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THE TRUE THEORY OF TAXATION - William Leggett, Democratick Editorials: Essays in Jacksonian Political Economy 
Democratic Editorials: Essays in Jacksonian Political Economy, Foreword by Lawrence H. White (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1984).
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THE TRUE THEORY OF TAXATION
December 24, 1836.
The Evening Post, in one of its recent excellent articles on the protective system, speaking with particular reference to the impost on coal, expresses the opinion that it is the duty of our rulers to lighten the burdens of the people as much as possible, “especially when they fall on articles of first rate necessity; and it is easy,” the Evening Post adds, “to distinguish between those that do, and those that do not.”
We are very willing to see the protective system attacked, either in gross or in detail. If we find that we cannot procure the immediate reduction of all duties to the exact revenue standard, as graduated on an equal ad valorem scale, we must be content to concentrate our forces upon particular articles or classes of articles, and thus attempt to accomplish the overthrow of the tariff, somewhat after the manner that the redoubtable Bobadil proposed to overthrow an army. We are afraid, however, that this mode of operation, in our case, as in his, will fail of effecting any very important result. But while we are willing to join the Evening Post in bringing about a reduction of the tariff, either by piecemeal or wholesale, we cannot quite agree with the sentiment it expresses, as an abstract proposition, that it is the especial duty of rulers to reduce taxes on necessaries, and to discriminate between those which are so, and those which are not. It seems to us, on the contrary, that the true theory of taxation, whether direct or indirect, whether levied upon commerce, or assessed, without any intermediary agency or subterfuge, upon the property of the people, is that which falls with equal proportional weight upon every variety of commodity. While we should contend, with the utmost earnestness against the imposition of a tax, the effect of which would be to burden the poor man and let the rich go free; we should oppose as positively, if not as zealously, a contrary system, which tended to place the load, in any undue degree, upon the shoulders of the rich. We are for equal rights; for the rights of the affluent and the needy alike; and we would not admit, in any case, or to any extent whatever, the principle of either laying or repealing duties for the special advantage of the one class or the other. We have had too much already of discriminating duties.
If we must raise the revenues of our federal government from imposts on commerce, the true theory to contend for, in our view of the subject, is an equal ad valorem duty, embracing every commodity of traffic. The importer of foreign coal will tell you a pathetic story of the hardships and sufferings of the poor at this inclement season of the year. He will borrow perhaps the eloquent language of the Evening Post, to describe the shivering inmates of garrets and cellars, and the poor lone woman who buys her coal by the peck. He will draw you to her wretched abode, and show her surrounded by her tattered offspring, expanding their defenceless limbs over a few expiring embers that mock them with ineffectual heat. When he has raised your sympathy to the proper pitch, he will then call on you to exert your influence to procure the repeal of a duty which places beyond the reach of thousands of shuddering wretches one of the prime necessaries of life, and leaves them to all the horrors of unmitigated winter, as it visits the unfed sides and looped and windowed raggedness of the poor. The dealer in foreign grain will have a similar tale to relate. He will expatiate on the sufferings of the indigent from the high price of bread, and ask you to exempt breadstuffs from taxation. The importers of books and charts, and of mathematical instruments, will talk of the advantages of a wide diffusion of literature and science, and ask for a repeal of duties on those articles in which their trade consists. Colleges will represent that the cause of education requires their libraries and laboratories should come duty free. Railroad corporations will point out the many political and commercial benefits that must accrue to the country from facilitated intercourse between its distant parts, and ask that their engines and other appliances be released from the burden of taxes. All these applications, and many others of a like kind, have something specious to recommend them to a favourable consideration, and some have been listened to and granted. The prayers of corporate bodies have been affirmatively answered, while a deaf ear has been turned to those of the ill-fed and unprivileged poor. In our sense, however, they ought all to be treated alike, and all to be rejected. The only legitimate purpose of a tariff is that expressed by the Constitution, “to pay the debts and provide for the general welfare;” and the debts should be paid and the general welfare provided for, in strict accordance with the great distinguishing principle of our government—the equal rights of the people. This never can be entirely accomplished while imposts on foreign commerce furnish the means of revenue; but it is the obvious duty of legislators to do nothing to increase the unavoidable inequality of the burden.
The true system of raising revenue, the only democratic system, and the one which we trust the people of this Confederacy will some day insist upon adopting, is that of direct taxation. We hope the day will come, (and we think we see the evidences of its approach) when not a Custom House will exist in the land; when tidewaiters and gaugers, appraisers and inspectors, will be unknown; and when commerce, that most efficient friend of the best interests of man, and brightener of the links of international amity, will be as free to go and come, as the breeze that fills her sails, or the wave that bears her freighted stores. The system from which we now derive the resources of our government is in utter opposition to the maxim on which our government is founded. We build up our institutions professing the utmost confidence in the intelligence and integrity of the people; but our very first act betrays distrust both of their sagacity and virtue. We fear they have neither sense enough to see that the expenses of government must be defrayed, nor honesty enough to pay them if directly applied to for that purpose; and hence we set about, by various modes of indirection, to filch the money from their pockets, that they may neither know how much they contribute, nor the precise purpose to which it is applied. Could a system be devised better calculated to encourage lavish expenditure, and introduce variety of corruption? To preserve the government simple and pure, the people should know what they pay, and for what object. This would excite men to that degree of vigilance which is necessary to the preservation of their rights; it would restrain their political agents from neglecting or exceeding their trusts; and it would prevent government from that otherwise inevitable, however gradual, enlargement of its powers and offices, which, in the end, must prove destructive of the liberties of the people. A system of indirect taxation tends, with steady and constant force, to undermine the basis of popular rights. It is, in its very nature, an aristocratic system, and bears upon its front the evidence of distrust of popular capacity and virtue. A system of direct taxation, on the contrary, is a candid and democratic system. It is built on the presumption that the mass of men have sufficient intelligence to know in what good government consists, and sufficient integrity to pay what is required to maintain their rights. It is, in short, the only true theory of taxation; and the day will be an auspicious one for the great cause of human liberty when it is adopted by the American people.