Treatise of Taxes and Contributions (1899)/VI

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A Treatise of Taxes and Contributions
by William Petty, edited by Charles Henry Hull
Chapter VI - Of Customs and Free Ports.

A Treatis of Taxes and Contributions was first pubished in 1662 anonimously. It was reprinted several times during Petty's life. This edition, which is the one most often cited, is from the The Economic Writings of Sir William Petty, edited by Charles Henry Hull, and published in 1899.

2209226A Treatise of Taxes and Contributions — Chapter VI - Of Customs and Free Ports.William Petty


Of Customs and Free Ports.

Custom is a Contribution of[1] Excisium out of Goods sent out or imported into the Princes Dominions: In these Countreys of a twentieth part not according to the Prices currant among Merchants of each respective Commodity, but according to other standing Rates set by the State, though advised for the most part by concerned Persons.

2. I cannot well imagine what should be the natural Reasons, why a Prince should be paid this duty inward and outward both; there seems indeed to be some, why he should be paid for indulging the Exportation of some such things as other Countreys do really want.

3. Wherefore I think, that Customs at the first were a præmium allowed the Prince for protecting the Carriage of Goods both inward and outward from the Pyrats; and this I should verily believe, if the Prince were bound to make good losses of that kinde. And I thought that the proportion of five pound per cent, was pitched upon computation, that the Mer-|36|chants before the said undertaking and composition, had usually lost more by Pyracy: And finally, that the Customs had been an ensurance upon losses by enemies, as the ensurance now usual, is of the casualities of sea, winde, weather, and Vessel, or altogether; or like the ensurance in some Countreys of Houses from Fires for a certain small part of their yearly Rent. But be it what it will, it is anciently established by Law, and ought to be paid until it shall be abolished. Onely I take leave as an idle Philosopher to discourse upon the Nature and Measures of it.

4. The Measures of Customs outwards may be such, as after reasonable profit to the Exporter will leave such of our own Commodities as are necessary to Forreigners somewhat cheaper unto them then they can be had from elsewhere.

As for example, Tin is a Native Commodity, which governs the Market[er 1], that is, there is none so good and so easie to be had and exported.

Now suppose Tin might be made in Cornwall for four pence the pound, and that the same would yield twelve pence at the nearest part in France, I say, that this extraordinary profit ought to be esteemed as a Mine Royal, or Tresor Trouvé, and the Sovereign ought to have his share in it: Which he will have, by imposing so great a duty upon Tin Exported, as on one side may leave a subsistence to the Workmen, (and no more) with a competent profit to the owners of the ground; and on the other side, may leave the price abroad less then that for which Tin may be had from any other place.

5. The same Imposition might also be made on the Tin spent at home, unless it be as impossible so to do, as for the King of France to impose the Gabel upon Salt in the very places where it is made.

6. But it is observed, that such high duties make men endeavour not to enter any such Goods at all, or pay for them, provided the charge of smuckling and bribing, with the hazzard of being seized do not communibus vicibus exceed the Duty.

7. Wherefore the Measures of this Nature are, that it be |37| more easie, safe and profitable for men to keep the Law, then to break it, unless it be in such cases, where the Magistrate can with certainty execute the Law. As for example, it would be hard to save the Duties upon Horses shipped at a small Port, without adjacent Creeks, and that but some certain two hours every Tide, forasmuch as Horses cannot be disguised, put up in bags or cask, or shipped without noise and the help of many hands.

8. The Measures of Customs upon imported Commodities are; 1. That all things ready and ripe for Consumption may be made somewhat dearer then the same things grown or made at home, if the same be feasible cæteris talibus[er 2].

2. That all Superfluities tending to Luxury and sin, might be loaded with so much Impost, as to serve instead of a sumptuary Law to restrain the use of them. But here also care is to be had that it be not better to smuckle then to pay.

9. On the contrary, all things not fully wrought and Manufactured, as raw Hides, Wool, Beaver, Raw-silk, Cotton; as also all Tools and Materials for Manufacture, as also Dying-stuff, &c. ought to be gently dealt with.

10. If to leavy the payment of these Duties could be most exactly performed, Princes might strangely practice one upon another; wherefore since they cannot, the people pay no more then they cannot with greater safety upon the whole matter save, nor observe any more of these Laws, then they cannot elude.

11. The Inconveniences of the way of Customs, are, viz.

1. That Duties are laid upon things not yet ripe for use, upon Commodities in fieri, and but in the way of their full improvements, which seems the same ill-husbandry, as to make fuel of young Saplings, instead of Dotards and Pollards.

2. The great number of Officers requisite to Collect the said Duties, especially in a Countrey where the Harbours are many, and the Tides convenient for shipping of Goods at any time.

3. The great facility of smuckling by Briberies, Collusi-|38|ons, hiding and disguising of Commodities, &c. and all this notwithstanding Oaths and Penalties, and withall by the several wayes of mitigating and taking off the said Penalties even after discovery.

4. The Customs or Duties upon the few Commodities of the growth of England exchanged with Forreigners, make too small a part of the whole Expence of the people of this Kingdom, which (perhaps is not less then fifty millions of pounds per annum) out of which to bear the common Charges thereof, so as some other way of Leavy must be practised together with it; whereas by some one way, if the best, the whole work may be absolved: wherefore 'tis an inconvenience in the way of Customs, that it necessitates other wayes then it self.

12. Now as a small attempt of a Remedy or Expedient herein, I offer rather, that instead of the Customs upon Goods shipped, every Ship that goes in or out, may pay a Tonnage, the same being collectible by a very few hands, as a matter visible to all the world; and that the said Duty be but such a part of the Fraight, as the like whereof being excinded out of the whole Consumption, would defray all the Publique Charge; which part perhaps is 4. per Cent. or thereabouts, viz. two millions per annum out of fifty.

13. The other is, that the Customs be reduced into the nature of an Ensurance-præmium, and that the same be augmented and fitted, as whereby the King may afford to ensure the goods as well against the Sea as Enemies; by which means the whole Nation would be concerned in all such losses, and then the Merchant for his own sake would more willingly enter and pay for whatsoever he would have ensured.

14. But it will be here objected, that although the duty of Customs be abrogated, yet that there must be almost[2] the same number of Officers maintained as now to prevent the bringing in and carrying out of prohibited Commodities. Wherefore we shall here state the nature of such Prohibitions by two or three grand instances.

15. To prohibit the Exportation of Money, in that it is a |39| thing almost impracticable, it is almost nugatory and vain; And the danger of it resolves either into a kinde of Ensurance answerable to the danger of being seized, or unto a Surcharge of a Composition by bribing the Searchers. As for example, If but one in fifty Exportations are seized, or if twenty shillings be usually taken for coining[er 3] at fifty pounds, then the Commodities bought with this Money must be sold two at least per cent. the dearer to the Consumptioner. Now if the Trade will not bear this Surcharge, then Money will not be exported with discretion. Now the use of this Prohibition, supposing it practicable, is to serve as a sumptuary Law, and to binde the Nation in general not to spend more then they get; for if we could export no Commodity of our own growth or manufacture then by prohibiting the going out of Money, it is also ipso facto commanded that nothing forreign should be brought in. Again supposing, that ordinarily we export enough to furnish us with all Forreign Commodities, but upon some extraordinary decay of our Land or hands, we are able to export but half as much as would procure our ordinary proportion of Forreign Goods, then the Prohibition of Money performs indeed the part of a sumptuary Law, in hindring us to bring in any more then half as much Forreign Commodities as we formerly used, onely it leaves it to the discretion of the Merchant, to chose which he will neglect or forbear to bring in, and which not; whereas in sumptuary Laws the State taketh this care upon themselves. As for example. If we wanted Exportations to ballance our Importations by forty thousand pounds, and suppose for examples sake, that the Importation of forty thousand pounds worth of Coffee-Berries, or the like of Spanish Wine must be retrenched; in this case, the said Prohibition of Money will do one, or some of[er 4] one, and some of the other as much harm[er 5] as the Merchant himself pleases: But the sumptuary Law determines, whether we shall encourage and keep fair with the Nation that sends us wine rather then that which sends us Coffee,[er 6] whether the Expence of Wine or Coffee be most prejudicial to our people, &c.|40|

16. The benefits alledged for the free Exportation of Money is merrily[er 7] this, viz. that if a Ship carrying out of England forty thousand pounds worth of Cloth, might also carry with it forty thousand pounds in Money, then could the Merchant stand the stiffer upon his terms, and in fine would buy cheaper, and sell dearer; but by the way, the Merchant buyes this power with the Intrest and [3] of the Money he carries, which if it amount to five pound per Cent. then he had better sold his Goods at four pound per Cent. under rate, then to have fortified himself with Money as aforesaid. But of this more may be said, we hasten to the great point of Wool.

17. The Hollanders having gotten away our Manufacture of Cloth, by becoming able to work with more art, to labour and fare harder, to take less fraight, Duties and Ensurance, hath so madded us here in England, that we have been apt to think of such exorbitantly fierce wayes of prohibiting Wool and Earth to be exported[4], as perhaps would do us twice as much harm as the losse of our said Trade. Wherefore to return to our Wits and Trade again, before we can tell what to do in this case, we must consider;

1. That we are often forced to buy Corn from abroad, and as often complain that we are pestered with abundance of idle hands at home, and withall that we cannot vend the Woollen Manufactures even which our few working hands do produce. In this case were it not better to lessen our sheeptrade, and convert our hands to more Tillage? Because 1. Flesh becoming dearer, there would be encouragement for Fish, which will never be till then. 2. Our Money would not run so fast away for Corn. 3. We should have no such Gluts of Wool upon our hands. 4. Our idle hands would be employed in Tillage and Fishing, one man by the way of grazing, tilling as it were many thousand Acres of Land by himself and his Dog.

2. Suppose we wanted no Corn; nor had any idle hands, and yet that we abounded with more Wool then we can work up; in this[er 8] certainly Wool might be exported, because 'tis |41| supposed, that the hands which work, are already employed upon a better Trade.

3. Suppose the Hollander outdo us by more art, were it not better to draw over a number of their choice Workmen, or send our most ingenious men thither to learn; which if they succeed; it is most manifest that this were the more natural way, then to keep that infinite clutter about resisting of Nature, stopping up the windes and seas, &c.

4. If we can make Victual much cheaper here then in Holland, take away burthensome, frivolous, and antiquated Impositions and Offices.

I conceive even this were better then to perswade Water to rise out[er 9] of it self above its natural Spring.

5. We must consider in general, that as wiser Physicians tamper not excessively with their Patients, rather observing and complying with the motions of nature, then contradicting it with vehement Administrations of their own; so in Politicks and Oconomicks the same must be used; for

Naturam expellas furcâ licet usque rectirrit[5].

18. Nevertheless, if the Hollanders advantages in making Cloth be but small and few in comparison of ours, that is, if they have but a little the better of us, then I conceive that Prohibitions to export Wool may sufficiently turn the scales. But whether this be use[er 10], I leave to others, being my self neither Merchant nor Statesman.

19. As for Prohibition of Importations, I say that it needs not be, until they much exceed our Exportations. For if we should think it hard to give good necessary Cloth for debauching Wines, yet if we cannot dispose of our Cloth to others, 'twere better to give it for Wine or worse, then to cease making it; nay, better to burn a thousand mens labours for a time, then to let those thousand men by non-employment lose their faculty of labouring. In brief, what may be further said hereupon, resolves into the Doctrine and Ingenium of making sumptuary Laws, and judicious use of them pro hic & nunc.

20. Unto this Discourse of Customs appertains that of |42| Free Ports, which (in a Nation that onely trades for it self, viz. vents its own superfluities, and imports onely Necessaries for it self) are of no use, but rather harm; for suppose Wines be brought into a Free Port, be there housed and privately sold, but the Cask filled up with stained water, and put on ship-board again to be staved as soon as the ship is out at sea: In this case, the Duties of those Wines are defrauded, as it also may be many other wayes.[6]

21. Now if it be said, that although we should trade but for ourselves, yet that our Ports (being more commodious then those of other Nations) would be the more frequented; for being free, and consequently the more enriched, by the expence of Sea-men and Passengers, hire of Labourers, and Warehouses, &c. even without any Custom at all upon the Goods. Nevertheless 'tis reason that a small duty should be paid upon the ship as aforesaid for such use of our Ports, and that eo nomine; not expecting all our Benefit from the said hire of Cellaridge, Porters, and Carmen, which also might be had over and above for their proper reasons.

22. But if we could attain to be the Merchants between other Nations, there is then no reason for exacting Duties (as was said before[7] upon things in fieri, and which are but in the way of their improvement: And as for the fraud that may be committed, as in the case of Wines abovementioned, I affirm that our Excize upon the Consumption, would overcome and elude them.

  1. The 1679 ed., "or."
  2. The 1679 ed., "always."
  3. The 1679 ed. supplies "advantage." " Exchange" is another possible reading.
  4. The 15th August, 1660, the House of Commons had desired the king to issue a proclamation forbidding the exportation of wool, woolfells, yam, and fullers' earth, and had directed that a bill for the same purpose be brought in. The bill was passed, and became 12 Charles II., c. 32. At the next session of Parliament a similar but more stringent bill was introduced, 4 March, 1662. As this did not become a statute—14 Charles II., c. 18—until the following May it was probably pending at the time when Petty wrote. H. C. Jour., viii. 120, 236, 378, 414, 432.
  5. Horace, Epist., i. x. 24.
  6. Arguments such as Petty attempts to refute are contained in Free Ports, the Nature and Necessitie of them stated, [Signed: B. W.] London, printed by William Du Gard. 1652, fo.
  7. See p. 56.


  1. after [market] interline [abroad]
  2. read [paribus] not [talibus]
  3. read [conniving] not [coyning]
  4. between [of and one] interline [the]
  5. deleatur [as much harm]
  6. after [Coffee] inter [and]
  7. read [meerly] for [merrily]
  8. before [certainly] interline [case]
  9. dele [out]
  10. read [so or not] instead of [use]