Chapter 7, Section 7.2 : Antinomy of the tax
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Chapter 7, Section 7.2
I sometimes hear the champions of the statu quo maintain that for the present we enjoy liberty enough, and that, in spite of the declamation against the existing order, we are below the level of our institutions. So far at least as taxation is concerned, I am quite of the opinion of these optimists.
According to the theory that we have just seen, the tax is the reaction of society against monopoly. Upon this point opinions are unanimous: citizens and legislators, economists, journalists, and ballad-writers, rendering, each in their own tongue, the social thought, vie with each other in proclaiming that the tax should fall upon the rich, strike the superfluous and articles of luxury, and leave those of prime necessity free. In short, they have made the tax a sort of privilege for the privileged: a bad idea, since it involved a recognition of the legitimacy of privilege, which in no case, whatever shape it may take, is good for anything. The people had to be punished for this egoistic inconsistency: Providence did not fail in its duty.
From the moment, then, of the conception of the tax as a counter-claim, it had to be fixed proportionally to means, whether it struck capital or affected income more especially. Now, I will point out that the levying of the tax at so much a franc being precisely that which should be adopted in a country where all fortunes were equal, saving the differences in the cost of assessment and collection, the treasury is the most liberal feature of our society, and that on this point our morals are really behind our institutions. But as with the wicked the best things cannot fail to be detestable, we shall see the equalitarian tax crush the people precisely because the people are not up to it.
I will suppose that the gross income in France, for each family of four persons, is 1,000 francs: this is a little above the estimate of M. Chevalier, who places it at only 63 centimes a day for each individual, or 919 francs 80 centimes for each household. The tax being today more than a thousand millions, or about an eighth of the total income, each family, earning 1,000 francs a year, is taxed 125 francs.
Accordingly, an income of 2,000 francs pays 250 francs; an income of 3,000 francs, 375; an income of 4,000 francs, 500, etc. The proportion is strict and mathematically irreproachable; the treasury, by arithmetic, is sure of losing nothing.
But on the side of the taxpayers the affair totally changes its aspect. The tax, which, in the intention of the legislator, was to have been proportioned to fortune, is, on the contrary, progressive in the ratio of poverty, so that, the poorer the citizen is, the more he pays. This I shall try to make plain by a few figures.
According to the proportional tax, there is due to the treasury: for an income of 1,000 2,000 3,000 4,000 5,000 6,000 francs, etc. a tax of 125 250 375 500 625 750
According to this series, then, the tax seems to increase proportionally to income.
But when it is remembered that each annual income is made up of 365 units, each of which represents the daily income of the taxpayer, the tax will no longer be found proportional; it will be found equal. In fact, if the State levies a tax of 125 francs on an income of 1,000 francs, it is as if it took from the taxed family 45 days' subsistence; likewise the assessments of 250, 375, 500, 625, and 750 francs, corresponding to incomes of 2,000, 3,000, 4,000, 5,000, and 6,000 francs, constitute in each case a tax of 45 days' pay upon each of those who enjoy these incomes.
I say now that this equality of taxation is a monstrous inequality, and that it is a strange illusion to imagine that, because the daily income is larger, the tax of which it is the base is higher. Let us change our point of view from that of personal to that of collective income.
As an effect of monopoly social wealth abandoning the laboring class to go to the capitalistic class, the object of taxation has been to moderate this displacement and react against usurpation by enforcing a proportional replevin upon each privileged person. But proportional to what? To the excess which the privileged person has received undoubtedly, and not to the fraction of the social capital which his income represents. Now, the object of taxation is missed and the law turned into derision when the treasury, instead of taking its eighth where this eighth exists, asks it precisely of those to whom it should be restored. A final calculation will make this evident.
Setting the daily income of each person in France at 68 centimes, the father of a family who, whether as wages or as income from his capital, receives 1,000 francs a year receives four shares of the national income; he who receives 2,000 francs has eight shares; he who receives 4,000 francs has sixteen, etc. Hence it follows that the workman who, on an income of 1,000 francs, pays 125 francs into the treasury renders to public order half a share, or an eighth of his income and his family's subsistence; whereas the capitalist who, on an income of 6,000 francs, pays only 750 francs realizes a profit of 17 shares out of the collective income, or, in other words, gains by the tax 425 per cent.
Let us reproduce the same truth in another form.
The voters of France number about 200,000. I do not know the total amount of taxes paid by these 200,000 voters, but I do not believe that I am very far from the truth in supposing an average of 300 francs each, or a total of 60,000,000 for the 200,000 voters, to which we will add twenty-five per cent. to represent their share of indirect taxes, making in all 75,000,000, or 75 francs for each person (supposing the family of each voter to consist of five persons), which the electoral class pays to the State. The appropriations, according to the "Annuaire Economique" for 1845, being 1,106,000,000, there remains 1,031,000,000, which makes the tax paid by each non-voting citizen 31 francs 30 centimes, -- two-fifths of the tax paid by the wealthy class. Now, for this proportion to be equitable, the average welfare of the non-voting class would have to be two-fifths of the average welfare of the voting class: but such is not the truth, as it falls short of this by more than three-fourths.
But this disproportion will seem still more shocking when it is remembered that the calculation which we have just made concerning the electoral class is altogether wrong, altogether in favor of the voters.
In fact, the only taxes which are levied for the enjoyment of the right of suffrage are: (1) the land tax; (2) the tax on polls and personal property; (3) the tax on doors and windows; (4) license-fees. Now, with the exception of the tax on polls and personal property, which varies little, the three other taxes are thrown back on the consumers; and it is the same with all the indirect taxes, for which the holders of capital are reimbursed by the consumers, with the exception, however, of the taxes on property transfers, which fall directly on the proprietor and amount in all to 150,000,000. Now, if we estimate that in this last amount the property of voters figures as one-sixth, which is placing it high, the portion of direct taxes (409,000,000) being 12 francs for each person, and that of indirect taxes (547,000,000) 16 francs, the average tax paid by each voter having a household of five will reach a total of 265 francs, while that paid by the laborer, who has only his arms to support himself, his wife, and two children, will be 112 francs. In more general terms, the average tax upon each person belonging to the upper classes will be 53 francs; upon each belonging to the lower, 28. Whereupon I renew my question: Is the welfare of those below the voting standard half as great as that of those above it?
It is with the tax as with periodical publications, which really cost more the less frequently they appear. A daily journal costs forty francs, a weekly ten francs, a monthly four. Supposing other things to be equal, the subscription prices of these journals are to each other as the numbers forty, seventy, and one hundred and twenty, the price rising with the infrequency of publication. Now, this exactly represents the increase of the tax: it is a subscription paid by each citizen in exchange for the right to labor and to live. He who uses this right in the smallest proportion pays much; he who uses it a little more pays less; he who uses it a great deal pays little.
The economists are generally in agreement about all this. They have attacked the proportional tax, not only in its principle, but in its application; they have pointed out its anomalies, almost all of which arise from the fact that the relation of capital to income, or of cultivated surface to rent, is never fixed.
Given a levy of one-tenth on the income from lands, and lands of different qualities producing, the first eight francs' worth of grain, the second six francs' worth, the third five francs' worth, the tax will call for one-eighth of the income from the most fertile land, one-sixth from that a little less fertile, and, finally, one-fifth from that less fertile still. Will not the tax thus established be just the reverse of what it should be? Instead of land, we may suppose other instruments of production, and compare capitals of the same value, or amounts of labor of the same order, applied to branches of industry differing in productivity: the conclusion will be the same. There is injustice in requiring the same poll-tax of ten francs from the laborer who earns one thousand francs and from the artist or physician who has an income of sixty thousand. -- J. Garnier: Principles of Political Economy.
These reflections are very sound, although they apply only to collection or assessment, and do not touch the principle of the tax itself. For, in supposing the assessment to be made upon income instead of upon capital, the fact always remains that the tax, which should be proportional to fortunes, is borne by the consumer.
The economists have taken a resolve; they have squarely recognized the iniquity of the proportional tax.
 This sentence, as it stands, is unintelligible, and probably is not correctly quoted by Proudhon. At any rate, one of Garnier's works contains a similar passage, which begins thus: "Given a levy of one on the area of the land, and lands of different qualities producing, the first eight, the second six, the third five, the tax will call for one-eighth," etc. This is perfectly clear, and the circumstances supposed are aptly illustrative of Proudhon's point. I should unhesitatingly pronounce it the correct version, except for the fact that Proudhon, in the succeeding paragraph, interprets Garnier as supposing income to be assessed instead of capital. -- Translator.
"The tax," says Say, "can never be levied upon the necessary." This author, it is true, does not tell us what we are to understand by the necessary, but we can supply the omission. The necessary is what each individual gets out of the total product of the country, after deducting what must be taken for taxes. Thus, making the estimate in round numbers, the production of France being eight thousand millions and the tax one thousand millions, the necessary in the case of each individual amounts to fifty-six and a half centimes a day. Whatever is in excess of this income is alone susceptible of being taxed, according to J. B. Say; whatever falls short of it must be regarded by the treasury as inviolable.
The same author expresses this idea in other words when he says: "The proportional tax is not equitable." Adam Smith had already said before him: "It is not unreasonable that the rich man should contribute to the public expenses, not only in proportion to his income, but something more." "I will go further," adds Say; "I will not fear to say that the progressive tax is the only equitable tax." And M. J. Garnier, the latest abridger of the economists, says: "Reforms should tend to establish a progressional equality, if I may use the phrase, much more just, much more equitable, than the pretended equality of taxation, which is only a monstrous inequality."
So, according to general opinion and the testimony of the economists, two things are acknowledged: one, that in its principle the tax is a reaction against monopoly and directed against the rich; the other, that in practice this same tax is false to its object; that, in striking the poor by preference, it commits an injustice; and that the constant effort of the legislator must be to distribute its burden in a more equitable fashion.
I needed to establish this double fact solidly before passing to other considerations: now commences my criticism.
The economists, with that simplicity of honest folk which they have inherited from their elders and which even today is all that stands to their credit, have taken no pains to see that the progressional theory of the tax, which they point out to governments as the ne plus ultra of a wise and liberal administration, was contradictory in its terms and pregnant with a legion of impossibilities. They have attributed the oppression of the treasury by turns to the barbarism of the time, the ignorance of princes, the prejudices of caste, the avarice of collectors, everything, in short, which, in their opinion, preventing the progression of the tax, stood in the way of the sincere practice of equality in the distribution of public burdens; they have not for a moment suspected that what they asked under the name of progressive taxation was the overturn of all economic ideas.
Thus they have not seen, for instance, that the tax was progressive from the very fact that it was proportional, the only difference being that the progression was in the wrong direction, the percentage being, as we have said, not directly, but inversely proportional to fortunes. If the economists had had a clear idea of this overturn, invariable in all countries where taxation exists, so singular a phenomenon would not have failed to draw their attention; they would have sought its causes, and would have ended by discovering that what they took for an accident of civilization, an effect of the inextricable difficulties of human government, was the product of the contradiction inherent in all political economy.
The progressive tax, whether applied to capital or to income, is the very negation of monopoly, of that monopoly which is met everywhere, according to M. Rossi, across the path of social economy; which is the true stimulant of industry, the hope of economy, the preserver and parent of all wealth; of which we have been able to say, in short, that society cannot exist without it, but that, except for it, there would be no society. Let the tax become suddenly what it unquestionably must sometime be, -- namely, the proportional (or progressional, which is the same thing) contribution of each producer to the public expenses, and straightway rent and profit are confiscated everywhere for the benefit of the State; labor is stripped of the fruits of its toil; each individual being reduced to the proper allowance of fifty-six and a half centimes, poverty becomes general; the compact formed between labor and capital is dissolved, and society, deprived of its rudder, drifts back to its original state.
It will be said, perhaps, that it is easy to prevent the absolute annihilation of the profits of capital by stopping the progression at any moment.
Eclecticism, the golden mean, compromise with heaven or with morality: is it always to be the same philosophy, then? True science is repugnant to such arrangements. All invested capital must return to the producer in the form of interest; all labor must leave a surplus, all wages be equal to product. Under the protection of these laws society continually realizes, by the greatest variety of production, the highest possible degree of welfare. These laws are absolute; to violate them is to wound, to mutilate society. Capital, accordingly, which, after all, is nothing but accumulated labor, is inviolable. But, on the other hand, the tendency to equality is no less imperative; it is manifested at each economic phase with increasing energy and an invincible authority. Therefore you must satisfy labor and justice at once; you must give to the former guarantees more and more real, and secure the latter without concession or ambiguity.
Instead of that, you know nothing but the continual substitution of the good pleasure of the prince for your theories, the arrest of the course of economic law by arbitrary power, and, under the pretext of equity, the deception of the wage worker and the monopolist alike! Your liberty is but a half-liberty, your justice but a half-justice, and all your wisdom consists in those middle terms whose iniquity is always twofold, since they justify the pretensions of neither one party nor the other! No, such cannot be the science which you have promised us, and which, by unveiling for us the secrets of the production and consumption of wealth, must unequivocally solve the social antinomies. Your semi-liberal doctrine is the code of despotism, and shows that you are powerless to advance as well as ashamed to retreat.
If society, pledged by its economic antecedents, can never retrace its steps; if, until the arrival of the universal equation, monopoly must be maintained in its possession, -- no change is possible in the laying of taxes: only there is a contradiction here, which, like every other, must be pushed till exhausted. Have, then, the courage of your opinions, -- respect for wealth, and no pity for the poor, whom the God of monopoly has condemned. The less the hireling has wherewith to live, the more he must pay: qui minus habet, etiam quod habet auferetur ab eo. This is necessary, this is inevitable; in it lies the safety of society.
Let us try, nevertheless, to reverse the progression of the tax, and so arrange it that the capitalist, instead of the laborer, will pay the larger share.
I observe, in the first place, that with the usual method of collection, such a reversal is impracticable.
In fact, if the tax falls on exploitable capital, this tax, in its entirety, is included among the costs of production, and then of two things one: either the product, in spite of the increase in its selling value, will be bought by the consumer, and consequently the producer will be relieved of the tax; or else this same product will be thought too dear, and in that case the tax, as J. B. Say has very well said, acts like a tithe levied on seed, -- it prevents production. Thus it is that too high a tax on the transfer of titles arrests the circulation of real property, and renders estates less productive by keeping them from changing hands.
If, on the contrary, the tax falls on product, it is nothing but a tax of quotite, which each pays in the ratio of his consumption, while the capitalist, whom it is purposed to strike, escapes.
Moreover, the supposition of a progressive tax based either on product or on capital is perfectly absurd. How can we imagine the same product paying a duty of ten per cent. at the store of one dealer and a duty of but five at another's? How are estates already encumbered with mortgages and which change owners every day, how is a capital formed by joint investment or by the fortune of a single individual, to be distinguished upon the official register, and taxed, not in the ratio of their value or rent, but in the ratio of the fortune or presumed profits of the proprietor?
There remains, then, a last resource, -- to tax the net income of each tax-payer, whatever his method of getting it. For instance, an income of one thousand francs would pay ten per cent.; an income of two thousand francs, twenty per cent.; an income of three thousand francs, thirty per cent., etc. We will set aside the thousand difficulties and annoyances that must be met in ascertaining these incomes, and suppose the operation as easy as you like. Well! that is exactly the system which I charge with hypocrisy, contradiction, and injustice.
I say in the first place that this system is hypocritical, because, instead of taking from the rich that entire portion of their income in excess of the average national product per family, which is inadmissible, it does not, as is imagined, reverse the order of progression in the direction of wealth; at most it changes the rate of progression. Thus the present progression of the tax, for fortunes yielding incomes of a thousand francs and UNDER, being as that of the numbers 10, 11, 12, 13, etc., and, for fortunes yielding incomes of a thousand francs and OVER, as that of the numbers 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, etc., -- the tax always increasing with poverty and decreasing with wealth, -- if we should confine ourselves to lifting the indirect tax which falls especially on the poorer class and imposing a corresponding tax upon the incomes of the richer class, the progression thereafter, it is true, would be, for the first, only as that of the numbers 10, 10.25, 10.50, 10.75, 11, 11.25, etc., and, for the second, as 10, 9.75, 9.50, 9.25, 9, 8.75, etc. But this progression, although less rapid on both sides, would still take the same direction nevertheless, would still be a reversal of justice; and it is for this reason that the so-called progressive tax, capable at most of giving the philanthropist something to babble about, is of no scientific value. It changes nothing in fiscal jurisprudence; as the proverb says, it is always the poor man who carries the pouch, always the rich man who is the object of the solicitude of power.
I add that this system is contradictory.
In fact, one cannot both give and keep, say the jurisconsults. Instead, then, of consecrating monopolies from which the holders are to derive no privilege save that of straightway losing, with the income, all the enjoyment thereof, why not decree the agrarian law at once? Why provide in the constitution that each shall freely enjoy the fruit of his labor and industry, when, by the fact or the tendency of the tax, this permission is granted only to the extent of a dividend of fifty-six and a half centimes a day, -- a thing, it is true, which the law could not have foreseen, but which would necessarily result from progression? The legislator, in confirming us in our monopolies, intended to favor production, to feed the sacred fire of industry: now, what interest shall we have to produce, if, though not yet associated, we are not to produce for ourselves alone? After we have been declared free, how can we be made subject to conditions of sale, hire, and exchange which annul our liberty?
A man possesses government securities which bring him an income of twenty thousand francs. The tax, under the new system of progression, will take fifty per cent. of this from him. At this rate it is more advantageous to him to withdraw his capital and consume the principal instead of the income. Then let him be repaid. What! repaid! The State cannot be obliged to repay; and, if it consents to redeem, it will do so in proportion to the net income. Therefore a bond for twenty thousand francs will be worth not more than ten thousand to the bondholder, because of the tax, if he wishes to get it redeemed by the State: unless he divides it into twenty lots, in which case it will return him double the amount. Likewise an estate which rents for fifty thousand francs, the tax taking two-thirds of the income, will lose two-thirds of its value. But let the proprietor divide this estate into a hundred lots and sell it at auction, and then, the terror of the treasury no longer deterring purchasers, he can get back his entire capital. So that, with the progressive tax, real estate no longer follows the law of supply and demand and is not valued according to the real income which it yields, but according to the condition of the owner. The consequence will be that large capitals will depreciate in value, and mediocrity be brought to the front; land-owners will hasten to sell, because it will be better for them to consume their property than to get an insufficient rent from it; capitalists will recall their investments, or will invest only at usurious rates; all exploitation on a large scale will be prohibited, every visible fortune proceeded against, and all accumulation of capital in excess of the figure of the necessary proscribed. Wealth, driven back, will retire within itself and never emerge except by stealth; and labor, like a man attached to a corpse, will embrace misery in an endless union. Does it not well become the economists who devise such reforms to laugh at the reformers?
After having demonstrated the contradiction and delusion of the progressive tax, must I prove its injustice also? The progressive tax, as understood by the economists and, in their wake, by certain radicals, is impracticable, I said just now, if it falls on capital and product: consequently I have supposed it to fall on incomes. But who does not see that this purely theoretical distinction between capital, product, and income falls so far as the treasury is concerned, and that the same impossibilities which we have pointed out reappear here with all their fatal character?
A manufacturer discovers a process by means of which, saving twenty per cent. of his cost of production, he secures an income of twenty-five thousand francs. The treasury calls on him for fifteen thousand. He is obliged, therefore, to raise his prices, since, by the fact of the tax, his process, instead of saving twenty per cent., saves only eight per cent. Is not this as if the treasury prevented cheapness? Thus, in trying to reach the rich, the progressive tax always reaches the consumer; and it is impossible for it not to reach him without suppressing production altogether: what a mistake!
It is a law of social economy that all invested capital must return continually to the capitalist in the form of interest. With the progressive tax this law is radically violated, since, by the effect of progression, interest on capital is so reduced that industries are established only at a loss of a part or the whole of the capital. To make it otherwise, interest on capital would have to increase progressively in the same ratio as the tax itself, which is absurd. Therefore the progressive tax stops the creation of capital; furthermore it hinders its circulation. Whoever, in fact, should want to buy a plant for any enterprise or a piece of land for cultivation would have to consider, under the system of progressive taxation, not the real value of such plant or land, but rather the tax which it would bring upon him; so that, if the real income were four per cent., and, by the effect of the tax or the condition of the buyer, must go down to three, the purchase could not be effected. After having run counter to all interests and thrown the market into confusion by its categories, the progressive tax arrests the development of wealth and reduces venal value below real value; it contracts, it petrifies society. What tyranny! What derision!
The progressive tax resolves itself, then, whatever may be done, into a denial of justice, prohibition of production, confiscation. It is unlimited and unbridled absolutism, given to power over everything which, by labor, by economy, by improvements, contributes to public wealth.
But what is the use of wandering about in chimerical hypotheses when the truth is at hand. It is not the fault of the proportional principle if the tax falls with such shocking inequality upon the various classes of society; the fault is in our prejudices and our morals. The tax, as far as is possible in human operations, proceeds with equity, precision. Social economy commands it to apply to product; it applies to product. If product escapes it, it strikes capital: what more natural! The tax, in advance of civilization, supposes the equality of laborers and capitalists: the inflexible expression of necessity, it seems to invite us to make ourselves equals by education and labor, and, by balancing our functions and associating our interests, to put ourselves in accord with it. The tax refuses to distinguish between one man and another: and we blame its mathematical severity for the differences in our fortunes! We ask equality itself to comply with our injustice! Was I not right in saying at the outset that, relatively to the tax, we are behind our institutions?
Accordingly we always see the legislator stopping, in his fiscal laws, before the subversive consequences of the progressive tax, and consecrating the necessity, the immutability of the proportional tax. For equality in well-being cannot result from the violation of capital: the antinomy must be methodically solved, under penalty, for society, of falling back into chaos. Eternal justice does not accommodate itself to all the whims of men: like a woman, whom one may outrage, but whom one does not marry without a solemn alienation of one's self, it demands on our part, with the abandonment of our egoism, the recognition of all its rights, which are those of science.
The tax, whose final purpose, as we have shown, is the reward of the non-producers, but whose original idea was a restoration of the laborer, -- the tax, under the system of monopoly, reduces itself therefore to a pure and simple protest, a sort of extra-judicial act, the whole effect of which is to aggravate the situation of the wage-worker by disturbing the monopolist in his possession. As for the idea of changing the proportional tax into a progressive tax, or, to speak more accurately, of reversing the order in which the tax progresses, that is a blunder the entire responsibility for which belongs to the economists.
But henceforth menace hovers over privilege. With the power of modifying the proportionality of the tax, government has under its hand an expeditious and sure means of dispossessing the holders of capital when it will; and it is a frightful thing to see everywhere that great institution, the basis of society, the object of so many controversies, of so many laws, of so many cajoleries, and of so many crimes, PROPERTY, suspended at the end of a thread over the yawning mouth of the proletariat.
From : University of Virginia Library
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