Political Essays (1819)/On the Effects of War and Taxes

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"Great princes have great play things. Some have play'd
At hewing mountains into men, and some
At building human wonders mountain-high.
But war's a game, which, were their subjects wise,
Kings would not play at." Cowper.

August 31, 1817.

The whole question of the effect of war and taxes, in an economical point of view, reduces itself to the distinction between productive and unproductive labour. It is a pity that some member of the House of Commons does not move a string of resolutions on this subject, as a comment on the measures of the present, and a guide to those of future reigns. A film appears to have been spread for some time over the eyes of the nation, as to the consequences of the course they were pursuing; and a good deal of pains has been taken, by sophistry, and false statements, to perplex a very plain question. But we are not without hopes, in the following observations, of putting the merits of our debt and taxes in so clear a light, that not even the Finance Committee shall be any longer blind to them.

Labour is of two kinds, productive and unproductive:—that which adds materially to the comforts and necessaries of life, or that which adds nothing to the common stock, or nothing in proportion to what it takes away from it in order to maintain itself. Money may be laid out, and people employed in either of these two kinds of labour equally, but not, we imagine, with equal benefit to the community.—[See p. 109, &. of this volume.]

Suppose I employ a man in standing on his head, or running up and down a hill all day, and that I give him five shillings a day for his pains. He is equally employed, equally paid, and equally gains a subsistence in this way, as if he was employed, in his original trade of a shoemaker, in making a pair of shoes for a person who wants them. But in the one case he is employed in unproductive, in the other in productive labour. In the one, he is employed and paid and receives a subsistence for doing that which might as well be let alone; in the other, for doing that which is of use and importance, and which must either be done by him, or give some one else double trouble to do it. If I hire a livery-servant, and keep him fine and lazy and well-fed to stand behind my chair while I eat turtle or venison, this is another instance of unproductive labour. Now the person who is in real want of a pair of shoes, and who has by his own labour and skill raised money enough to pay for them, will not assuredly lay it out, in preference, in hiring the shoemaker to run up a hill for him, or to stand upon his head, or behind a chair for his amusement.[1] But if I have received this money from him in the shape of taxes, having already received enough in the same way to pay for my shoes, my stockings, my house, my furniture, &c. then it is very likely (as we see it constantly happen) that I shall lay out this last five shillings worth of taxes, which I probably get for doing nothing, in employing another person to do nothing,—or to run up a hill, or to stand upon his head, or wait behind me at dinner, while the poor man, who pays me the tax, goes without his shoes and his dinner. Is this clear? Or put it thus in two words. That is productive labour, for which a man will give the only money he has in the world, or a certain sum, having no more than other people: that is unproductive labour, for which a man will never give the only money he is worth, the money he has earned by his own labour, nor any money at all, unless he has ten times as much as he wants, or as other people have, to throw away in superfluities. A man who has only got money to buy a loaf will not lay it out in an ice. But he may lay it out in a dram! Yes; because to the wretched it is often more important to forget their future than even to supply their present wants. The extravagance and thoughtlessness of the poor arise, not from their having more than enough to satisfy their immediate necessities, but from their not having enough to ward off impending ones,—in a word, from desperation. This is the true answer to Mr. Malthus's politico-theological system of parish ethics, the only real clue to the causes and the cure of pauperism!

If the Board of Works were to have a canal made from London to the Land's End (as has been proposed) this, for aught we know, would be productive labour, and well paid for out of the public taxes; because the public might in the end reap the benefit of the money and the labour so employed. But if the Prince Regent were by the advice of some fantastical, purblind politician, to order this canal to be lined all the way with gold-leaf, which would be washed away as soon as the water came into the canal, this is what we should call unproductive labour. Such a project would indeed cost as much money, it would require the raising of as many taxes, it would keep as many men employed, it would maintain them while they were so employed, just as well as if they were employed in any other way; but when done, it would be of no use to Prince or people. We have heard of a patriotic nobleman, who had a brick-wall built round his estate, to give employment to the poor in his neighbourhood. If he had afterwards employed them to pull it down again, it would have given them twice the employment and done twice the good. But if the same persons had been employed in productive labour, in raising corn, in making furniture, in building or improving cottages, it would not have been equally adviseable to set them to work again to burn the corn, or destroy the furniture, or pull down the cottages. In spite then of the fashionable doctrines of political economy, so well suited to the extravagance of the times, there is something else to be considered in judging of the value of labour, besides what it costs, viz. what it produces; whether it is of use to any body, and to whom. All is not gain that goes out of the purse. The nobleman above mentioned did not take the money to pay for building the wall round his estate out of the pockets of the people; but suppose an equal sum to be taken yearly out of the Civil List or any other branch of public revenue, and employed in raising some huge heap of stones—not a monument, but a mausoleum of royal taste and magnificence—the question is, whether the money thus raised by taxes, and laid out in a job, is a saving or a loss to the public? And this question is, we conceive, answered by another, whether if the money had remained in the hands of the public, they would have agreed among themselves, to have laid it out in such a building for them to look at? It would hardly be thought wise to vote a sum of money, to build a Cottage Ornée, large enough to cover a whole county; though the expense (and, according to the theory we are combating, the benefit) would increase with the size of the building and the waste of work. The Pyramids of Egypt and the Pavilion at Brighton, are among the instances of unproductive labour.

We have been twenty years at war, and have laid out five hundred millions in war taxes; and what have we gained by it? Where are the proceeds? If it has not been thrown away in what produces no return, if it has not been sunk in the war, as much as if it had been sunk in the sea, if the government as good factors for the general weal have laid out all this enormous sum in useful works, in productive labour, let them give us back the principal and the interest, (which is just double) and keep the profits to themselves—instead of which, they have made away with the principal, and come to us to pay them the interest in taxes. They have nothing to shew for either, but spiked cannon, rotten ships, gunpowder blown into the air, heaps of dead men's sculls, the turned heads and coats of Poets Laureate, with the glories of Trafalgar and Waterloo, which however will pay no scores. Let them set them up at auction, and see what they will fetch. Not a sous! We have killed so many French, it is true. But we had better have spent powder and shot in shooting at crows. Though we have laid the ghost of the French Revolution, we cannot "go to supper" upon the carcase. If the present distress and difficulty arise merely from our no longer having a bug-bear to contend with, or because (as Mr. Southey says) the war is no longer a customer to the markets, to the amount of fifty millions a year, why not declare war upon the Man in the Moon to-morrow, and never leave off till we have sent him to keep Bonaparte company at St. Helena? Why, it is but ordering so many cannon and cutlasses, no matter for what purpose—and equipping, and fantastically accoutring so many loyal corps of minions of the moon, Diana's foresters, and "the manufactures of Birmingham and Sheffield would revive to-morrow." If we had howitzers before of a prodigious size, let us have bombs of a calibre that Lord Castlereagh never dreamt of; and instead of iron balls, golden ones. Why not? The expense would be the greater. If we made the earth ring before, let us now make the welkin roar. The absurdity would be as costly, and more bloodless. A voyage to the moon would take at least as much time, as many lives and millions to accomplish, as the march to Paris. But then our merchants would not meanwhile get a monopoly of the trade of Europe, to stimulate their laggard patriotism, nor would the sovereigns of Europe be able to plant the standard of Legitimacy on the horns of the moon!—But though we have nothing to shew for the money we have madly squandered in war, we have something to pay for it (rather more than we can afford) to contractors, monopolists, and sinecurists, to the great fundholders and borough-mongers, to those who have helped to carry on, and to those who have been paid for applauding this sport-royal, as the most patriotic and profitable employment of the wealth and resources of a country. These persons, the tax-receivers, have got a mortgage on the property, health, strength, and skill of the rest of the community, who pay the taxes, which bows their industry to the ground, and deprives them of the necessary means of subsistence. The principal of the debt which the nation has contracted, has been laid out in unproductive labour, in inflicting the mischiefs and miseries of war; and the interest is for the most part equally laid out in unproductive labour, in fomenting the pride and luxury of those who have made their fortunes by the war and taxes. In a word, the debt and taxes are a government machine, which diverts that portion of the wealth and industry of the people, which would otherwise be employed in supplying the wants and comforts (say) of a hundred persons, to pamper the extravagance, vices, and artificial appetites of a single individual; and so on in proportion to the whole country. Every tax laid on in this manner, unnerves the arm of industry, is wrung from the bowels of want, and breaks the spirit of a nation, lessens the number of hands which are employed in useful labour, to seduce them into artificial, dependent, and precarious modes of subsistence, while the rich themselves find their reward for the indulgence of their indolence and voluptuousness in "the gout, serpigo, and the rheum," so that "their proper loins do curse them." It has been said that the taxes taken from the people return to them again, like the vapours drawn up from the earth in clouds, that descend again in refreshing dews and fertilizing showers. On the contrary, they are like these dews and showers drawn off from the ground by artificial channels into private reservoirs and useless cisterns to stagnate and corrupt. The money which is paid in taxes is taken from the people; the labour for which it pays does not benefit the people. A tax which goes to pay for the feeding of a pair of curricle horses or favourite hunters, swallows up the subsistence of several poor families. We cannot for ourselves approve of the privations, of the hunger, cold, or nakedness, to which these poor families are exposed, to keep up the flesh and the spirit of the sleek and high-mettled inhabitants of the warm, well-littered stable, even though they were of the breed of Swift's Houyuhyms! But that is a different question. All that we mean to say here is, that the tax takes the corn out of the bellies of the one to put it into those of the other species. A tax which is laid on to pay for a dog-kennel or a stable, might have saved a whole village from going into ruin and decay: and the carriage that glitters like a meteor along the streets of the metropolis, often deprives the wretched inmate of the distant cottage of the chair he sits on, the table he eats on, the bed he lies on. A street lined with coaches and with beggars dying at the steps of the doors, gives a strong lesson to common sense and political foresight, if not to humanity. A nation cannot subsist on unproductive labour, on war and taxes, or be composed merely of parish and state paupers. All unproductive labour is supported by productive labour. All persons maintained by the taxes or employed by those who are maintained by them are a clog, a dead weight upon those who pay them, that consume the produce of the State, and add nothing to it—a dead carcase fastened to a living one, with this difference, that it still devours the food which it does not provide. Need we ask any farther, how war and taxes, sinecures and monopolies, by degrees, weaken, impoverish, and ruin a State? Or whether they can go on increasing for ever? There is an excess of inequality and oppression, of luxury and want, which no state can survive; as there is a point at which the palsied frame can no longer support itself, and at which the withered tree falls to the ground.

If the sovereign of a country were to employ the whole population in doing nothing but throwing stones into the sea, he would soon become the king of a desert island. If a sovereign exhausts the wealth and strength of a country in war, he will end in being a king of slaves and beggars. The national debt is just the measure, the check-account of the labour and resources of the country which have been so wasted—of the stones we have been throwing into the sea. This debt is in fact an obligation entered into by the government on the part of the tax-payers, to indemnify the tax-receivers for their sacrifices in enabling the government to carry on the war. It is a power of attorney, extorted from ninetenths of the community, making over to the remaining tenth an unlimited command over the resources, the comforts, the labour, the happiness and liberty of the great mass of society, by which their resources, their comforts, their labour, their happiness, and their liberty, have been lost, and made away with in government knick-knacks, and the kick-shaws of legitimacy. Half the resources and productive labour of the country for the last twenty years, have been sunk in this debt, and we are now called upon to make good the deficiency—how we can!—It has been shrewdly asked, whether, if every one paid a hundred per cent. income tax, the nation could flourish? And when we are told that "the war has been a customer to the country for a length of time to the amount of fifty millions a year," that is, has drained that sum from the pockets of the nation to employ the hands of the nation in producing nothing—we are at no loss to account for the consequences. A writer, whose own fault it is that we do not feel all the respect for him we could wish, has ridiculed the idea of a nation being in debt to itself, "like a tradesman to his creditors," and contends that "a much fairer instance would be that of a husband and wife playing cards at the same table against each other, where what the one loses, the other gains." Now men and their wives do not usually pay one another the money they lose at cards; and most people will be ready enough to reduce this simile to practice, by not paying the taxes, whenever the author shall have convinced Mr. Vansittart, that it is no matter whether the money is in the hands of the people or the government, and that to save trouble it had better remain where it is. Mr. Southey, in his late pamphlet, has very emphatically described the different effects of money laid out in war and peace. "What bounds," he exclaims, "could imagination set to the welfare and glory of this island, if a tenth part, or even a twentieth of what the war expenditure has been, were annually applied in improving and creating harbours, in bringing roads to the best possible repair, in colonizing upon our waste lands, in reclaiming fens, and conquering tracts from the sea, in encouraging the liberal arts, endowing schools and churches," &c. This is a singular slip of the pen in so noisy and triumphant a warmonger as the Poet Laureate. But logical inconsistency seems to be a sort of poetical license. Even in contradicting himself, he is not right. For the money as he proposes to employ it, would only degenerate into so many government jobs, and the low-lived mummery of Bible Societies. The pinnacle of prosperity and glory to which he would by these means raise the country, does not seem quite so certain. The other extreme of distress and degradation, to which the war-system has reduced it, is deep and deplorable indeed.

  1. We never knew but one instance to contradict this opinion. A person who had only fourpence left in the world, which his wife had put by to pay for the baking of some meat and a pudding, went and laid it out in purchasing a new string for a guitar. Some one on this occasion quoted the lines,

    "And ever against eating cares,
    Wrap me in soft Lydian airs,"