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Simplicity in Taxation.—The one principle in taxation which the civilised world, after years of experimenting, has gradually come to accept as fundamental, is to tax but a few things, and then to leave those taxes to diffuse, adjust, and apportion themselves by the inflexible laws of trade and political economy,
Great Britain, commencing several hundred years ago with a system which contemplated taxing everything, has gradually reduced her tax list to some six or eight articles or sources under the customs, and to an equally limited number under her excise and local systems; and, with every degree of concentration, the relief experienced by the whole population, and the impetus given to material development, has been all but universally acknowledged. In France, also, where the number of owners of real estate, in proportion to population, is greater than in any other country, the essential features of the concentrated system recommended by the commissioners prevails for local, and, to a limited extent, for general taxation. And in the case of the United States, it is to be further noted, that the national government, except under the exigencies of a great war, has always recognised in her tax laws the desirability of simplicity and concentration; and that now, although the present diffused system does not tax directly the onefiftieth part of the property of the country, all parties are agreed that a further limitation of the sources of national revenue is most desirable.
But it is curious to note, that while no sensible person entertains the idea that the taxes levied by the national government on spirits, fermented liquors, or tobacco, or upon any imported articles, are paid by the producer or importer, except so far as he is a consumer of the same, the exactly opposite doctrine appears to prevail in the United States in respect to the incidence of local taxation; and the principle which has constituted the basis of most of the State legislation
proportion to what each man consumes, and for a reason not generally recognised or understood, namely, that taxes are reflected, as it were, to infinity, and, from reflection to reflection, become eventually an integral part of the prices of things. Hence the greatest purchasers and consumers are everywhere the greatest tax-payers. This is what I call diffusion of taxation,' to borrow a term from physical science, which applies the expression
diffusion of light' to those numberless reflections, in consequence of which the light which has penetrated the slightest aperture spreads itself around in every direction, and in such a manner as to reach all the objects which it renders visible. So a tax which at first sight appears to be paid directly, in reality is only advanced by the individual who is first called upon to pay it."
on this subject seems to have been, “ that whatever is not taxed directly is necessarily exempt.”*
But an exemption is “ freedom from a burden or service to WhatConstitutes
an Exemption ? which others are subject or liable ;” and if there is no primary an taxation on personal property, then there can be no exemption of it. We do not consider that putting a given article into the free list, under the tariff, is an exemption to any particular individual ; but if we make the rule higher on one tax-payer or on one importer of the same article than on another taxpayer or importer, we grant an exemption. If all personal property is in State taxation upon the free list, it is nevertheless taxed through the real estate it occupies, or other agencies. It is not subject to primary taxation in England, and yet no one there doubts that it pays its proportionate burden in the form of reflected taxes or by “repercussion." We use the word "exemption,” therefore, imperfectly, when we speak of “the exemption of all personal property;" for if the removal of the burden operates uniformly on all personal property, then there can be no primary exemption, but all such property becomes subject to uniform secondary taxation.
* As a most honourable exception to this experience, and as affording some evidence of a gratifying progress of enlightened views respecting the influence and distribution of taxes, we ask attention to the following extract of the report of the law committee of the common council of Philadelphia, presented February, 1871:
“All taxes imposed upon property, real or personal, will, if possible, be reimposed by the tax-payer upon the consumer of the article taxed, and, if practicable, a profit will be added to it. It is cheaper for the consumers to pay the tax upon one than upon six articles. In cities, every person, either as tenant, owner, or boarder, must contribute his or her portion in the taxation of real estate ; and whilst absolute equality can never be obtained, in rating it according to value, the occupant of a dwelling valued at $60,000 pays sixty times the tax that is received from a $1,000 house, and business contributes directly by the occupancy of stores, warehouses, and factory buildings."
“Money withdrawn from active circulation in the business or improvement of a city, induced by taxation or any other cause, is an injury to the inhabitants of all conditions in life, whether they be employer or employed, not only depressing existing operations, but in causing a limitation of their extension and advancement."
“Those of our citizens who possess capital not invested in business enterprise, and do not seek foreign investment, can easily escape taxation within your own boundaries by the purchase of United States bonds, Pennsylvania State loan and Philadelphia city loan (untaxable), or reimpose the tax on real estate owners by investment in bonds, and mortgages, and ground rents, with agreements and covenants that the borrower or covenantor shall pay all taxes levied and assessed upon the principal, interest, or rent."
“ It is fair to presume that most of the capital at interest, held by citizens not engaged in active business, will, under the pressure of taxation, seek compensation by flight or investment in the securities above indicated, and that the weight of the levy would fall, in this city, on capital in business.”
Adam Smith may be considered to have established, beyond all controversy, the principle that taxes, with a degree of infallibility, diffuse themselves when they are levied uniformly on the same article, and hence arises his deduction, that the average profits of one investment are always equal to the average profits of other investments, risk and skill in management, in each, being taken into consideration.* This is the great principle which pervades his great work “ Wealth of Nations ;' and he even goes so far as to admit that a tax upon labour, if it could be uniformly levied and collected, would be diffused, and that the labourer would be the mere conduit through which the tax would pass to the public treasury. Thus, he says: 66 While the demand for labour and the price of provisions, therefore, remain the same, a direct tax upon wages can have no other effect than to raise them somewhat higher than the tax.” +
And, pursuing the subject further, he continues : “No tax can ever reduce, for any considerable time, the rate of profit in any particular trade, which must always keep its level with other trades in the neighbourhood ;" and in the following language ho solves the very question now at issue between the advocates of the existing system of local taxation in New York and the advocates of the new system: “In order that the greater part of the members of any society should contribute to the public revenue in proportion to their respective expense, it does not
* As applied to the wages of labour, the truth of this principle is equally incontestible:-“The sewing-girl, performing - her toilsome work by the needle at one dollar a-day, the street sweeper working the mud with his broom at a dollar and a half, the skilled labourer at two and three dollars, the professor at five, the editor at five or ten, the artist and the songstress at ten or five hundred dollars a-day, are all members of the working classes, though working at different rates. And it is only the difference in their effectiveness that causes the difference in their earnings. Bring them all to the same point of efficiency, and their earnings also will be the same.”— W. Jungst, Cincinnati.
† John Locke, in his treatise “On the Standard of Value,” treats of taxation, and shows conclusively that if all lands were nominally free from taxation, the owners of lands would proportionally pay more taxes than now, because the same amount of money must continue to be col. lected in some form, and the average profits of lands would only be equal to the average profits of other investments; and, further, that the expense and annoyance (another form of expense) would be increased if the tax were exclusively levied in the first instance upon personal property; and hence the landowner would be burdened with his proportion of the unnecessary expense and annoyance. He also shows that you may change the form of a form tax, but that you cannot change the burden; and that the change will increase the burden if the new system is more expensive and annoying than the old. Locke wrote nearly a century before Adam Smith published his “Wealth of Nations;" and it would seem probable that Smith acquired his ideas relative to the average profits of investments from Locke.
scem necessary that every single article of that expense should be taxed.”
In the city of New York, with its population approximating a million, it is believed that not four per cent. of the inhabitants are subject to primary taxation ;* but if the theory that taxes do not diffuse themselves is the correct one, then certainly the non-taxpayer can have no interest in an honest and economical administration of the city government, or in the reduction of city taxes; but on the other hand, we should be warranted in concluding, that he must be benefited by exorbitant taxes on other persons' property; and in a distri. bution of the money collected, even if stolen by corruptionists, but spent with a lavish hand in giving him bread and employment. Taxation, furthermore, under the non-diffusion theory, becomes in reality a contest between classes : one class of real estate against another; one class of personal property against other classes; the classes possessed of no property against those who do possess it. The doctrine of the old philosopher Hobbes, “ that war or conflict is the natural state of mankind,” becomes also, by this supposition, embodied in taxation; the Greek brigand must be regarded as an equitable assessor, and the whole system of raising revenue for the State is reduced to a simple question of the exercise of arbitrary power.
A more cheerful view of human nature would, however, The Rational
Principle of lead us to believe that there is no natural antagonism of Taxation. classes or interest among mankind ; that capital is accumulated labour, and joint tenant with it; that whatever promotes the true interests of the one, is advantageous to the other; and that we are all jointly interested in low assessments, economical administration, equal protection to property and labour; and that whatever may be our position, high or low, rich or poor,
* As some evidence of the ratio that prevails elsewhere than in New York between the number of persons directly assessed for taxes on property and the aggregate of population, the following statistics of the city of Boston are worthy of attention :-By the laws of Massachusetts a poll tax (usually two dollars) is assessed on every male inhabitant of the State, above the age of twenty, whether a citizen or an alien'; and the pay. ment of this tax is made a prerequisite to the exercise of suffrage. , In 1869 the whole number of polls returned in the city of Boston was 54,242 ; of which number, 43,587 were legal voters.' But of the whole number of legal voters but 15,177 were assessed for property or for taxes, other than the poll or capitation tax. If we suppose that one-half the excess of polls over legal, voters were assessed for property (an excessive estimate), then the whole number of persons who paid taxes in 1869 on property in the city of Boston would be 20,504 out of a total population in 1870 of 250,526, or 8:1 per cent.
we must, by an irrevocable law, bear our part of the public burdens.
We may establish laws that will act as a prohibition of certain forms of investment or occupations; we may give special bounties to certain interests and occupations, and the effect of all our legislation, for benefit or injury, will finally be diffused on the entire community, if the systems engrafted into our laws are made permanent. The convictions of Galileo did not prevent the world from revolving; and so, no sophistry, no cunningly devised system of laws, no appeal to prejudice or class interest, can prevent taxes, imposed under permanent laws, from being diffused as the inevitable doom of man, or abrogate that invariable law of political economy, that the average profits of one class of investments must, in the long run, be the average profits of all other investments, risk and skill in management being taken into consideration. These simple principles are a key to an equitable, uniform, and economical system of assessment. The base of taxation must, however, be sufficiently broad to act as a tax, and not as a prohibition; and the tax should be levied by means of evidence admissible in courts that are instituted for the protection of life and property. Individuals imbued with freedom and self-respect, flee from everything that is arbitrary; and capital abhors it, and seeks shelter in other lands. When the assessor or other administrators are clothed with arbitrary and despotic power, the citizen tends to become a sycophant, and will often submit to fraud, corruption, and plunder, rather than attempt an unequal contest with despotic authority.
It is fortunate, furthermore, for the human race that the enlightened governments of the world have not attempted, as a rule, the primary taxation of every atom of personal property, or the atomic system of taxation, for man has some other and better duties to perform in this sphere of labour and toil, besides attempting to artificially tax everything..
Why not Confine The question may be asked, if all taxes imposed under
interest ? The answer to this, however, would be, first, that