System of Economical Contradictions: or, the Philosophy of Misery : Chapter 7, Section 7.1 : Synthetic idea of the tax. — Point of departure and development of this idea
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Chapter 7, Section 7.1
In order to render that which is to follow more intelligible, I will explain, inverting, as it were, the method which we have followed hitherto, the superior theory of the tax; then I will give its genesis; finally I will show the contradiction and results. The synthetic idea of the tax, as well as its original conception, would furnish material for the most extensive developments. I shall confine myself to a simple announcement of the propositions, with a summary indication of the proofs.
The tax, in its essence and positive destiny, is the form of distribution among that species of functionaries which Adam Smith has designated by the word unproductive, although he admits as much as any one the utility and even the necessity of their labor in society. By this adjective, unproductive, Adam Smith, whose genius dimly foresaw everything and left us to do everything, meant that the product of these laborers is negative, which is a very different thing from null, and that consequently distribution so far as they are concerned follows a method other than exchange.
Let us consider, in fact, what takes place, from the point of view of distribution, in the four great divisions of collective labor, -- extraction, manufactures, commerce, agriculture. Each producer brings to market a real product whose quantity can be measured, whose quality can be estimated, whose price can be debated, and, finally, whose value can be discounted, either in other services or merchandise, or else in
 Hunting, fishing, mining, -- in short, the gathering of all natural products. -- Translator.
money. In all these industries distribution, therefore, is nothing but the mutual exchange of products according to the law of proportionality of values.
Nothing like this takes place with the functionaries called public. These obtain their right to subsistence, not by the production of real utilities, but by the very state of unproductivity in which, by no fault of their own, they are kept. For them the law of proportionality is inverted: while social wealth is formed and increased in the direct ratio of the quantity, variety, and proportion of the effective products furnished by the four great industrial categories, the development of this same wealth, the perfecting of social order, suppose, on the contrary, so far as the personnel of police is concerned, a progressive and indefinite reduction. State functionaries, therefore, are very truly unproductive. On this point J. B. Say agreed with A. Smith, and all that he has written on this subject in correction of his master, and which has been stupidly included among his titles to glory, arises entirely, it is easy to see, from a misunderstanding. In a word, the wages of the government's employes constitute a social deficit; they must be carried to the account of losses, which it must be the object of industrial organization to continually diminish: in this view what other adjective could be used to describe the men of power than that of Adam Smith?
Here, then, is a category of services which, furnishing no real products, cannot be rewarded in the ordinary way; services which do not fall under the law of exchange, which cannot become the object of private speculation, competition, joint-stock association, or any sort of commerce, but which, theoretically regarded as performed gratuitously by all, but entrusted, by virtue of the law of division of labor, to a small number of special men who devote themselves exclusively to them, must consequently be paid for. History confirms this general datum. The human mind, which tries all solutions of every problem, has tried accordingly to submit public functions to exchange; for a long time French magistrates, like notaries, etc., lived solely by their fees. But experience has proved that this method of distribution applied to unproductive laborers was too expensive and subject to too many disadvantages, and it became necessary to abandon it.
The organization of the unproductive services contributes to the general welfare in several ways: first, by relieving producers of public cares, in which all must participate, and to which, consequently, all are more or less slaves; secondly, by establishing in society an artificial centralization, the image and prelude of the future solidarity of industries; and, finally, by furnishing a first attempt at balance and discipline.
So we admit, with J. B. Say, the usefulness of magistrates and the other agents of public authority; but we hold that this usefulness is wholly negative, and we insist, therefore, on describing these functionaries by the adjective unproductive which A. Smith applied to them, not to bring them into discredit, but because they really cannot be classed in the category of producers. "Taxation," very well says an economist of Say's school, M. J. Garnier, -- "taxation is a privation which we should try to reduce to the furthest point of compatibility with the needs of society." If the writer whom I quote has reflected upon the meaning of his words, he has seen that the word privation which he uses is synonymous with non-production, and that consequently those for whose benefit taxes are collected are very truly unproductive laborers.
I insist upon this definition, which seems to me the less questionable from the fact that, however much they may dispute over the word, all agree upon the thing, because it contains the germ of the greatest revolution yet to be accomplished in the world, -- I mean the subordination of the unproductive functions to the productive functions, in a word, the effective submission, always asked and never obtained, of authority to the citizens.
It is a consequence of the development of the economical contradictions that order in society first shows itself inverted; that that which should be above is placed below, that which should be in relief seems sunken, and that which should receive the light is thrown into the shadow. Thus power, which, in its essence, is, like capital, the auxiliary and subordinate of labor, becomes, through the antagonism of society, the spy, judge, and tyrant of the productive functions; power, whose original inferiority lays upon it the duty of obedience, is prince and sovereign.
In all ages the laboring classes have pursued against the office-holding class the solution of this antinomy, of which economic science alone can give the key. The oscillations -- that is, the political agitations which result from this struggle of labor against power -- now lead to a depression of the central force, which compromises the very existence of society; now, exaggerating this same force beyond measure, give birth to despotism. Then, the privileges of command, the infinite joy which it gives to ambition and pride, making the unproductive functions an object of universal lust, a new leaven of discord penetrates society, which, divided already in one direction into capitalists and wage-workers, and in another into producers and non-producers, is again divided as regards power into monarchists and democrats. The conflicts between royalty and the republic would furnish us most marvelous and interesting material for our episodes. The confines of this work do not permit us so long an excursion; and after having pointed out this new branch in the vast network of human aberrations, we shall confine ourselves exclusively, in dealing with taxation, to the economic question.
Such, then, in succinctest statement, is the synthetic theory of the tax, -- that is, if I may venture to use the familiar comparison, of this fifth wheel of the coach of humanity, which makes so much noise, and which, in governmental parlance, is styled the State. The State, the police, or their means of existence, the tax, is, I repeat, the official name of the class designated in political economy as nonproducers, -- in short, as the domestics of society.
But public reason does not attain at a single bound this simple idea, which for centuries had to remain in the state of a transcendental conception. Before civilization can mount to such a height, it must pass through frightful tempests and innumerable revolutions, in each of which, one might say, it renews its strength in a bath of blood. And when at last production, represented by capital, seems on the point of thoroughly subordinating the unproductive organ, the State, then society rises in indignation, labor weeps at the prospect of its immediate freedom, democracy shudders at the abasement of power, justice cries out as if scandalized, and all the oracles of the departing gods exclaim with terror that the abomination of desolation is in the holy places and that the end of the world has come. So true is it that humanity never desires what it seeks, and that the slightest progress cannot be realized without spreading panic among the peoples.
What, then, in this evolution, is the point of departure of society, and by what circuitous route does it reach political reform, -- that is, economy in its expenditures, equality in the assessment of its taxes, and the subordination of power to industry? That is what we are about to state in a few words, reserving developments for the sequel.
The original idea of the tax is that of REDEMPTION.
As, by the law of Moses, each first-born was supposed to belong to Jehovah, and had to be redeemed by an offering, so the tax everywhere presents itself in the form of a tithe or royal prerogative by which the proprietor annually redeems from the sovereign the profit of exploitation which he is supposed to hold only by his pleasure. This theory of the tax, moreover, is but one of the special articles of what is called the social contract.
Ancients and moderns all agree, in terms more or less explicit, in regarding the juridical status of societies as a reaction of weakness against strength. This idea is uppermost in all the works of Plato, notably in the "Gorgias," where he maintains, with more subtlety than logic, the cause of the laws against that of violence, -- that is, legislative absolutism against aristocratic and military absolutism. In this knotty dispute, in which the weight of evidence is equal on both sides, Plato simply expresses the sentiment of entire antiquity. Long before him, Moses, in making a distribution of lands, declaring patrimony inalienable, and ordering a general and uncompensated cancellation of all mortgages every fiftieth year, had opposed a barrier to the invasions of force. The whole Bible is a hymn to JUSTICE, -- that is, in the Hebrew style, to charity, to kindness to the weak on the part of the strong, to voluntary renunciation of the privilege of power. Solon, beginning his legislative mission by a general abolition of debts, and creating rights and reserves, -- that is, barriers to prevent their return, -- was no less reactionary. Lycurgus went farther; he forbade individual possession, and tried to absorb the man in the State, annihilating liberty the better to preserve equilibrium. Hobbes, deriving, and with great reason, legislation from the state of war, arrived by another road at the establishment of equality upon an exception, -- despotism. His book, so much calumniated, is only a development of this famous antithesis. The charter of 1830, consecrating the insurrection made in '89 by the plebeians against the nobility, and decreeing the abstract equality of persons before the law, in spite of the real inequality of powers and talents which is the veritable basis of the social system now in force, is also but a protest of society in favor of the poor against the rich, of the small against the great. All the laws of the human race regarding sale, purchase, hire, property, loans, mortgages, prescription, inheritance, donation, wills, wives' dowries, minority, guardianship, etc., etc., are real barriers erected by judicial absolutism against the absolutism of force. Respect for contracts, fidelity to promises, the religion of the oath, are fictions, osselets, as the famous Lysander aptly said, with which society deceives the strong and brings them under the yoke.
The tax belongs to that great family of preventive, coercive, repressive, and vindictive institutions which A. Smith designated by the generic term police, and which is, as I have said, in its original conception, only the reaction of weakness against strength. This follows, independently of abundant historical testimony which we will put aside to
 Little bones taken from the joints of animals and serving as playthings for children. -- Translator.
confine ourselves exclusively to economic proof, from the distinction naturally arising between taxes.
All taxes are divisible into two great categories: (1) taxes of assessment, or of privilege: these are the oldest taxes; (2) taxes of consumption, or of quotite, whose tendency is, by absorbing the former, to make public burdens weigh equally upon all.
The first sort of taxes -- including in France the tax on land, the tax on doors and windows, the poll-tax, the tax on personal property, the tax on tenants, license-fees, the tax on transfers of property, the tax on officials' fees, road-taxes, and brevets -- is the share which the sovereign reserves for himself out of all the monopolies which he concedes or tolerates; it is, as we have said, the indemnity of the poor, the permit granted to property. Such was the form and spirit of the tax in all the old monarchies: feudalism was its beau ideal. Under that regime the tax was only a tribute paid by the holder to the universal proprietor or sleeping-partner (commanditaire), the king.
When later, by the development of public right, royalty, the patriarchal form of sovereignty, begins to get impregnated by the democratic spirit, the tax becomes a quota which each voter owes to the COMMONWEALTH, and which, instead of falling into the hand of the prince, is received into the State treasury. In this evolution the principle of the tax remains intact; as yet there is no transformation of the institution; the real sovereign simply succeeds the figurative sovereign. Whether the tax enters into the peculium of the prince or serves to liquidate a common debt, it is in
 A tax whose total product is not fixed in advance, but depends upon the quantity of things or persons upon whom it happens to fall. -- Translator.
either case only a claim of society against privilege; otherwise, it is impossible to say why the tax is levied in the ratio of fortunes.
Let all contribute to the public expenses: nothing more just. But why should the rich pay more than the poor? That is just, they say, because they possess more. I confess that such justice is beyond my comprehension. . . . One of two things is true: either the proportional tax guarantees a privilege to the larger tax-payers, or else it is a wrong. Because, if property is a natural right, as the Declaration of '93 declares, all that belongs to me by virtue of this right is as sacred as my person; it is my blood, my life, myself: whoever touches it offends the apple of my eye. My income of one hundred thousand francs is as inviolable a the grisette's daily wage of seventy-five centimes; her attic is no more sacred than my suite of apartments. The tax is not levied in proportion to physical strength, size, or skill: no more should it be levied in proportion to property. -- What is Property: Chapter II.
These observations are the more just because the principle which it was their purpose to oppose to that of proportional assessment has had its period of application. The proportional tax is much later in history than liege-homage, which consisted in a simple officious demonstration without real payment.
The second sort of taxes includes in general all those designated, by a sort of antiphrasis, by the term indirect, such as taxes on liquor, salt, and tobacco, customs duties, and, in short, all the taxes which DIRECTLY affect the only thing which should be taxed, -- product. The principle of this tax, whose name is an actual misnomer, is unquestionably better founded in theory and more equitable in tendency than the preceding: accordingly, in spite of the opinion of the mass, always deceived as to that which serves it as well as to that which is prejudicial to it, I do not hesitate to say that this tax is the only normal one, barring its assessment and collection, with which it is not my purpose now to deal.
For, if it is true, as we have just explained, that the real nature of the tax is to pay, according to a particular form of wages, for certain services which elude the usual form of exchange, it follows that all producers, enjoying these services equally as far as personal use is concerned, should contribute to their payment in equal portions. The share for each, therefore, would be a fraction of his exchangeable product, or, in other words, an amount taken from the values delivered by him for purposes of consumption. But, under the monopoly system, and with collection upon land, the treasury strikes the product before it has entered into exchange, even before it is produced, -- a circumstance which results in throwing back the amount of the tax into the cost of production, and consequently puts the burden upon the consumer and lifts it from monopoly.
Whatever the significance of the tax of assessment or the tax of quotite, one thing is sure, and this is the thing which it is especially important for us to know, -- namely, that, in making the tax proportional, it was the intention of the sovereign to make citizens contribute to the public expenses, no longer, according to the old feudal principle, by means of a poll-tax, which would involve the idea of an assessment figured in the ratio of the number of persons taxed, and not in the ratio of their possessions, but so much per franc of capital, which supposes that capital has its source in an authority superior to the capitalists. Everybody, spontaneously and with one accord, considers such an assessment just; everybody, therefore, spontaneously and with one accord, looks upon the tax as a resumption on the part of society, a sort of redemption exacted from monopoly. This is especially striking in England, where, by a special law, the proprietors of the soil and the manufacturers pay, in proportion to their incomes, a tax of forty million dollars, which is called the poor-rate.
In short, the practical and avowed object of the tax is to effect upon the rich, for the benefit of the people, a proportional resumption of their capital.
Now, analysis and the facts demonstrate:
That the tax of assessment, the tax upon monopoly, instead of being paid by those who possess, is paid almost entirely by those who do not possess;
That the tax of quotite, separating the producer from the consumer, falls solely upon the latter, thereby taking from the capitalist no more than he would have to pay if fortunes were absolutely equal;
Finally, that the army, the courts, the police, the schools, the hospitals, the almshouses, the houses of refuge and correction, public functions, religion itself, all that society creates for the protection, emancipation, and relief of the proletaire, paid for in the first place and sustained by the proletaire, is then turned against the proletaire or wasted as far as he is concerned; so that the proletariat, which at first labored only for the class that devours it, -- that of the capitalists, -- must labor also for the class that flogs it, -- that of the nonproducers.
These facts are henceforth so well known, and the economists -- I owe them this justice -- have shown them so clearly, that I shall abstain from correcting their demonstrations, which, for the rest, are no longer contradicted by anybody. What I propose to bring to light, and what the economists do not seem to have sufficiently understood, is that the condition in which the laborer is placed by this new phase of social economy is susceptible of no amelioration; that, unless industrial organization, and therefore political reform, should bring about an equality of fortunes, evil is inherent in police institutions as in the idea of charity which gave them birth; in short, that the STATE, whatever form it affects, aristocratic or theocratic, monarchical or republican, until it shall have become the obedient and submissive organ of a society of equals, will be for the people an inevitable hell, -- I had almost said a deserved damnation.
From : University of Virginia Library
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