted by Mr. Smith,* that “in the present state of the greater part of the civilized monarchies of Europe, the rent of all the lands in the country, managed as they probably would be if they all belonged to one proprietor, would scarce amount to the ordinary revenue which they levy upon the people even in peaceable times.”2
It follows from these observations, that in the present state of the great nations of Europe the greater part of the expenses of Government must be defrayed by taxes of one kind or another; or, in other words, by the contribution of private revenue for public purposes. As the sum which the state raises in this manner is the price of the protection which Government affords to the subject, there can be no limitation to the extent of what may be equitably levied, provided the value of the protection afforded is adequate to the amount of the contribution collected.
It is, however, the most important duty of a statesman to draw from the subject the necessary supply, in the manner the fairest and the least oppressive,—a task of which the difficulty appears to increase with the extent of the sum to be raised. To devise the most effectual means of accomplishing this end is the great object of the art of finance,—a branch of Political Economy which has long employed the speculations of the ablest and most enlightened men in Europe, without, however, as yet leading to any systematical result in which all parties are agreed. In England, more particularly, and in France, this science has exercised the ingenuity both of speculative and practical politicians in a singular degree, in consequence of the immense revenue which the magnitude of the public debts rendered absolutely necessary. These debts were indeed contracted, in the first instance, with a view to relieve the subject from oppressive impositions; but it is manifest that the relief which was thus procured to the existing generation was purchased by transferring the load to their posterity with an accumulated weight. It may be worth while to state, in a few words, (before entering on the subject of Taxation,) by what gradual steps the Funding System arose, as it may now be justly considered as the principal cause of the heavy burdens to which we are subjected.
The origin of Public Funds is to be traced from the peculiar manners and circumstances of modern Europe. In former times, princes had often borrowed money to supply their exigencies, and sometimes mortgaged their territories in security; but these loans were generally extorted, and their payment always precarious; for it depended on the good faith and success of the borrower, and never became a regular burden on posterity.
Since the invention of gunpowder and the progress of commerce, the military art has become a distinct employment in the hands of mercenaries; the apparatus of war is attended with more expense; and the decision of national quarrels has often been determined by command of money rather than by national bravery. Ambitious princes have therefore borrowed money, in order to carry on their projects with more vigour; weaker states have been compelled, in self-defence, to apply to the same resource; the wealth introduced by commerce has afforded the means; the regularity of administration, established in consequence of the progress of civilisation, has increased the confidence of individuals in the public security; the complicated system of modern policy has extended the scenes of war, and prolonged their duration; and the colonies established by mercantile nations have rendered them vulnerable in more points, and increased the expense of defending them.
When a greater sum has been required for the annual expense than could easily be supplied by annual taxes, the Government have proposed terms to their own subjects, or foreigners, for obtaining an advance of money, by mortgaging the revenue of future years for their indemnification. The sums which have been thus lent to Government, and which constitute the national debt, form what are called the Public Funds. The practice was introduced by the Venetians and the Genoese in the sixteenth century, and has been adopted since by most of the nations of Europe.”1
It is justly observed by Mr. Smith, that “the same commercial state of society which, by the operation of moral causes, brings Government into the necessity of borrowing, produces in the subjects both an ability and an inclination to lend.”* Merchants have at all times a proportion of their capital, and of the average returns of trade within their reach. Their natural confidence in the state where their property is lodged, leads them (particularly under free governments) to trust to the public faith, or if they should apprehend any unusual risk, the alarm will only have the effect of enhancing their demands in settling the terms of their bargain. As the debts, however, contracted by Government with the public creditors, differ from those between individuals in one important particular, that, in the former the lender is not at liberty to reclaim his principal, it is reasonable that the obligation from Government be of such a nature as to make the debt transferable to any other person who may be inclined to purchase it. The regular payment of the interest on the Government Funds, and the number of persons in this country who prefer the interest they afford to the hazardous profits of trade, secure continual demands for those shares in them which are brought to market. The facility also, and trifling expense with which transfers are made in these funds, are inducements to prefer vesting money in them to laying it out on mortgages or other private security, which, though probably yielding a greater interest, is frequently attended with trouble and uncertainty.1 By these constant transferences, the confidence reposed in the State is maintained and augmented; the funds are converted into a mighty engine for the circulation of capital; an immense field is opened for mercantile speculation in transactions with Government, and it becomes an object of interest and competition to advance money to the public. The consequence is such as might be expected; the readiness to lend increases the disposition to borrow, and the facility of getting money lessens the anxiety to save. Hence the rapid progress of the enormous debts which at present oppress all the great nations of Europe.
“The progress of these debts,” as Mr. Smith has remarked, “has been everywhere pretty uniform. Nations, like private men, have generally begun to borrow upon what may be called personal credit, without assigning or mortgaging any particular fund for the payment of the debt; and when this resource has failed them, they have proceeded to borrow upon assignments or mortgages of particular funds.”*
The establishment of the funds was introduced into Britain at the time of the Revolution, and has since been gradually enlarged, and carried to an amazing extent. In the reign of King William, and during a great part of that of Queen Anne, the greater portion of the new taxes were imposed but for a short period of time, (for four, five, six, or seven years only,) and a great part of the grants of every year consisted in loans upon anticipations of the produce of those taxes. The produce being frequently insufficient for paying within the limited term the principal and interest of the money borrowed, deficiencies arose, to make good which it became necessary to prolong the term. The continued operation of the same causes led Government to go on in this business of anticipation by mortgaging taxes for farther loans and longer periods, till they at length made the assignments perpetual in a great proportion of cases, or in other words converted taxes into a fund for the payment of perpetual annuities. In this manner, the greater part of the taxes which before had been anticipated only for a short term of years, were rendered perpetual, for the purpose of paying, not the capital, but the interest only, of the money which had been borrowed upon them by different successive anticipations. The obvious effect of this practice is to put off the liberation of the public revenue from a fixed period to an indefinite one. As a greater sum, however, can, in all cases, be raised by this plan of perpetual funding, than by the old method of anticipations, the former has, in the great exigencies of the state, been universally preferred to the latter. “To relieve the present exigency,” says Mr. Smith, “is always the object which principally interests those immediately concerned in the administration of public affairs. The future liberation of the public revenue they leave to the care of posterity.”*
This mode of raising money by anticipations and by funding, is the least disagreeable of any to the people, because large sums are obtained for small annual taxes; and even when these annual taxes are multiplied, the expenditure of the sums raised upon them furnishes occupations which benefit a large proportion of the community. Nor is it a consideration of trifling moment, that this expenditure is frequently a source of great and interesting events which amuse the imaginations of men, even when the events on the whole are unfavourable to their interests. The contingencies of a great war have, in this respect, not unaptly been compared to the “caparisons and bells, which, by their show and jingle, induce a poor animal to jog on under his load, with cheerfulness.”1
According to some writers, the introduction of this system by King William, was the effect of political foresight, in order to secure the attachment of individuals to Government, from the dependence of their property on its support and security; by others, it has been ascribed to a disposition in Ministers to multiply places, and to gain patronage; by a third description of politicians, (with still greater absurdity,) to the view of increasing the capital property of the kingdom. From the remarks which have been made, it appears plainly to have been the natural offspring of the circumstances in which the country was placed, and which, in proportion as they have existed in the other states of Europe, have been followed by similar consequences.
At the death of King William, our public debt was about fourteen millions sterling. At the death of Queen Anne, it amounted to fifty millions.2 In the year 1797, (according to a report of a Committee of Parliament,) the funded debt amounted to £380,672,945.3
Our present war expenditure exceeds £30,000,000, and our permanent taxes amount to upwards of £20,000,000.4
I have entered into this detail concerning the Funding System, in order to convey a general idea of the causes which have produced such a weight and complication of taxes in some of the greater states of modern Europe; and which have of consequence rendered the principles of taxation one of the most important in the science of Political Economy. What are the effects of such enormous burdens on the industry, the population, and the general industry of a country, is a question of very difficult discussion, to which different and opposite answers have been given by some of our most eminent writers.
In the very general sketches to which I am obliged to confine myself at present, it is impossible for me to attempt an examination of their arguments; and therefore I shall content myself (without expressing any opinion of my own) with pointing out this inquiry as one of the most interesting which this branch of Political Economy presents to the curiosity of a subject of Great Britain.
The most ingenious and best informed writer who has hitherto appeared as an advocate for the policy of our national debt, is Mr. Pinto, a Portuguese Jew, of whom I had occasion formerly to make mention. [Pol. Econ. Vol. I. pluries.* ] His Essay on Circulation and Credit is said, by Sir Francis D’Ivernois, to “be the first work in which the true theory of National Debts was unfolded; and to contain,” in his opinion, “a greater variety, both of luminous views and of practical truths, than all the writings of the French Economists put together.” The utility of the National Debt is also contended for, though on different and much less plausible principles, by the late Soame Jenyns; and by Mr. Edward King, in a pamphlet, (published in 1793,) entitled Considerations on the Utility of the National Debt.1 Sir F. D’Ivernois, in some of his late publications, takes nearly the same ground with Mr. Pinto.
The arguments on the other side may be found in Mr. Hume and Mr. Smith. The latter has suggested various observations which are particularly directed against the theory of Pinto.† The former treats his antagonists with still less ceremony, comparing their apologies for the national debt to “the panegyrics that were pronounced at Rome, as trials of wit, on Folly and Fevers, on Busiris and Nero.”*
Among the various ingenious remarks which Mr. Hume has made on this subject, there is one very unaccountable observation in the earlier editions of his Political Discourses. “There is a word,” says he, “which is here in the mouth of everybody, and which has also, I find, got abroad, and is much employed by foreign writers in imitation of the English, and that is Circulation. This word serves as an account of everything; and though I confess that I have sought for its meaning in the present subject ever since I was a schoolboy, I have never yet been able to discover it. What possible advantage is there which the nation can reap by the easy transference of stock from hand to hand? Or is there anything parallel to be drawn from the circulation of other commodities, to that of chequer notes and India bonds?”†
This observation is the more extraordinary, that in the next paragraph a very satisfactory answer is given to the foregoing questions. “Public securities are with us become a kind of money, and pass as readily at the current price as gold or silver. Wherever any profitable undertaking offers itself, how expensive soever, there are never wanting hands enough to embrace it; nor need a trader, who has sums in the public stocks, fear to launch out in the most extensive trade, since he is possessed of funds which will answer the most sudden demand that can be made upon him. No merchant thinks it necessary to keep by him any considerable cash. Bank stock, or India bonds, especially the latter, serve all the same purposes; because he can dispose of them, or pledge them to a banker in a quarter of an hour; and at the same time, they are not idle even when in his escritoire, but bring him in a constant revenue. In short, our national debts furnish merchants with a species of money that is continually multiplying in their hands, and produces sure gain, besides the profits of their commerce. This must enable them to trade on less profit. The small profit of the merchant renders the commodity cheaper, causes a greater consumption, quickens the labour of the common people, and helps to spread arts and industry throughout the whole society.”*
There is reason to believe that Mr. Hume came, in the progress of his speculations, to be aware of this inconsistency; as Mr. Pinto assures us, that when he saw Mr. Hume at Paris, the latter expressed “great satisfaction with the Essay on Public Credit;” and he adds, “I flatter myself he will one day correct some of his ideas on this subject.” One thing is certain, that in the last edition of Mr. Hume’s Discourse, he has suppressed entirely the passage already quoted about the obscurity of the word circulation as it respects public credit.
Of the general question which has divided the opinion of these authors, a question so difficult in itself, and which comes home so directly to the most momentous interests of this country, it never was my intention to treat in a course of academical lectures. But I could have wished to have had it in my power to give a general outline of the speculations of our most eminent practical politicians on a subject less delicate, and at the same time more immediately useful; the means of raising those supplies (which are rendered indispensable by our actual circumstances) in a way the least unjust to individuals, and the least calculated to obstruct the national opulence and improvement. Even in considering this article, it was not my design to deviate from the common track of speculation, but to confine myself to a statement of those principles which have had the chief influence of late on the policy of Great Britain. In a field where the most splendid talents have been so often employed, some important conclusions could not fail to reward a diligent survey; and at any rate an acquaintance with prevalent ideas forms a necessary branch of information, whatever judgment we may find reason to pronounce on their solidity. The whole of this subject, however, I must omit at present, as I am anxious to proceed at our next meeting to that article of Political Economy which relates to the poor. What remains of this lecture, I shall employ in some remarks on taxes which affect the rent of land; a branch of the general speculation which I select in preference to others, not only as it occupies the first place in Mr. Smith’s arrangement, but as it will furnish me with an opportunity of mentioning a few particulars concerning the origin of that project of a territorial tax, which is commonly ascribed to the French Economists.
In entering on the subject of Taxation, Mr. Smith states four maxims as general and fundamental principles by which the comparative advantages and disadvantages of particular taxes may be estimated. Their evidence appear to him to be such, as to supersede the necessity of any illustration.
“1. The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the Government as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities. . . . In the observation or neglect of this maxim consists what is called the equality or inequality of taxation. . . .
“2. The tax which each individual is bound to pay ought to be certain, and not arbitrary. The time of payment, the manner of payment, the quantity to be paid, ought all to be clear and plain to the contributor, and to every other person. Where it is otherwise, every person subject to the tax is put more or less in the power of the tax-gatherer, who can either aggravate the tax upon any obnoxious contributor, or extort, by the terror of such aggravation, some present or perquisite to himself. . . .
“3. Every tax ought to be levied at the time, or in the manner in which it is most likely to be convenient for the contributor to pay it. . . .
“4. Every tax ought to be so contrived as to take out of the pockets of the people as little as possible over and above what goes into the treasury of the state.”*
Of these maxims, the last three are expressed with sufficient precision, and may be safely assumed as self-evident truths. The first (which relates to what Mr. Smith calls the equality of taxation) is stated in terms so vague and ambiguous, that it is hardly possible to make any use of it as a principle of reasoning. This is the more remarkable, that it is to be found in almost every writer who has treated of Political Economy. If, indeed, by the equality of taxation, it is meant merely that taxes ought to be imposed in as equitable a manner as possible, for the whole community, without partiality or prejudice to particular individuals, or to particular classes of men, it may well be regarded as a principle whose evidence sufficiently recommends it, without the aid of any comment; and it is in this sense alone that I would be understood to employ the phrase, if at any time it should occur in the course of our future reasonings. It is curious, however, that while all writers agree in stating the maxim as a self-evident truth, hardly any two agree in giving the same interpretation to the word ability; and the greater part ascribe to it meanings that involve very problematical propositions. Mr. Smith, for example, after stating the maxim, adds the following explanation:—“That is, the subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the Government, as nearly as possible in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state.”* Mr. Young, on the other hand, in commenting on the very same maxim, remarks, that “by ability must not be understood either capital or income, but that superlucration, as Davenant called it, which melts in consumption. Suppose, (for example,) a manufacturer makes a profit of £2000 a year, living upon £500, and annually investing £1500 in his business, it is sufficiently obvious, upon just principles, that the state cannot lay the £1500 under contribution by taxes. The £500 is the only income exposed. But when the manufacturer dies, and his son turns gentleman, the whole income is made to contribute. . . . In like manner, if a landlord farm his own estate, and expend the income in improvements, living on but a small portion of the profit, it is sufficiently clear that taxes ought not to affect one shilling of his expenditure on his land; they can reach with propriety the expenses of his living only; if they touch any other part of his expenditure, they deprive him of those tools that are working the business of the state. The proposition, therefore, that a man should pay according to his ability, must be understood in a restrained sense.”1
Sir James Steuart lays it down as a general principle, that “according to equity and justice, all impositions whatsoever ought to fall equally and proportionally on every one according to his superfluity;”* that is, (as he explains himself afterwards,) according to the income that remains to him after the necessary expense of subsistence. “Whatever a people consumes,” he observes, “beyond the necessary, I consider as a superfluity which may be laid under taxation.”† And in another passage, “nothing can be the object of taxation, except what is over and above the physical necessary of every one.”‡
I have mentioned these different interpretations of Mr. Smith’s first maxim, not with a view of deciding in favour of any one of them in preference to the others, but to express my dissent from all of them, when stated in the form of self-evident propositions. The maxim, indeed, as first announced by Mr. Smith, has the appearance of an axiom; and in the very general sense in which I have explained it, nobody can dispute its claim to this appellation; but, according to the meanings annexed to it both by this writer and the others just now quoted, it is made a pretext for prejudging, without any examination, one of the nicest questions which are connected with the theory of taxation. It is very rarely indeed, that in morals or in politics, we can follow with safety the mathematical mode of reasoning synthetically from general principles. Few maxims are to be found which are perfectly indisputable when proposed in an abstract form; and even when such occur, there is a danger (as in the present instance) of their being differently understood by different individuals, according to their pre-conceived theories, so as to give a false shew of demonstrative evidence to reasonings which lead to widely different conclusions.
To these maxims of Mr. Smith, the following one may be added as a principle equally general in its application,—
5. No tax should be imposed in such a manner as to drain the source from which it is derived;1 or, (as Sir James Steuart expresses it,) “Taxes ought to affect the fruits and not the fund.”* Impositions, which necessarily imply a diminution of any capital, cannot properly be ranged under the head of taxes, inasmuch as every payment diminishes necessarily the productiveness of the tax in future. In fact, every such contribution realizes the fable of the boy who killed the goose with the golden eggs. “Thus,” says the last mentioned writer, “when the Dutch contributed, not many years ago, the hundredth part of their property to the service of the state, I cannot properly consider that in the light of a tax; it was indeed a most public spirited contribution, and did more honour to that people, from the fidelity with which it was made, than anything of the kind ever boasted of by a modern society.”†
In the examination of particular taxes, Mr. Smith arranges his observations under four heads,‡ suggested to him by the Analysis given in another part of his work, of the sources of private revenue. As the revenue of individuals arises ultimately from three different sources, rent, profit, and wages, every tax must finally be paid from some one or other of these, or from all of them indifferently. Accordingly, he treats (1.) Of those taxes which it is intended should fall upon rent; (2.) Of those which it is intended should fall upon profit; (3.) Of those which it is intended should fall upon wages; and (4.) Of those which it is intended should fall indifferently upon all those three different sources of private revenue. In the further prosecution of the subject, I shall follow the same arrangement, beginning (according to Mr. Smith’s order) with the consideration of taxes upon rent.
[1 ] [Essays, Vol. I.]—See Filangieri, [Riflessioni Politiche, &c.] Vol. II. p. 372.
[1 ] Guthrie’s Grammar, p. 471. Hertzberg’s Two Discourses, &c. p. 3; p. 37 of the original. The translation is printed for Dilly, 1786.
[* ] [Wealth of Nations, Book V. chap. ii.; Vol. III. p. 250, tenth edition.]
[2 ] Filangieri, [Ibid.] Vol. II. p. 318.
[1 ] Hamilton, [Introduction, &c.,] pp. 548, 549. With respect to the particular use of the word Fund, (which in its common acceptation means a sum of money appropriated for any particular purpose,) it may be proper to observe, that according to strict analogy it ought to be applied to the Taxes or Revenues upon which the interest of the public debts is secured. The former definition, however, (which applies it to the capitals or debts upon which the interest is payable,) has been long sanctioned by universal custom.—Fairman, On the Stocks.
[* ] [Wealth of Nations, Book V. chap. iii.; Vol. III. p. 400, tenth edition.]
[1 ] Fairman, On the Stocks.
[* ] [Wealth of Nations, Book V. chap. iii.; Vol. III. p. 402, tenth edition.]
[* ] [Ibid. p. 409.]
[1 ] Eden’s Letters, p. 86.
[2 ] The war of 1739 increased it to more than 78 millions. Before the breaking out of the war of 1755, it was reduced to little more than 72¼ millions. But at the conclusion of the peace in 1763, the funded debt amounted to more than 122½ millions, and in 1764, the whole debt was 139½ millions; and by the American war, it was increased to upwards of 230 millions.—Smith, [Wealth of Nations, Book V. chap. iii.; Vol. III. p. 421, seq., tenth edition.]
[3 ] Eden, [l. c.] p. 92; Hamilton, [l. c.] p. 552.
[4 ] Lauderdale’s last Pamphlet. During the American war the expenditure never exceeded £20,000,[000,] and the permanent taxes never exceeded £10,000,000.—Ibid. Permanent Taxes in 1783, £10,194,259; in 1798, £21,049,945.—Rose’s Pamphlet.
[* ] [For articulate references, see Index.]
[1 ] Printed for T. Payne, Mews Gate, [London.]
[† ] [Wealth of Nations, Book V. c. iii.; Vol. III. p. 424, seq., tenth edition.]
[* ] [Essays, Vol. I. Of Public Credit.]
[† ] [Ibid., old editions.]
[* ] [Ibid.]
[* ] [Wealth of Nations, Book V. chap. ii.; Vol. III. pp. 255-257, tenth edition.]
[* ] [Ibid. p. 255.]
[1 ] [Political Arithmetic?] pp. 521, 522.
[* ] [Political Œconomy, Book V. chap. xii.; Works, Vol. IV. p. 298.]
[† ] [Ibid. p. 317.]
[‡ ] [Ibid. p. 314.]
[1 ] Ferguson, [Principles of Moral and Political Science, Part II. chap. vi. sect. 5;] Vol. II. p. 436.
[* ] [Political Œconomy, Book V. chap. i.; Works, Vol. IV. p. 175.]
[† ] [Ibid. pp. 175, 176.]
[‡ ] [Wealth of Nations, Book V. chap. ii.; Vol. III. p. 259, seq., tenth edition.]