Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/April 1899/The Best Methods of Taxation: Part I

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By the Late Hon. DAVID A. WELLS.


THIS historical survey of tax experience among peoples widely differing in their economic condition and social relations, and this examination of the scope and practice of taxation, with especial reference to the tax systems of the United States as defined and interpreted by judicial authority, prepare the way for a discussion of the best methods of taxation for a country situated as is the United States. General as are the theoretical principles underlying taxation, the application of these principles to existing conditions must be modified to meet the long usage and inherited prejudice of the people, and the form of production or manner of distributing wealth. This holds true in the face of appearances so opposed to it as to defy definition and acceptance. No less promising field for an income tax can be pictured than British India, and few more promising fields than France. Yet India has borne such a tax for years, while France will not permit a true tax on income to be adopted as a part of its revenue system. In the latter country the plea is made that the upper and middle classes already pay under other forms of taxation more than their due proportion of the public burdens, and an additional and necessarily discriminating duty laid upon them will only make this inequality the greater. Class interest may thus oppose its veto to a change that promises to reduce the burdens of one class of taxpayers at the expense of another; or may even oppose a change that offers the chance of collecting a larger revenue with less real difficulty and sacrifice on the part of the taxed. No opposition can set aside even temporarily the great rules that clearly define a tax from tribute, a legal and beneficial taking by the state of a certain part of the public wealth from a demand that involves waste or mischievous expenditure, for which the state or people derive no advantage commensurate with the cost, or from which individuals obtain a gain not defensible in justice, and at the expense of only one part of the community.

After so many centuries of experiment, in which hardly a possible source of state revenue has escaped attention, some knowledge of the great principles of taxation might have been evolved. Unfortunately, the experience of one nation is not accepted as containing lessons applicable to the needs or conditions of another, and one generation rarely appeals to history save to defend its own experiments. Ignorance, half knowledge, which is quite as dangerous, and interest guide or influence legislation, and those who predict failure or danger are regarded as theorists, and denounced as unpractical. No where is the tendency to move independent of enlightened knowledge more evident than in the United States. At every appearance of the tax question, State and national legislatures are overwhelmed with measures that have been tried in the past, and after a thorough test condemned beyond any hope of defense.

Yet history shows the gradual disappearance of certain forms of taxation which enjoyed great popularity for a time, and accomplished the end of their creation in a crude and often cruel manner. Looking over long periods of time, it is seen that some advances have been made, rather from a change in the economic condition of the people than from a true appreciation of the principles in question. The development of popular liberty has been an essential factor, and the alterations in tax methods require a close analysis of the causes leading to the rise and dominance of political and constitutional principle. While it is true that a popular uprising against fiscal exactions usually marked the limit of endurance of an oppressive system, it is also true that the same uprisings marked the completion of one stage of political development, and the readiness or even the need of entering upon a new stage. In one sense the progress of a people toward civilization in its highest meaning may be illustrated by its fiscal machinery and methods of obtaining its revenue from the people. It will be of interest to glance at some of these passing phases which have generally come down to a late day, and are still to be found in activity in some of the most advanced states of Europe.

The practice of farming out the revenues of a state or any part of it has become nearly obsolete, and where it does exist is the mark of a fiscal machinery as yet not fully developed. The opportunities and temptation which the contract system offered for oppressing the taxpayers were apparent long before the state was in a position to assert its ability to make its own collections. In France the fermiers généraux were a political factor, standing between the king and his people, regarded as necessary to the former and as oppressors of the latter. Their unpopularity, in part justified by their conduct, was a not unimportant item in the arraignment of royalty by the people. Wherever introduced, the farming of taxes proved in the long run as unwise politically as it was unprofitable financially; and the only reasonable defense for adopting it was the want of strength in the state to command its own revenue—a want as likely to arise from the dishonesty of its agents as from a political weakness. In early times the most universal manner of supplying the treasury of the state, the farming of taxes has become so rare as to be classed as a curiosity. Italy still employs this machinery to collect her taxes on tobacco, and Spain from necessity has mortgaged her taxes to the bank, with the task of collecting them.

Of the same general character are the state lotteries, of which some few and quite important instances may still be found in action. Of the immorality of these instruments there can be little doubt, and there is quite as unanimous an opinion as to their inefficiency as fiscal instruments. Yet it is only within very recent years that state lotteries have been discarded even in the most advanced countries. The machinery of lotteries has often been modified, but, no matter how altered in details, they all have appealed to the love of games of chance. Adam Smith asserted that the "absurd presumption" of men in their own good fortune is even more universal than the overweening conceit which the greater part of men have in their own abilities.[1] Yet another assertion of the same writer is as true: "The world neither ever saw, nor ever will see, a perfectly fair lottery, or one in which the whole gain compensated the whole loss." Where the state undertakes it, there is a profit generally assured to the state, but that profit is by no means certain, and can not make good the demoralization introduced among the people. State lotteries are still a part of the revenue system in Italy and Austria (proper), where the receipts are important, but show a decided tendency to diminish; Hungary and Denmark, where they are of little moment; and in Spain, where they are retained because of the general incapacity of the administration to reach other and more profitable sources of revenue. The experience of the State of Louisiana in connection with a State lottery is too recent to require examination. It is not probable that once abandoned such an instrument for obtaining money from the people will be revived, save as a last resort.

The state monopoly in the manufacture and sale of an article for fiscal purposes holds a place in European countries of high importance, and is met elsewhere under conditions not so favorable to its maintenance. As an example of the latter may be cited the colonial policy of the Dutch in their possessions in the East. After the termination of the trading companies, the Government undertook the entire control of the colonies, and sought to make them a source of revenue. The natives were to be taxed, but, having little of their own to be taxed, and practicing no occupation that could of its own volition become a profitable source of revenue, the state undertook to organize industry, and, by creating an opportunity for employing the labor of the natives, to receive the profits of production for its own uses. The native chiefs were made "masters of industry" and collectors of the revenue; and a certain part of the labor of the natives, one day in every five, was decreed to the state. In order to derive a profit, this labor must be bestowed in cultivating some product as find a market in international trade. Hence arose the importance of the sugar, coffee, tobacco, and spice crops of these Dutch islands, and for many years a handsome profit to the treasury was obtained from the management and sales of product. With the great fall in prices of sugar and coffee throughout the world, and the narrowing of the market for cane sugar, the Government obtained a less income each year, and has found it of advantage to relax the conditions surrounding cultivation, and to throw the management of the plantations more and more into private hands. To such an extent has this transition been effected that the state can no longer be considered as controlling a monopoly in product or sales, and is content with a revenue from other sources, one that does not even cover the expenses incurred in the colonial system. This experiment differs widely from those industries undertaken with the aid or encouragement of the state to be found in India. It was not with a fiscal object that they were established, and not infrequently the state sacrifices revenue by releasing them from tax burdens they would ordinarily endure. As one of the few remaining instances of the direct participation of a state in the production of products intended for foreign markets, yet undertaken and maintained for fiscal reasons, the history of the Dutch colonies in the East is instructive.

In Prussia the working of certain mines is in the hands of the state, and was originally looked upon as an important contribution to the income of the state. As in the Dutch experience, the changes in production throughout the world have greatly reduced the returns and made the income variable; yet there is little disposition to dispose of these possessions. "The danger of mineral supplies being worked in a reckless and extravagant manner without regard to the welfare of future generations, and the dread of combinations by the producers of such commodities as tin, copper, and salt, with the aim of raising prices, have both tended to hinder the alienation of state mines."[2]

The more common form of state monopoly is that which occupies a middle position, established for reasons of public safety or utility as well as of revenue. The salt monopoly enforced in Prussia was only abolished in 1867, and is still maintained in every canton of Switzerland. The strongest plea in its defense has been the guarantee by the state of the purity of the article sold, and this phase of the question has superseded the revenue aspect. Few articles of prime necessity, like salt, are subject to monopolies imposed by the state, and by a process of elimination it is only articles of luxury or voluntary consumption that are regarded as fit objects of monopoly for the benefit of the state.

A tax imposed upon an article at a certain stage of its production or manufacture may enforce the expediency or necessity of a state monopoly. Where the supervision of the state agents must be so close as to interfere with the conduct of the industry, the state intervenes and itself controls the manufacture and sale. Tobacco has long been subject to this fiscal régime, and, proving so productive of revenue, there is little to be said against a monopoly by the state of its manufacture and sale.

In Italy the tobacco monopoly is conceded to a company, but its return of net revenue to the state is nearly as large as the revenue derived from the taxes on real property (about thirty-eight million dollars a year). Prussia imposes a charge on the home-grown tobacco by a tax on the land devoted to its culture, but the return is very small, and Bismarck wished to introduce a true tobacco monopoly, modeled on that of France. But the conditions were opposed to his scheme, for the use of tobacco is general throughout the empire, and a proposition to increase its price by taxation or modify its free manufacture and distribution excited a widespread opposition. France maintains a full monopoly, and finds it too profitable to be lightly set aside unless some equally profitable source of revenue is discovered to make good the loss its abolition would involve.

While historical support is given to the maintenance of a monopoly as in France, it is not probable that the system will find imitators in other states, however tempting the returns obtained might seem. Great Britain has by her insular position solved the problem in another way. By interdicting the domestic cultivation of tobacco, all that is consumed must be imported, and a customs duty offers a ready instrument for making the plant, in whatever form it enters, contribute its dues to the exchequer. In Russia, as in the United States, where tobacco is a domestic product, the tax is imposed upon its manufacture, and this method requires supervision but no monopoly of the state.

The tobacco régime is defended almost entirely on fiscal grounds, and as a monopoly, an extreme measure, has proved its value as an instrument of taxation. Other reasons, of a moral character, are urged to induce the state to monopolize the manufacture and sale of distilled spirits. Both France and Germany have considered this question, and, in spite of confident predictions of a large profit, have decided not to undertake it. Russia, on the other hand, has taken it up quite as much on social as on revenue grounds, and is gradually securing a monopoly of the trade in spirits. The initial cost of the undertaking is large, and, as the system has not yet been perfected, it is too early to give a judgment on its availability as a financial instrument.

The transit dues, once commonly used by different countries, have been generally abandoned, and in China must they be sought for in their original forms of vexatious and unprofitable force. They arose from a desire to derive some benefit from a commerce permitted grudgingly, and rarely attaining any high results. The same end was sought by duties on exports, much employed when the country was supposed to be drained of its wealth by what was sent out of it. The conditions necessary for a successful duty on exports are not often found, and only in a few countries are they now existent. In Italy, South America, and Asia, exports of certain natural products are taxed, and, as in the case of Brazil, yield a notable revenue. In view of the rapid advancement of production in new countries and of inventions in the old, whereby many natural monopolies have been destroyed and competition made more general, such duties prove to be more obstructive to trade than productive of revenue, and are rapidly being abandoned. In spite of a formal prohibition of export duties in the Constitution of the United States, they are sometimes suggested in all seriousness.

In thus clearing the path of what may be called dead or dying methods of recent tax systems, the advantages enjoyed by the United States in their freedom from such survivals become more evident. The practice of farming taxes never gained a foothold in any part of the country. Lotteries have been occasional, and with two exceptions have been conducted on a limited scale—that of Louisiana is well known; an earlier instance is less known. During the Revolution one of the means resorted to by the Continental Congress for income was a lottery, but the attempt proved disastrous to all concerned, and was finally abandoned even more thoroughly than was the continental currency. State monopolies of production and sale of any commodity have never met with favor, and stand condemned in the desire for individual initiative. As sources of revenue, the public lands, state control of the post office, and of such municipal undertakings as the water and, in a very few cases, the gas supply, has been employed, and in place of profit the mere cost of management is sought. More than any country of continental Europe, the United States has depended upon taxes, pure and simple, unsupported or modified by state domains, state mines, state manufactures, or state monopolies. Even Great Britain in her local taxation is bound and hampered by precedent, and pursues a system that is notoriously confused, costly, and vexatious. Long usage and the erection of independent and conflicting authorities on principles other than fiscal have imposed upon the local agents the duty of assessing and collecting county and borough taxes which are as indefensible in theory as they are difficult in practice.

From this weight of tradition and precedent the United States has been almost entirely free, and it was possible to construct out of small beginnings systems of Federal and State taxation at least reasonable and consistent, producing an increasing revenue with the rapid development of wealth and the larger number of taxable objects; and so elastic as to adapt themselves to such changes as are inevitable in any progressive movement of commerce or industry. That no such system has resulted after a century of national life, and an even longer term of local (colonial and State) activities, these papers have tended to show. That the time is at hand when the problem of a thorough reform of both State and Federal taxation must be met, current facts prove beyond any doubt. If I have aided in a proper comprehension of these problems, and, by collecting certain experiences in taxation among other peoples and in different stages of civilization, contributed toward a proper solution, the end of this work will have been attained. It is not possible to introduce a complete change of policy at once; it is not only feasible but necessary to indicate the direction this change should take, and the ends to be secured in making them. And first as to Federal taxation:

In a democracy like that of the United States, the continuance of a mixed system of direct and indirect taxes is a foregone conclusion. Not that there is an absence of change or modification in the details of this double system, or in the application or distribution of a particular impost or duty. To deny such modification is to deny any movement in the body politic, or any progress in the industrial and commercial economy of the people. There is a steady and continuous movement in every direction, and the mere effort to escape taxation results in a new adjustment of related facts. This development has, partly through necessity and partly through a rising consciousness of what a tax implies, been tending from indirect to direct taxes. Ever restive under a rigid supervision by the state of private concerns, there has been a wholesome opposition to inquisitorial taxes. But this opposition has been carried too far, and is due more to the ignorant and at times brutal disregard by the agents selected for enforcing the law than to an appreciation of the injustice of the tax. Whether in customs or excise, the same blunders of management have been committed, and created a spirit in the people that is injurious to their best interests. On the one hand, private enterprises have been unduly favored by the removal of foreign competition, a favor that is now disappearing through the remarkable development of domestic competition. Thus taxes have been extensively used for other purposes than to obtain revenue, and for private ends. On the other hand, there has been created the feeling that taxation is a proper instrument for effecting a more equal distribution of wealth among the people, and readily becomes an instrument of oppression.

The almost absolute dependence of the Federal Government upon the customs duties for revenue through a great part of its existence was a striking fact The simplicity of collection and the comparatively moderate scale of duties, although considered high at the time of imposition, gave this branch of the possible sources of revenue a magnified importance. The development of the country was slow, and at times greatly hampered by the tariff policy; but until about 1857 no other source of income was needed to meet the expenditures of the Government in a time of peace.

In recent years this has all changed, and not for the better. The immense development in manufactures and financial ability accomplished since 1860 has made a tariff for protection an anachronism. The political features of customs legislation have been pushed so far as almost to overshadow the fiscal qualities. The wave of protectionism that followed the abrogation of the commercial treaties of Europe about 1880 has resulted in tariffs framed with the desire to injure the commerce of other states rather than to meet the needs of a treasury. In the United States this policy has been carried beyond that of Europe, and the tariff now in existence is more protective than any hitherto enforced, short of absolute prohibition of imports.

In more respects than one the tariff law of 1897 was an extreme application of the protective policy. Each year the United States has demonstrated its ability not only to meet the industrial competition of the world on an equal footing, but to engage with it aggressively and with complete success. It is not necessary to give the figures of exports of manufactures to establish this fact; it is now beyond question. To frame a measure of extreme protection was, therefore, to overlook the most striking phase of the industrial situation existing in the United States. With an ability to manufacture cheaply and on a grand scale, and with a capacity to supply the demands of a market larger than any home market, there was no foreign competition to encounter, and the higher rates of duties meant nothing, either for protection or for revenue. In carrying further into action a tariff framed more for protection than for revenue, a twofold error was committed. The provisions were so complicated as to make the application difficult, and in applying these provisions inquisitorial and vexatious regulations were necessary to assure even a reasonable fulfillment of the requirements. In former tariff laws a general description carried a large class of articles, and a uniform duty, usually ad valorem, was collected. But under the demand for a more scientific tariff, these general classes were broken up into a number of enumerated articles, each one carrying a specific or mixed duty, and an omnium or basket clause at the end to catch any article that could not be included in any enumeration. This desire to fix specific rates upon each imported commodity has been applied more generally in the law of 1897 than in any previous tariff act. An examination of the imports of manufactures of textile fibers will illustrate this increase of complexity without any increase of revenue. Indeed, these classifications and rates, being suggested by interested parties, have for their object a reduction of imports, and as a rule a reduction in revenue from them follows.

The second objection to the increasing complexity of the tariff laws is to be found in the petty annoyances imposed upon importers and others in enforcing the not always consistent provisions of the law. These vexations are made all the more telling by the fact that the administration of the law is apt to be in the hands of those who are openly hostile to foreign importations, and therefore regard the importer in an unfriendly spirit. The power given to the customs agents is enormous, and it is not remarkable that it is abused. The demand for samples, the appraisement of articles, the classification of new or compound commodities, all offer room for controversy, which is not always decided by an appeal to the courts of justice. In special instances, where a section of the law has been framed in behalf of a special interest, the attempt to enforce it becomes petty tyranny of the most intolerable kind.

In operation the law soon exhibited its failure as a revenue measure. Although duties were generally increased, the more important articles taxed yielded a smaller revenue than under lower rates. The aggregate collections under the bill did not meet the expectations of its sponsors, and for two reasons: first, because the higher duties discouraged imports; and secondly, the demand for imported articles was steadily decreasing under the expanding ability of home manufactures to meet the needs of the market. No measure short of a direct encouragement to importations can change this situation, or prevent the further shrinkage in the use of foreign manufactures. It follows that the tariff, unless radically altered, can no longer be depended on for a return sufficient to defray one half of the rapidly increasing expenditures of the national Government. By refusing to impose moderate duties on articles of general consumption, revenue is sacrificed; by insisting upon imposing protective duties where little revenue can be had, the tariff is converted into a political weapon. Its dangerous qualities are strengthened by turning these duties against the products of certain countries, a policy specially fit to invite reprisals.

Even the framers of this latest tariff entertained the belief that some provision should be made for breaking its full effect. The familiar scheme for reciprocity treaties, under which moderate concessions in some of the duties could be made, was retained; but France was the only power that could have an object in seriously entertaining the proposition to enter into a negotiation. No real reduction in duties could be given to Germany or any other country, and it has become a recognized fact that Germany does not hesitate to seize an opportunity to exclude the products of the United States, and on the same grounds as support the high duties in the American tariff. The system of drawbacks has ceased to be of much moment in our customs policy, and in the export interest in canned goods finds its chief exercise. Nor does a privilege to manufacture in bond affect more than one article of importance—ores of lead containing silver. No matter how it is regarded, the tariff of 1897 was not framed for revenue, and in experience has not proved sufficiently productive to meet its share of the expenditures of Government. The animus of its sponsors in attaining the immediate political object sacrificed the more important and permanent object of revenue.

Were the true object of customs duties—revenue—to be kept in view in tariff legislation, it would be a simple matter to devise a measure that would be satisfactory and highly productive of revenue. In the fifteen hundred or more articles enumerated in the tariff schedules, more than fourteen hundred are nonproductive, or yield so small a return as to have in the aggregate no appreciable effect on the total receipts. The number left after so large an exclusion can be still further reduced without reducing the revenue one tenth; and it is from a small number of articles, hardly twenty-five, that the great part of the customs revenue is obtained. By reducing the rates of duties on these to a point of highest revenue efficiency, at which the import is not interfered with and yet not encouraged, a higher return could be had than from the existing complicated, overloaded, and political compilation of duties, usually imposed for any reason other than what they will bring into the treasury.

When, therefore, the best methods of Federal taxation are broached, the reform of the tariff stands first in importance. It is necessary to bring it more into line with the industrial conditions of to-day, which call for foreign markets rather than a domestic or closed market; and for a liberal commercial policy in place of one that regards the products of other countries, whether imported in the crude or manufactured forms, as constituting a menace to American labor and American interests. It calls for a systematic and intelligent revision, which shall throw out such, duties as are no longer of service even for protection, and to reduce those that are hostile to the products of other countries and bear in themselves the seeds of reprisals in the future. Now that the United States is going into the great markets with, its manufactures, and obtaining a foothold against all competitors, the invitation to retaliation holds a danger far greater to its own interests than any that can be inflicted on other peoples. The greater the advances made the more readily will recourse be had to reprisals and hostile legislation; and in support of every act appeal may be had to examples set by the United States.[3]

  1. Wealth of Nations, vol. i, p. 112 (Rogers's edition).
  2. Bastable. Public Finance, p. 181.
  3. "The old protectionist, with the stock arguments about the influence of the tariff upon wages and all the rest of it, is beginning to die out. He told us all he had to say about the 'pauper labor' of Europe, by which he often meant the best educated and most skillful artisans of the world. We got tired of hearing about how the importer paid the tax, how it was Europe and England in particular that was all the time squeezing our lives out, till nearly all of us, being of English ancestry ourselves, wondered whether we, even, could be so good as we hoped we were, if we had sprung from something so essentially perverted and bad. We were told, too, that American tourists who went to Europe and spent money there which they ought to have squandered at home were not friends of their country, and that they did us a particularly hostile act when they brought clothing, statuary, or diamond rings back with them from foreign parts. A season of high prices was a real heaven, and wars and fires were good things because they destroyed property that would have to be replaced, and this would create that demand which, reacting on supply, would increase prices. To say that an article was cheap was to say that the political party in power was no longer worthy of public confidence. It was related that each government could make its people so rich, and the idea was thought to have been traced down from Henry O. Carey, that the rest of the world could be safely disregarded altogether. "Seriously, who believes any of this stuff nowadays? The protectionist is not reckoning with such popular impotency and stupidity. He believes in his fellow-man, and wants to give him a helping hand. He does not care what effect it has on England or Ireland. He is not sure that a protective tariff in and of itself will increase the wages of the workmen. He is even inclined to think that less wages and profits would do well enough for every man, if it were cheaper to live and there were not such extravagant demands upon every person from all sides—this without being a socialist. He is certain that 'a cheap coat' does not necessarily make 'a cheap man,' but the cheaper the coat the better it will be for the wearer. That is what we are all trying to do, improve our processes, increase our effective working power, which means, if you please, to make things cheaper."—The Manufacturer (organ of the Manufacturers' Club of Philadelphia).