Impost and Contribution
The real difference between impost and contribution can only be appreciated by remembering how political States were first constituted. Founded by communities of strong men, these communities were compelled to defend their possession, interested in its aggrandizement, and obliged to supply government with the forces and resources necessary to assure safety, and to effect such expansion as might be possible. The resources were a military force, the material instruments of warfare, and means of subsistence. Every member of the associated body of proprietors contributed to these in proportion to the share of territory and subjects received by him at the partition of the fruits of conquest—an allotment regulated by the value of the recipient's services at that time. This was a "contribution," and involved concurrent obligations, or a reciprocal contract, between the association personified in its government, and each particular contributory—each associate. The association furnished its contributories with security and other services needed by them; they repaid the association by providing it with the means of producing those services, and these means were usually paid in the form of "impost." Every partner in the common domain owed certain personal services in time of war, and was also responsible for a contingent of men and means drawn from the subject population of his lordship. The lords taxed this population at will, and were under no obligation in respect of the products and services thus required. If an owner busied himself with the support of, or care for, his slaves; if he protected or assisted his serfs or subjects, these actions were dictated by the same considerations which induced men to feed, or care for, flocks and herds. But there never was any relation or proportion between the imposts, taken by owners in the form of compulsory labour, or—under a more advanced economic system—in the shape of levies of produce or money, and the services which they rendered in return.
The forces and resources furnishing the expenses of States were thus drawn, as to one part, from the personal services of those who shared the common domain; as to the other, from levies of labour, produce, or money, extorted from the slaves, serfs, or subjects of those owners. These levies constituted the revenue of the owners, and, as such, were partly devoted to the support of themselves and the government of their particular domain, partly to the payment of their contribution to the general funds of the State.
Time, and political and military competition, gradually emancipated the slaves, serfs, or subjects, of these seigneurial estates. They became owners of themselves, and of such real or personal estate as a greater or less number of them had been able to amass by labour and thrift. Hitherto the lord had levied imposts without incurring any counter obligation or obeying any other restraints than self-interest, the point at which his chattels might be moved to make open resistance, or the absolute nett limit of their productive capacity. This impost should, now, have been replaced by one partly consisting of rent upon such land and other realty as remained the lord's own property, partly of a contribution analogous to that which the members of the proprietary community paid to the government of their State. This latter contribution should have had the like justification of an exchange of mutual services, and should have been similarly adjusted to the share in the total benefits provided by the social power through its representative government enjoyed by each contributor. But instead of this, contribution, failing to replace impost, was absorbed by it. When a hereditary chief, whether king or emperor, concentrated the rights of sovereignty within his own hands, most of the imposts which the lords had hitherto levied upon their subjects passed with them. Taxes upon the sale of real estate, customs and transport dues, the salt monopoly and that of mintage, were transferred in this way. As a compensation for this reduction in their revenues, the head of the State relieved the lords of the obligations and charges embodying their contribution to the maintenance and aggrandizement of the common domain. This was none the less a retrograde movement in that contribution, implying mutual services, disappeared before impost, established by authority of the king as, heretofore, by that of the lord. In certain countries, notably England, subjects had indeed obtained a right of consent, but this change did not occur in France and the other Continental monarchies. There the peers of a house, whose head had become king, mere reduced to the status of subjects, and were, as such, taxable at his will. They were doubtless exempt from certain imposts levied by them on their ancient subjects in the form of direct taxes upon the person; but indirect taxes upon goods fell upon them with the rest of the community.
One of the firstfruits of the French Revolution was, as we know, the abolition of this system. The Declaration of the Rights of Man lays down that "every contribution is established for the general good, and should fall upon all classes in accordance with their several abilities." This clause marks a return to the system of contribution of impost; contribution now falls upon all classes alike. To have made this repudiation effective, the imposts of the old system—imposts entailing no corresponding services—should have been abolished, and replaced by a system of contributions, each attached to a particular service. The chiefs of the Revolution easily achieved the first part of this reform, but were incapable of realising the second. They contented themselves with providing the resources, required by the service of the State and the additional burdens of war, from the confiscated goods of the Church and the nobility, and by issues of paper-money. Early exhaustion of these temporary expedients left them face to face with the problem of a permanent settlement. But while the State of War continued to demand even greater expenditure than under the old order—such expenditure as was, indeed, unlimited, or limited only by the taxable capacity of the nation—it was impossible to enforce a system of contributions paid directly by every individual and each attached to some particular service, the burden and benefits of which should be equally calculable.
If the old imposts were not re-established in their entirety, the new forms did but embody nominal modifications, and were by no means always for the better. Any alleviation of burdens at this period, also, is due not to an actual reduction in taxation, but to the extraordinary advances in the productivity of almost every industry which followed the application of new machinery and new processes. Taxes rose rather than diminished, for the regular increase in the cost of war and a policy of protection now added taxation in the interest of influential classes to the legitimate requirements of the State. It might even be maintained that taxation was apportioned less and less according to the strict dictates of justice, since the continued growth of military expenditure was followed by a disproportionate rise in those indirect taxes which are unapparent as compared with direct visible imposts. Expenditure also advanced far more rapidly than revenue, and nearly every civilised State was compelled to meet its deficits by borrowing. But loans, generally employed in war or in preparation for war, increase budgets without rendering any service to the productive capacity of nations. Thus the service of the national debt of France absorbs a practical third of the entire revenue, so do public charges increase at the same time that the sources of supply are enfeebled.
Citizens of constitutional States have obtained a right of consent to public expenditure, and to the taxes which furnish it, but the right has proved sterile. Their representatives have never checked the progressive rise in taxation and expenditure which has occurred in every State, those advances—as may be proved beyond any dispute—having been no less, but often much more rapid, in the States which do possess constitutions. And this process must continue indefinitely for just so long as governments, charged with guaranteeing national security, maintain their right of unlimited requisition upon the life, liberty, and property of the individual. But set a term to this State of War, assure the security of civilisation by a collective guarantee; let the cost of this insurance to the individual be reduced until it corresponds with the now almost infinitesimal risk; let the premium to be paid against this risk be as easily determined as that in any other class of assurance; and the unlimited right of requisition, based on an unlimited risk, will lose its only justification.
Then, in place of imposts, founded upon this right, enforced on the slave by his master, on the subject by his lord, by the nation upon the individual, and controlled, to-day, by parties having an immediate interest in continually raising the expenses of government—imposts bearing no relation to the services which they are supposed to remunerate, and limited only by the taxable capacity of the taxed; there will arise a system of contributions, each attached to its own naturally collective service. The amount of these contributions will be fixed by contract between the associated consumers and the companies, or firms, producing the service required at a figure which competition will reduce to its lowest point. The impost of to-day devours an ever-increasing proportion of the revenues of the individual; the demands of contribution will be restricted to a minimum, and a minimum which is continually decreasing as each advance in security reduces the costs of production.