Front Page Titles (by Subject) 18.: The Malt Duty 17 APRIL, 1866 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVIII The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVIII - Public and Parliamentary Speeches Part I November 1850 - November 1868
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18.: The Malt Duty 17 APRIL, 1866 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVIII The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVIII - Public and Parliamentary Speeches Part I November 1850 - November 1868 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVIII - Public and Parliamentary Speeches Part I November 1850 - November 1868, ed. John M. Robson and Bruce L. Kinzer (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988).
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The Malt Duty
PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 182, cols. 1524–8. Reported in The Times, 18 April, p. 6, from which the variants and responses are taken. Mill says in the Autobiography that this speech, insisting “on the duty of paying off the National Debt before [the nation’s] coal supplies [were] exhausted,” following on the success of No. 16, further improved his position in the House (CW, I, 277). Fitzroy Kelly (1796–1880), then M.P. for Suffolk, moved “That upon any future remission of indirect taxation, this House will take into consideration the Duty upon Malt with a view to its immediate reduction and ultimate repeal” (ibid., col. 1509). Charles Neate (1806–79), M.P. for Oxford, moved an amendment to substitute: “That in the present state of the taxation and resources of the Country, it is the duty of Parliament to make provision for the systematic reduction of the National Debt, and not to sanction any proposal for any repeal or change of taxes which is likely to be attended with a diminution of the Revenue” (cols. 1523–4). Mill’s seconding speech follows on immediately.
in rising to second the Amendment of my honourable Friend the Member for Oxford, I hope I shall not be suspected of any disposition to abuse the indulgence which the House has so recently and so kindly extended to me. But I have for some time felt so serious, I may say so solemn a conviction upon the subject which my honourable Friend has brought forward, that it is almost a matter of conscience with me not to let slip an occasion of endeavouring to impress that conviction on some honourable Members of this House. (Hear.) Not long ago it might not altogether unreasonably be supposed that the unrivalled growth of this country in every kind of wealth—the limits of which it seemed impossible to define—was an excuse to us, and even a justification, for leaving our pecuniary obligations, without any serious attempt to reduce them, to weigh upon posterity, whom we might reasonably expect to be better able to support them than we ourselves are. This, however, was at no time a conclusive argument or a sound excuse, because future generations will have their own exigencies too; and we have had an example of it in the fact that not many years ago two years of war sufficed to re-add to our National Debt nearly as much as had been subtracted from it by the savings of fifty years.1 (Hear, hear.) But, more recently, facts have been brought to our notice, which have been too much overlooked; showing that the excuse we made to ourselves is not admissible in the case of a nation whose population greatly exceeds that which with the existing resources of science can be supported from its own soil; who are therefore dependent for subsistence on the power of disposing of their goods in foreign markets; and whose command over those markets depends upon the continued possession of an exhaustible material. The termination of our coal supplies, though always certain, has always until lately appeared so distant, that it seeemed quite unnecessary for the present generation to occupy itself with the question. The reason was that all our calculations were grounded upon the existing rate of consumption; but the fact now is that our consumption of coals increases with such extraordinary rapidity from year to year, that the probable exhaustion of our supplies is no longer a question of centuries, but of generations. (Hear.) I hope there are many honourable Members in this House who are acquainted with a small volume written by Mr. Stanley Jevons, entitled The Coal Question.2 It appears to me, so far as one not practically conversant with the subject can presume to judge, that Mr. Jevons’ treatment of the subject is almost exhaustive. He seems to have anticipated everything which can possibly be said against the conclusion at which he has arrived, and to have answered it; and that conclusion is, that if the consumption of coal continues to increase at the present rate, three generations at the most, very possibly a considerably shorter period, will leave no workable coal nearer to the surface than 4,000 feet in depth; and that the expense of raising it from that depth will entirely put it out of the power of the country to compete in manufactures with the richer coal-fields of other countries. I think that if there be anyone in this House, or out of it, who knows anything which will invalidate these conclusions of Mr. Jevons, it will be right for him to come forward and make it known. I have myself read various attempts to answer Mr. Jevons,3 but I must say that every one of them, admitting the truth of everything said, has only made out that our supplies will continue a few years longer than the term which Mr. Jevons has assigned. In fact, it has now come to this, that instead of being at liberty to suppose that future generations will be more capable than we are ourselves of paying off the National Debt, it is probable that the present generation and the one or two which will follow, are the only ones which will have the smallest chance of ever being able to pay it off. Now, what is the duty which facts of this sort impose upon this country? Are we going to bequeath our pecuniary obligations undiminished to descendants, to whom we cannot bequeath our assets? Suppose the property of a private individual had come to him deeply mortgaged, and that the bulk of it consisted of a mine, rich indeed, but certain to be exhausted in his lifetime, would he think it honourable to waste the whole proceeds of the mine in riotous living, and leave to his children the apayment of the debt out of the residue of the estatea ? Then what would be vicious and dishonourable in a private individual is not less dishonourable in a nation. We ought to think of these things while it is still time. This country is at present richer and more prosperous than any country we ever knew or read of, and it can without any material inconvenience or privation set aside several millions a year for the discharge of this important duty to our descendants. I do not think we are much to blame as far as we have yet gone. It was perfectly right to get rid of all very bad taxes, all those which produced a greater quantity of incidental mischief than advantage to the revenue from their imposition. Thanks to the progress of opinion, and thanks also to the enlightened and far-sighted Minister who has administered our finances for some years back (hear, hear),4 this work has been nearly performed. There are very few taxes remaining which are utterly unfit to exist. If there are any, they do not yield so large a revenue but that we may hope, without much difficulty, to get rid of them also. The bulk of our revenue is derived from a comparatively small number of imposts, each yielding a considerable sum, and none of which, I think, is now very seriously objectionable in principle, or greatly mischievous in practice, any further than is inevitably incident on the payment of taxes. I think it is perfectly legitimate to try experiments upon these taxes, if there be any chance, by lowering the amount, to increase the revenue. It is also legitimate to vary the mode of imposing taxes; for example, by levying them at a later stage in the production of the article, by which means we may get rid of objections such as some which have been brought forward by the honourable and learned Member opposite.5 But if we are to abolish any tax which yields a revenue of £5,000,000 or £6,000,000, merely in order to have the satisfaction of expending the amount in some other way, it will be, as it appears to me, a criminal dereliction of duty. (Hear, hear.) If we are able either by increasing our resources or by a retrenchment of our expenditure to dispense with the malt tax, how much wiser and worthier it would be if we were to set apart this tax as a fund for the extinguishment of our Debt. (Hear, hear.) I beg permission to press upon the House the duty of taking these things into serious consideration, in the name of that dutiful concern for posterity, which has been strong in every nation which ever did any thing great, and which has never left the mind of any such nation until, as in the case of the Romans under the Empire, it was already falling into decrepitude, and ceasing to be a nation. There are many persons in the world, and there may possibly be some in this House, though I should be sorry to think so, who are not unwilling to ask themselves, in the words of the old jest, “Why should we sacrifice anything for posterity; what has posterity done for us?”6 They think that posterity has done nothing for them: but that is a great mistake. Whatever has been done for mankind by the idea of posterity; whatever has been done for mankind by philanthropic concern for posterity, by a conscientious sense of duty to posterity, even by the less pure but still noble ambition of being remembered and honoured by posterity; all this we owe to posterity, and all this it is our duty to the best of our limited ability to repay. (Hear, hear.) All the great deeds of the founders of nations, and of those second bfoundersb of nations, their great reformers—all that has been done for us by the authors of those laws and institutions to which free countries are indebted for their freedom, and well governed countries for their good government; all the heroic lives which have been led, and all the heroic deaths which have been died, in defence of liberty and law against despotism and tyranny, from Marathon and Salamis down to Leipsic and Waterloo; all those traditions of wisdom and of virtue which are enshrined in the history and literature of the past—all the schools and Universities by which the culture of former times has been brought down to us, and all that culture itself—all that we owe to the great masters of human thought and to the great masters of human emotion—all this is ours because those who preceded us have cared, and have taken thought, for posterity. (Hear, hear.) Not owe anything to posterity, Sir! We owe to it Bacon, and Newton, and Locke, cand Bentham; aye,c and Shakespeare, and Milton, and Wordsworth.7 I have read of an eminent man—I am almost sure it was Dr. Franklin—who, when he wished to relieve the necessities or assist the occasions of any deserving person by pecuniary help, had a way of his own of doing it, and it was this. He said to them, “I only lend you this; if you are ever able, I expect you to repay it; but not to me: repay it to some other necessitous person, and do it under the same stipulation, that so the stream of benefits may still flow on, as long and as far as human honesty can keep it flowing.”8 (Hear, hear.) What Franklin did from beneficence, in order that the greatest possible amount of good might be extracted from a limited fund, our predecessors, to whom we owe so much, have done from the necessities of the case. The debt of gratitude due to them is such as makes it at times almost an oppressive thought that not one tittle of that vast debt can ever be directly repaid to those from whom we have received so much. But, like the objects of Franklin’s beneficence, we can indirectly repay it, by paying it to others—to those others whom also they cared for, and for whom, and not merely for us, their labours and sacrifices were undergone. What are we, Sir—we of this generation, or of any other generation, that we should usurp, and expend upon our particular and exclusive uses, what was meant for mankind?9 It is lent to us, Sir, not given: and it is our duty to pass it on, not merely undiminished, but with interest, to those who are in the same relation to us as we are to those who preceded us. So shall we too deserve, and may in our turn hope to receive, a share of the same gratitude. (Hear, hear.)
[Neate withdrew the amendment, and the motion was defeated 234 to 150, Mill voting with the majority.]
[1 ]See “An Account of Gross Public Revenue and Expenditure from 1851–1857 Inclusive,” PP, 1857–58, XXXIII, 134, and “An Account of the Expenditure for the Army, Navy, Ordnance, and Militia from 1851–1857 Inclusive,” ibid., p. 135.
[2 ]William Stanley Jevons (1835–82), economist and logician, The Coal Question: An Enquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal Mines (London and Cambridge: Macmillan, 1865).
[3 ]Possibly including anonymous reviews of Jevons in the Colliery Guardian, 27 May, 1865, p. 380, and in the Athenaeum, 27 May, 1865, pp. 714–15; Joseph Holdsworth, On the Extension of the English Coal-fields beneath the Secondary Formations of the Midland Counties (London: Middleton, 1866); and J. Jones, “Our Future Coal Fields,” Intellectual Observer, VIII (Jan. 1866), 435–9.
[a-a]TT duty of paying upon the residue of his estate the interest of heavy mortgages upon what then turned out to be unproductive property.
[4 ]I.e., Gladstone.
[5 ]Kelly, Resolution on the Malt Duty, cols. 1512–14.
[6 ]See Joseph Addison (1672–1719), The Spectator, No. 583 (20 Aug., 1714), p. 2.
[7 ]Francis Bacon (1561–1626), Isaac Newton (1642–1727), John Locke (1632–1704), Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), William Shakespeare (1564–1616), John Milton (1608–74), and William Wordsworth (1770–1850).
[8 ]Cf. Benjamin Franklin (1706–90), U.S. founding father, diplomat, and inventor, Letter to Benjamin Webb (22 Apr., 1784), in The Private Correspondence of Benjamin Franklin (London: Colburn, 1817), p. 54.
[9 ]A play on the characterization of Edmund Burke by Oliver Goldsmith (1728–74) as one who “to party gave up, what was meant for mankind” (Retaliation: A Poem [London: Kearsly, 1774], p. 7 [l. 32]).