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CHAPTER VI

COMPARISON BETWEEN DIRECT AND INDIRECT TAXATION

§ 1. Are direct or indirect taxes the most eligible? This question, at all times interesting, has of late excited a considerable amount of discussion. In England there is a popular feeling, of old standing, in favour of indirect, or it should rather be said in opposition to direct, taxation. The feeling is not grounded on the merits of the case, and is of a puerile kind. An Englishman dislikes, not so much the payment, as the act of paying. He dislikes seeing the face of the tax-collector, and being subjected to his peremptory demand. Perhaps, too, the money which he is required to pay directly out of his pocket is the only taxation which he is quite sure that he pays at all. That a tax of one shilling per pound on tea. or of two shillings per bottle on wine, raises the price of each pound of tea and bottle of wine which he consumes, by that and more than that amount, cannot indeed be denied; it is the fact, and is intended to be so, and he himself, at times, is perfectly aware of it; but it makes hardly any impression on his practical feelings and associations, serving to illustrate the distinction between what is merely known to be true and what is felt to be so. The unpopularity of direct taxation, contrasted with the easy manner in which the public consent to let themselves be fleeced in the prices of commodities, has generated in many friends of improvement a directly opposite mode of thinking to the foregoing. They contend that the very reason which makes direct taxation disagreeable, makes it preferable. Under it, every one knows how much he really pays; and if he votes for a war, or any other expensive national luxury, he does so with his eyes open to what it costs him. If all taxes were direct, taxation would be much more perceived than at present; and there would be a security which now there is not, for economy in the public expenditure.

Although this argument is not without force, its weight is likely to be constantly diminishing. The real incidence of indirect taxation is every day more generally understood and more familiarly recognised: and whatever else may be said of the changes which are taking place in the tendencies of the human mind, it can scarcely, I think, be denied, that things are more and more estimated according to their calculated value, and less according to their non-essential accompaniments. The mere distinction between paying money directly to the tax-collector, and contributing the same sum through the intervention of the tea-dealer or the wine-merchant, no longer makes the whole difference between dislike or opposition and passive acquiescence. But further, while any such infirmity of the popular mind subsists, the argument grounded on it tells partly on the other side of the question. If our present revenue of about seventy [1862] millions were all raised by direct taxes, an extreme dissatisfaction would certainly arise at having to pay so much; but while men's minds are so little guided by reason, as such a change of feeling from so irrelevant a cause would imply, so great an aversion to taxation might not be an unqualified good. Of the seventy millions in question, nearly thirty are pledged, under the most binding obligations, to those whose property has been borrowed and spent by the state: and while this debt remains unredeemed, a greatly increased impatience of taxation would involve no little danger of a breach of faith, similar to that which, in the defaulting states of America, has been produced, and in some of them still continues, from the same cause. That part, indeed, of the public expenditure which is devoted to the maintenance of civil and military establishments (that is, all except the interest of the national debt) affords, in many of its details, ample scope for retrenchment.1 But while much of the revenue is wasted under the mere pretence of public service, so much of the most important business of government is left undone, that whatever can be rescued from useless expenditure is urgently required for useful. Whether the object be education; a more efficient and accessible administration of justice; reforms of any kind which, like the Slave Emancipation, require compensation to individual interests; or what is as important as any of these, the entertainment of a sufficient staff of able and educated public

1 [So since the 3rd ed. (1852). According to the original text, the expenditure on civil and military establishments was " still in many cases unnecessarily profuse, but though many of the items will bear great reduction, others certainly require increase," and the hope was not held out, as in the parenthesis also inserted further on in the paragraph in the 3rd ed., that retrenchment would provide sufficient means for the new purposes.]

servants, to conduct in a better than the present awkward manner the business of legislation and administration; every one of these things implies considerable expense, and many of them have again and again been prevented by the reluctance which existed to apply to Parliament for an increased grant of public money, though (besides that the existing means would probably be sufficient if applied to the proper purposes) the cost would be repaid, often a hundred-fold, in mere pecuniary advantage to the community generally. If so great an addition were made to the public dislike of taxation as might be the consequence of confining it to the direct form, the classes who profit by the misapplication of public money might probably succeed in saving that by which they profit, at the expense of that which would only be useful to the public.

There is, however, a frequent plea in support of indirect taxation which must be altogether rejected, as grounded on a fallacy. We are often told that taxes on commodities are less burthensome than other taxes, because the contributor can escape from them by ceasing to use the taxed commodity. He certainly can, if that be his object, deprive the government of the money: but he does so by a sacrifice of his own indulgences, which (if he chose to undergo it) would equally make up to him for the same amount taken from him by a direct taxation. Suppose a tax laid on wine, sufficient to add five pounds to the price of the quantity of wine which he consumes in a year. He has only (we are told) to diminish his consumption of wine by 51., and he escapes the burthen. True: but if the 61.t instead of being laid on wine, had been taken from him by an income tax, he could, by expending 51. less in wine, equally save the amount of the tax, so that the difference between the two cases is really illusory. If the government takes from the contributor five pounds a year, whether in one way or another, exactly that amount must be retrenched from his consumption to leave him as well off as before; and in either way the same amount of sacrifice, neither more nor less, is imposed on him.

On the other hand, it is some advantage on the side of indirect taxes, that what they exact from the contributor is taken at a time and in a manner likely to be convenient to him. It is paid at a time when he has at any rate a payment to make; it causes, therefore, no additional trouble, nor (unless the tax be on necessaries) any inconvenience but what is inseparable from the payment of the amount. He can also, except in the case of very perishable articles, select his own time for laying in a stock of the commodity, and consequently for payment of the tax. The producer or dealer who advances these taxes is, indeed, sometimes subjected to inconvenience; but, in the case of imported goods, this inconvenience is reduced to a minimum by what is called the Warehousing System, under which, instead of paying the duty at the time of importation, he is only required to do so when he takes out the goods for consumption, which is seldom done until he has either actually found, or has the prospect of immediately finding, a purchaser.

1 The strongest objection, however, to raising the whole or the greater part of a large revenue by direct taxes, is the impossibility of assessing them fairly without a conscientious co-operation on the part of the contributors, not to be hoped for in the present low state of public morality. In the case of an income tax, we have already seen that unless it be found practicable to exempt savings altogether from the tax, the burthen cannot be apportioned with any tolerable approach to fairness upon those whose incomes are derived from business or professions; and this is in fact admitted by most of the advocates of direct taxation, who, I am afraid, generally get over the difficulty by leaving those classes untaxed, and confining their projected income tax to " realized property," in which form it certainly has the merit of being a very easy form of plunder. But enough has been said in condemnation of this expedient. We have seen, however, that a house tax is a form of direct taxation not liable to the same objections as an income tax, and indeed liable to as few objections of any kind as perhaps any of our indirect taxes. But it would be impossible to raise by a house tax alone the greatest part of the revenue of Great Britain, without producing a very objectionable overcrowding of the population, through the strong motive which all persons would have to avoid the tax by restricting their house accommodation. Besides, even a house tax has inequalities, and consequent injustices; no tax is exempt from them, and it is neither just nor politic to make all the inequalities fall in the same places, by calling upon one tax to defray the whole or the chief part of the public expenditure. So much of

1 [The present text of the first two sentences of this paragraph dates from the 3rd ed. (1852). The original (1848) ran:

"The decisive objection, however, to raising the whole or the greater part of a large revenue by direct taxes, is the impossibility of assessing them fairly. In the case of an income-tax, I have pointed out that the burthen can never be apportioned with any tolerable approach to fairness upon those whose incomes are derived from a business or profession."]

the local taxation in this country being already in the form of a house tax, it is probable that ten millions a year would be fully as much as could beneficially be levied, through this medium, for general purposes.

A certain amount of revenue may, as we have seen, be obtained without injustice by a peculiar tax on rent. Besides the present land-tax, and an equivalent for the revenue now derived from stamp duties on the conveyance of land, some further taxation might, I have contended, at some future period be imposed, to enable the state to participate in the progressive increase of the incomes of landlords from natural causes. Legacies and inheritances, we have also seen, ought to be subjected to taxation sufficient to yield a considerable revenue. With these taxes and a house tax of suitable amount, we should, I think,have reached the prudent limits of direct taxation, save in a national emergency so urgent as to justify the government in disregarding the amount of inequality and unfairness which may ultimately be found inseparable from an income tax.1 The remainder of the revenue would have to be provided by taxes on consumption, and the question is, which of these are the least objectionable.

§ 2. There are some forms of indirect taxation which must be peremptorily excluded. Taxes on commodities, for revenue purposes, must not operate as protecting duties, but must be levied impartially on every mode in which the articles can be obtained, whether produced in the country itself or imported. An exclusion must also be put upon all taxes on the necessaries of life, or on the materials or instruments employed in producing those necessaries. Such taxes are always liable to encroach on what should be left untaxed, the incomes barely sufficient for healthful existence; and on the most favourable supposition, namely, that wages rise to compensate the labourers for the tax, it operates as a peculiar tax on profits, which is at once unjust, and detrimental to national wealth.*

1 [So since the 3rd ed. (1852). The original ran: "in disregarding the inequality and unfairness inseparable from every practicable form of income tax.''*]

* Some argue that the materials and instruments of all production should be exempt from taxation; but these, when they do not enter into the production of necessaries, seem as proper subjects of taxation as the finished article. It is chiefly with reference to foreign trade that such taxes have been considered injurious. Internationally speaking, they may be looked upon as export duties, and, unless in cases in which an export duty is advisable, they should be accompanied with an equivalent drawback on exportation. But

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