Front Page Titles (by Subject) 301.: THE MALT TAX MORNING CHRONICLE, 13 JAN., 1846, P. 4 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III
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301.: THE MALT TAX MORNING CHRONICLE, 13 JAN., 1846, P. 4 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
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THE MALT TAX
The malt tax, which Mill here supports, was an excise tax on the barley that was malted to make beer. First imposed in 1697 by 8 & 9 William III, c. 22, it had reached its present level of 20s. 8d. a quarter in 1819. Periodic attempts to have it reduced or removed (most notably in 1821, 1833, 1834, and 1835) had been initiated by the agricultural interest. Some reformers and Radicals co-operated, arguing that the tax burdened the working man as well as the farmer and wishing to encourage retrenchment, but others voted for its retention for the sake of the revenue. The unheaded leader is described in Mill’s bibliography as “A leading article on the Malt Tax, in the Morning Chronicle of 13th January 1846”
(MacMinn, p. 58).
although the pretence of “peculiar burdens”1 has lost the efficacy it once had as a popular argument for the Corn-laws, and there is now no danger that the landlords will be much longer permitted to compensate themselves for these pretended burdens by a slice from every loaf consumed in the country, there is still some fear lest the same bad argument may be held good as an excuse for some other injustice, as flagrant though not yet so thoroughly exposed. There seems a general expectation that Sir Robert Peel will clog his proposition respecting the Corn-laws with some project of a revision of the general system of taxation, for the benefit of the landlords. It is not wonderful that such a belief is entertained. Neither friends nor enemies can bring themselves to think it possible that a leader of Tories can reform any abuse thoroughly. They always look for some qualification, for some unjust condition. Sir Robert Peel, in particular, has raised up to himself, by a long series of contrary professions, so many difficulties to pursuing a straight course, that no one can help expecting to find a bend in his path.2 Then, too, he has been flattered into the belief that finance is his peculiar forte. The only measure of his four years’ government which is wholly his own, in which he had been anticipated by no Whigs or Liberals—the income-tax—was a financial measure; and he is supposed to feel a parent’s affection for this, his only child. There is, accordingly, a notion abroad that he will propose the abrogation of the taxes which the landlords most complain of, and will supply their place by a large increase of the income-tax.
Such things must not be reckoned improbable because they are monstrous, nor must it be thought of no consequence that they are proposed because public opinion would be sure to defeat them. Defeated they might be, but Corn-law repeal would for the time be defeated along with them. If the Minister proposes them, it will be as an essential part of his measure. He will stand or fall by it as a whole. He will not propose repeal conditionally, and vote for it unconditionally. If his conditions are refused he will throw up the measure, and without him it cannot be carried in the present Parliament. It is, therefore, important that a proposition to replace one gross injustice by another should not be made by him, and that the public should early manifest their opinion in such a manner as to deter him from attempting it.
Among the taxes which the Protectionists lay claim to as “peculiar burdens,” the most important is the malt-tax. It yields five millions sterling to the revenue. Take it off, and if the substitute is to be an income-tax, the present tax must be doubled. The change would be for the worse in every respect, while there is not a shadow of foundation for the pretence on which it would depend for its justification. In no possible sense of the word is the tax on malt a burden on agriculture.
A peculiar burden on agriculture must mean one of two things. It may mean a burden falling on home-grown produce, but from which imported produce is exempt. This cannot be said of the malt-tax. Malt is not imported. If it was, it would of course be charged with a countervailing duty. The exciseman knows no distinction between British and foreign barley. If it is made into malt it all pays duty. If British barley is fitter for being malted than foreign barley, so much the better for the landlord.
Or a peculiar burden may mean a tax which falls only on the agriculturists, which is paid wholly or chiefly by them, and not at all, or in a much less degree, by any other part of the community. Neither is this true of the malt-tax. Everybody knows that it is paid in the price, or what is equivalent, in the strength, of beer. All consumers of beer pay it. Beer is not a beverage confined to country people. They are not more than a third part of the population, and they do not drink more than a third part of the beer,—they do not drink nearly so much. There is, in all probability, more beer consumed, in proportion to the population, by the inhabitants of towns than by those of the country, and, if quality as well as quantity be considered, very much more.
It would be difficult to show any five millions of the taxation of the country liable to as little objection as the five millions which are the produce of the malt-tax. There are few taxes collected at less expense; there are few which, in proportion to the amount, give rise to so little fraud and evasion. It falls proportionally heavier on the poor than on the rich, which would be a conclusive objection to it as the sole or the principal source of revenue, but not conclusive against it as one tax among a number of others, many of which (the income-tax being one) do not fall on the poor at all. The balance is not held even; but it easily might and ought to be; and there are many better ways of rectifying it than by abolishing a tax which does not fall on the necessaries of the poor. There are no taxes so little objectionable as taxes on luxuries, and among luxuries none are such proper subjects of taxation as stimulants. All stimulants, whether those of the rich or of the poor, should be taxed as high as they will bear; at the highest rate which will not defeat the object by encouraging smuggling—the rate, in short, which will yield the largest revenue. By taxes on stimulants, and direct taxes equitably apportioned (not like the income-tax), this country might raise all the revenue it requires, without any other taxes whatever. Untax stimulants, and you cannot raise the amount without keeping on, and laying on, taxes beyond calculation worse.
But the crowning absurdity in the case of the malt-tax is, that its remission would not at all afford to the agriculturists the relief they desire. It would do them no more good than taking off any other five millions of taxes; and no good at all, if the amount were made up by any other tax of which they paid their share. It cannot be pretended that they would derive any peculiar benefit as consumers. They would get their beer cheaper, and so would everybody else. But they wisely think that they would be benefitted as producers. There would be more beer drank, and more barley consumed. Good, under a strict Corn-law: but what if the Corn-laws are repealed? To this their answer is, that foreign barley will not do for malting, that it cannot compete at any price with British barley. This would be very consoling, doubtless, if not importing barley implied not importing at all. But suppose the ports open, and a demand for more barley, and that the barley must all be grown at home, what effect would this have but that just so much the more wheat and oats would be imported? There can be no increased growth of barley on our own land without increasing the cost or diminishing the supply of other agricultural produce. The place would be filled up by importation, and the agriculturists would be as they were before. We are supposing free trade. But we question if the case would not be the same under the existing law. The present Corn-law, bad as it is, does not succeed in confining the country to its own produce; and if a larger production were suddenly required, even under the present duties a great part of the increase would probably be obtained cheaper by importation. If so, to make the repeal of the malt-tax any material benefit to the landlords the Corn-laws must be made even stricter than they now are. A fortiori, on the supposition of free-trade the gain to them would be illusory, while if the substitute be the income-tax, the pressure of that would be very real. As it is now assessed they are far from paying their just share of it, but there is no doubt that what they do pay they very thoroughly dislike, and would dislike any increase still more.
[1 ]See, e.g., Edmond Wodehouse (1784-1855), Speech on the Corn Laws (22 Feb., 1842), PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 60, col. 848.
[2 ]Originally a firm proponent of the Corn Laws, Peel had modified his position in 1842 by introducing a sliding scale of the duty on corn, dependent on its price (5 & 6 Victoria, Sess. 2, c. 14); at that time, however, he was still a confirmed protectionist. Faced with an estimated deficit of £2,000,000, he reintroduced, against strong opposition, the income tax (which had been repealed in 1816), in 5 & 6 Victoria, c. 35 (22 June, 1842); the revenue from this tax, combined with the lowering of taxes on hundreds of items and commodities, greatly improved the state of the economy. Eventually, Peel’s position on the Corn Laws began to ease, and by the end of 1845 he was ready to propose their suspension. On 27 Jan., 1846, he outlined his proposal for repeal (PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 83, cols. 239-85), which was brought forward as “A Bill to Amend the Laws Relating to the Importation of Corn,” 9 Victoria (9 Mar., 1846), PP, 1846, I, 423-8, and enacted as 9 & 10 Victoria, c. 22 (1846).