« EdellinenJatka »
British farmer is obliged to lower the price of his barley to the level of the Continental nations, where labour is so much cheaper, and rents comparatively light, the whole malt-tax falls, without deduction or limitation, on British agriculture.
IV. The income-tax, though apparently a burden equally affecting all classes, in reality attaches with much more severity to the landed than to any other class. There is, indeed, an advantage unduly enjoyed by capitalists of all sorts, landed or moneyed, in comparison with annuitants or professional men, which, as will immediately appear, loudly calls for a remedy. But, as compared with the merchant or moneyed man, who derives his income from trade or realised capital in a movable form, the landbolder is, in every direct taxation, exposed to a most serious disadvantage. His income cannot be concealed, and it is returned by others than himself. The farmer or tenant, who has no interest in the matter, returns his landlord's rent. The trader, shopkeeper, or merchant estimates and returns his own income. The possessions of the first, and their annual rental, are universally known, and concealment as to them is impossible or sure of detection ; the gains of the last are entirely secret, and wrapped up, even to the owner, in books or accounts, generally unintelligible—in all cases but those of considerable merchants—to all but the persons who prepare them. Whoever is practically acquainted with human nature will at once perceive the immense effect which this difference must have on the amount of the burden, in appearance the same, as it affects the different classes of society.
And the result of this difference appears in the most decisive manner from the income-tax returns. From them it appears that the contributions from commerce, trades, and professions of all sorts, are not quite half of those obtained from landed property. The amount of the latter is, in round numbers, £2,700,000; of the former, £1,500,000.* But let it be recollected that the £1,541,000 a-year, which in 1845 was paid by “trades and professions,” included, besides the payments of merchants and traders those of the whole class of professional men not traders—as lawyers, attorneys, physicians, &c.
* Net amount of income tax for year ending 5th April 1845:
England. Schedule A, Land rents
At the very lowest computation, their share of this must amount to £341,000 a-year. There remains then £1,200,000 as the contribution of trade and commerce of all kinds from Great Britain, while that from land is £2,681,000 a-year, or considerably more than double. Can it be believed that this is founded on a fair return of incomes by the commercial classes ? Are they prepared to admit that their property and income, and consequent interest and title to sway in the state, is not half of that which is derived from land? Or do they shelter themselves under the comfortable assurance that their real income is incomparably greater, and that they quietly escape with a half or a third of the income-tax which they ought to pay? We leave it to the trading class, and their abettors in the press, to settle this question with the commissioners of income-tax throughout the country. We mention the fact, that trade and commerce do not pay half the income-tax that land does, as a reason, among the many others which exist, for a thorough and radical reform of our financial system, so far as direct taxation is concerned.
Whoever considers seriously, and in an impartial spirit, the various particulars which have now been stated, will not only cease to wonder at the frequent, it may almost be said universal, embarrassment of the landed proprietors, but he will arrive at the conclusion that, if the burdens upon them continue much longer unchanged, they must terminate in their general ruin. We say general ruin, because it will not be universal. The great landowners, the magnates, whether moneyed or territorial, of the land will alone survive the general wreck. They will, by degrees, swallow up all the smaller estates in their neighbourhood ; and it will come to be literally true in Britain what was said by a Roman emperor of Gaul in the decline of the empire, " That the estates of the rich go on continually increasing, and absorbing all lesser estates around them, till they come to the estate of another as rich as themselves.”
With direct taxes, amounting to 50 or 60 per cent
on the disposable income, which, under the change of prices induced by the change in the corn laws, they will very soon , be, even without any addition from farther taxes, it is wholly impossible that any landowner who does not possess enormous tracts of country, or vast funded or moneyed property in addition to his territorial possessions, can avoid insolvency.
What the effect of the total destruction of the middle class of British landholders must be on the balance of the constitution, and the state of society in these islands, it is not our present purpose to inquire. Suffice it to say, that it is precisely the state of things which signalised the later stages of the Roman empire, and coincides with so many other circumstances in marking the striking analogy between our present condition and that which proved fatal to the ancient masters of the world.
Well may the Lords' Committee on the burdens affecting landed property have said, “ Neither the law nor the spirit of the constitution originally contemplated so partial a system of taxation.”* In truth, originally some of the heaviest present exclusive burdens on real property were borne equally by personal estates. “ The poor-law of Elizabeth," says the report,
“and the land-tax of William and Mary, embraced every species of income ; but in consequence of the comparative facility of rating visible property, and the small amount of income derived from other sources in the early period of their assessment, personality seems to have escaped its legal share of contribution to the public service. The liability of stock in trade, however, was continued by law to a late period, and is, up to the present day, only suspended by an annual act of exemption.' The Committee here point out, or rather hint at, the real cause of the extraordinary exemption from their due share of the public burdens which has grown up insensibly in favour of movable property. Land has two admirable qualities in the estimation of Chancellors of the Exchequer. It can neither be concealed nor removed. Movable estates, stock in trade, are susceptible of both. The landholder has no secret invisible funds which he can bring forth, when desired, in the form of convenient loans to Government to meet the state necessities. He has only a visible fixed estate, which can
* Report, p. 9.
neither be concealed nor withdrawn from its annual burdens, and is not likely to be melted into a loan. Hence the influence and exemptions of the one, and the injustice experienced by, and burdens of, the other.
But in addition to this, there is another circumstance which has powerfully contributed to establish this extraordinary and iniquitous exemption of personal property from direct taxation. This is the difficulty, which in practice amounts to an impossibility, of getting by any means at the real amount of rateable personal property. The commissioners of the income-tax through the country will have no difficulty in understanding what is here meant. All the efforts of Government and their official organs, to ascertain the real amount of assessable movable property, have been insufficient to accomplish that end. Doubtless there are in the commercial and professional class many just and honourable men who give a true account to the last farthing of their gains. These are men, the honour and support of the country, whose word is their bond, and who may confidently be relied on to speak the truth under any circumstances. But, unhappily, experience has too clearly proved that the facility of concealing gains derived from stock in trade, and thus withdrawing it from its just liability for assessment, is too strong a temptation to be resisted by great numbers in the same line of life. The proof of this is decisive, and has been already given from a comparison of the income tax, derived from land, and from trades and professions. * Is it possible to believe that the whole commercial and trading classes in Great Britain, whose wealth is in every direction purchasing up the estates of the landed
proprietors in the island, only enjoy forty out of one hundred and seventy-five millions of the rateable national income? Have they less than a fourth of the whole income rated to the income-tax? If they have no more, they certainly make a good use of what they have, and must deem themselves singularly fortunate in that happy exemption from taxation which has enabled them, with less than a fourth of the general income, to get the command of the state, and buy up the properties of all the other classes. There is one peculiarity in the income-tax, as at present
* See page 616.
established, which is productive of the greatest injustice, and loudly calls for immediate remedy. This consists in the taxing all incomes at the same rate, whether derived from professional income, annuity, land, or realised funds. This is just another instance of the careless and reckless way in which our system of direct taxation has at different times been framed, without any regard to principle, and alternately unjustly favouring or grossly oppressing every class in society, except the great capitalists. They have been always and unduly considered. What can be more unjust than to tax every man of the same income at the same rate, whether it is derived from land or funded property, worth thirty years' purchase, or railway or bank stock worth twenty, or an annuity worth five, or a precarious professional income, which would not bring, from the uncertainty of life and the public favour, or the winds, or monetary changes, above two or three ? Under the present most unjust system, they all pay alike on their income—that is,
, some pay about FIFTEEN TIMES as much on what they are worth in the world in comparison with others ! A man who derives £300 a-year from the three-per-cents or land has a capital stock worth about £10,000. He pays as much, and no more, as a poor widow, just dropping into the grave, who has a jointure of £300 a-year, for which no insurance company in the kingdom would give her above £500, or a hard-working lawyer or country surgeon with the same income, whose chances of life and business are not worth three years' purchase. The gross injustice of this inequality requires no illustration.
Nor is it any answer to this to say, that if the professional and commercial classes are unduly oppressed by the income-tax, they are proportionally benefited by their general exemption from the heavy direct taxation which in other respects weighs down the land; and that the one injustice may be set off against the other. We protest against the system of setting off one injustice against another : there is no compensation of evils in an equitable administration. In the present instance there can be no compensation, for the acts of injustice are committed against different classes. It is the trading classes which enjoy the means, from the occult nature of their gains, of evading, by fallacious returns, the