It seems to me to be the chief defect of the present tax, that it does not make any distinction between permanent and temporary incomes, or between precarious and certain incomes. I should not however be inclined to make so great a distinction in either of those cases as is contended for by many. The most popular of the plans for remedying the inequality or injustice of the present tax in making no distinction between permanent and temporary incomes, is the plan of capitalizing, as it is called, the income, and taxing each income at what would be its selling value at the moment when the tax is levied. Now this appears to me to involve an arithmetical fallacy. Suppose, for instance, there were two incomes, each of 1,000 a year, the one a permanent income, and the other an income for 10 years, or what is equivalent, a life income, the life being supposed to be worth 10 years’ purchase. Supposing that the permanent income would sell for 20 years’ purchase, it would be double the value of the other, and, according to the maxim of taxing all persons in proportion to their means without consideration of anything else, all would admit that an income which is worth only half as much as another income, should pay only half as much. Under cover, however, of this principle, it is contended that an income of 1,000 a year which is to last for only 10 years, should be considered as equivalent to an income of 500 a year to last for ever, and should be taxed at only the same rate at which a perpetual annuity of 500 would be taxed. This appears to me to be fallacious: because, after converting an income of 1,000 a year for 10 years into an equivalent value in perpetuity, that is to say, into 500 a year in perpetuity, you do not tax it in perpetuity, which you would do if it were really a permanent income of that value, but you tax it only for 10 years. The fallacy lies in capitalizing the income without at the same time capitalizing the tax. It appears to me that you ought to do both, or neither. The point might be illustrated in this way. Supposing the tax were to be paid only once, and assuming, as before, that a perpetual income is worth 20 years’ purchase, it would be fair to take from a perpetual income of 1,000 a year exactly twice as much as you take from an income of 1,000 a year for 10 years; that is to say, an income of 1,000 in perpetuity being worth 20,000 an income of 1,000 a year for life at 10 years’ purchase, would be worth only 10,000 and therefore ought to pay half as much as the other. Now supposing the tax were levied once for all, and that it were a tax of five per cent., the one income would pay 1,000 once, and the other income would pay 500 once, because the one would be worth 20,000 and the other only 10,000 that everybody would allow to be fair, the one being half the selling value of the other. As that would be fair if the tax was to be levied only once, I apprehend that it would be fair in whatever mode the tax was levied; the one ought to pay what is equivalent to 1,000 and the other to pay what is equivalent to 500 But it is proposed that an income of 1,000 a year for 10 years only, should be taxed as if it were an income of 500 a year, that it should be taxed therefore only 25 a year, and should pay that for only 10 years. So that where the perpetual income pays a perpetual tax equal in value to 1,000 the terminable income pays a terminable tax equivalent only to 250 and consequently pays a fourth, instead of a half, what the other pays. This, I conceive, is not consistent with the principle of paying in proportion to means, which is the principle of the tax as at present levied. At the same time, I do not consider that to be the right principle of taxation. I do not conceive that the tax should be in proportion to the means only, but that it should take into consideration the means, and also the wants. I would therefore tax temporary or precarious incomes at a lower scale than permanent or certain incomes, not because of their having a less selling value, but because the possessors of those incomes have one want, which those who possess permanent incomes have not; they are liable to be called upon in most cases to save something out of that income to provide for their own future years, or to provide for others who are dependent upon them; while those who possess permanent incomes can spend the whole, and still leave the property to their descendants or others. It is for this reason that I would tax a temporary income at a lower rate than a permanent income.
As far as I can see at present, without much consideration, I should; but in regard to precarious incomes, such as profits of trade, or professional incomes, which cease altogether with the life of the person, and are liable to fluctuate from illness, or varying success, or from a hundred other circumstances, I think the tax is doubly unjust to the holders of those incomes. In the first place, it taxes them on the whole of their receipts, but does not deduct the whole of their losses. In the second place, I conceive that even if you deduct the whole of their losses you will not do full justice to them. Supposing a variable income which averages 1,000 a year after all losses were deducted, but which might cease altogether any day, though on a series of years the income might be the same as that of a person who had 1,000 year from land, still it would not be just to tax it on the same scale, because it is not the same to any one’s feelings. A permanent income of the same amount is of more value to any man’s feelings than an uncertain income, averaging that amount, but which may at any time dwindle to nothing. On that account, if all losses were allowed to be deducted, and justice done in that respect, still some additional consideration would, I think, be due to the possessor of a precarious income.
The Society do not propose to disturb the landowners in their past acquisitions. But they assert the right of the State to all such accessions of income in the future. Whatever value the land may have acquired at the time when the principle they contend for shall obtain the assent of Parliament, they do not propose to interfere with. If, rather than submit to be specially taxed on the future increase of his rent, a landowner prefers to relinquish his land to the State, the Society are willing that the State should pay for it at its selling value. By this provision, all his just claims will be fully satisfied, while the bargain will still be highly advantageous to the nation, since an individual never gives, in present money, for a remote profit, anything like what that profit is worth to the State, which is immortal. In this manner, that increase of wealth which now flows into the coffers of private persons from the mere progress of society, and not from their own merits or sacrifices, will be gradually, and in an increasing proportion, diverted from them to the nation as a whole, from whose collective exertions and sacrifices it really proceeds. The State will receive the entire rent of the lands voluntarily sold to it by their possessors, together with a tax on the future increase of rent on those properties whose owners have sufficient confidence in the justice and moderation of the State to prefer retaining them. These owners should be allowed at any future period to alter their minds, and give up their lands for the price first offered; or more, if they can show that they have made, during the intervening period, substantial improvements at their own cost. The option thus allowed would be a permanent security to the landowners against any unjust or excessive exercise of the right of taxation by the State.
But Mr. Leslie, we should think, must be as well aware as anybody, how little this would do towards making any great part of the land of this country the property of the actual cultivators. In France, and other countries of the Continent, the sale of land generally means its purchase by the poor; for the poor give the highest price, the rich being neither numerous, nor, in general, addicted to rural duties or pleasures. But in England the sale of land means generally its sale to the rich. The annual accumulation of fortunes in manufactures and commerce raises up a perpetual succession of rich families, eager to step into the place of landowners who are obliged to sell. Unless changes much more radical than an increase of the facilities of alienation are destined to take place in this country, nearly all the land, however it may change hands, is likely to remain the property of the rich; nor are the new proprietors more likely than the old to lease their lands on terms more encouraging to the industry and enterprise of their tenants. No doubt, the increased quantity of land in the market would cause a cheapening of its price, which would bring it within the reach of a somewhat greater number of purchasers; and it would occasionally fall into the hands of persons intending to cultivate instead of letting it, but seldom of those who cultivate with their own hands. If the greater marketableness of land is to be made a benefit to the labouring class, it must be in another manner entirely; as, for example, by buying from time to time on account of the public, as much of the land that comes into the market as may be sufficient to give a full trial to such modes of leasing it, either to small farmers with due security of tenure, or to co-operative associations of labourers, as without impairing, but probably even increasing, the produce of the soil, would make the direct benefits of its possession descend to those who hold the plough and wield the spade. Mr. Leslie has not included any measure of this sort among his proposals, but it is quite germane to his principles, and necessary, we think, to enable them to produce their best effects.
Though, in the interests of universal labour, the formation of national and cosmopolitan unionism be clearly an end to be aimed at, the best, if not the only means to that end is the previous formation and bringing to maturity of separate trade unions. The thing is scarcely to be done, if done at all, in any other way. National unionism is only to be built up piecemeal. To begin by laying foundations coextensive with the area to be finally covered, would be a sure way of never getting beyond the foundations. The only plan at all feasible, is for separate sections of labourers to organise themselves independently, and for each separate organisation to confine its attention to its own affairs, wherein it would long find abundant occupation without troubling itself about those of its neighbours, until it and they, having grown strong enough to stand alone, should perceive it to be for their mutual advantage to coalesce and stand together. This is the plan which, unconsciously perhaps for the most part, trades’ unions are at present following, each in obedience to its own selfish instinct, seeking only to do the best for itself, yet each doing thereby the best for the others also. That this or any other plan will ever really eventuate in the formation of a confederacy embracing the entire working population, may to most people appear an utterly chimerical notion, and no doubt the chances are great against its realisation. But the thing, however improbable, is not more improbable than some of the actual phenomena of unionism would not long since have appeared. Half a century back, while the marvellous organising aptitudes of working men lay dormant and unsuspected, it would have been quite as difficult for any one to look forward to the existing ‘amalgamation’ of little less than 50,000 engineers or 70,000 miners, as it is now to imagine that in another century or so—no very long period in a nation’s life—a combination of these and of other associations may weld together the whole community of British workmen as one brotherhood. At the present rate of progress less than a hundred years would suffice for the operation.
I have stated this argument in my own way, which is not exactly Mr. Thornton’s; but the reasoning is essentially his, though, in a part of it, I have only been anticipated by him. I have already shown in what I consider his exposition of the abstract question to be faulty. I think that the improvement he has made in the theory of price is a case of growth, not of revolution. But in its application to labour, it does not merely add to our speculative knowledge; it destroys a prevailing and somewhat mischievous error. It has made it necessary for us to contemplate, not as an impossibility but as a possibility, that employers, by taking advantage of the inability of labourers to hold out, may keep wages lower than there is any natural necessity for; and that if work-people can by combination be enabled to hold out so long as to cause an inconvenience to the employers greater than that of a rise of wages, a rise may be obtained which, but for the combination, not only would not have happened so soon, but possibly might not have happened at all. The power of Trades’ Unions may therefore be so exercised as to obtain for the labouring classes collectively, both a larger share and a larger positive amount of the produce of labour; increasing, therefore, one of the two factors on which the remuneration of the individual labourer depends. The other and still more important factor, the number of sharers, remains unaffected by any of the considerations now adduced.
I confess I cannot perceive that these considerations are subversive of the law of demand and supply, nor that there is any ground for supposing political economists to be unaware that when supply exceeds the demand, the two may be equalised by subtracting from the supply as well as by adding to the demand. Reserving a price is, to all intents and purposes, withdrawing supply. When no more than forty shillings a head can be obtained for sheep, all sheep whose owners are determined not to sell them for less than fifty shillings are out of the market, and form no part at all of the supply which is now determining price. They may have been offered for sale, but they have been withdrawn. They are held back, waiting for some future time, which their owner hopes may be more advantageous to him; and they will be an element in determining the price when that time comes, or when, ceasing to expect it, or obliged by his necessities, he consents to sell his sheep for what he can get. In the meanwhile, the price has been determined without any reference to his withheld stock, and determined in such a manner that the demand at that price shall (if possible) be equal to the supply which the dealers are willing to part with at that price. The economists who say that market price is determined by demand and supply do not mean that it is determined by the whole supply which would be forthcoming at an unattainable price, any more than by the whole demand that would be called forth if the article could be had for an old song. They mean that, whatever the price turns out to be, it will be such that the demand at that price, and the supply at that price, will be equal to one another. To this proposition Mr. Thornton shows an undeniable exception in the case of a dealer who holds out for a price which he can obtain for a part of his supply, but cannot obtain for the whole. In that case, undoubtedly, the price obtained is not that at which the demand is equal to the supply; but the reason is the same as in one of the cases formerly considered; because there is no such price. At the actual price the supply exceeds the demand; at a farthing less the whole supply would be withheld. Such a case might easily happen if the dealer had no competition to fear; not easily if he had: but on no supposition does it contradict the law. It falls within the one case in which Mr. Thornton has shown that the law is not fulfilled—namely, when there is no price that would fulfil it; either the demand or the supply advancing or receding by such violent skips, that there is no halting point at which it just equals the other element.
Those who make the vices of mere trading education an argument for supplementing it by something else, are charged with ignoring the tendency which schools have, in common with other things, to improve with the general progress of human affairs. But human affairs are seldom improving in all directions at once, and it is doubtful if much of the improvement that is now going on is taking the direction of trade morality. Even in commerce properly so called—the legitimate province of self-interest—where it is enough if the ruling motive is limited by simple honesty, things do not look at present as if there were an increasing tendency towards high-minded honour, conscientious abhorrence of dishonest arts, and contempt of quackery. Even there the vastness of the field, the greatness of the stakes now played for, and the increasing difficulty to the public in judging rightly of transactions or of character, are making the principle of competition bring forth a kind of effects, the cure of which will have to be sought somewhere else than in the corrective influence of competition itself. There is more hope, doubtless, on the side of the parents. An increasing number of them are probably acquiring somewhat better notions of what education is, and a somewhat greater value for it. But experience proves that, of all the modes of human improvement, this particular one is about the slowest. The progress of the bulk of mankind is not in any great degree a spontaneous thing. In a few of the best and ablest it is spontaneous, and the others follow in their wake. Where society must move all together, as in legislation and government, the slowest get dragged on, at the price of a deplorable slackening in the pace of the quickest movers; but where each has to act individually, as in sending his children to school, and the power of the more advanced is only that of their opinion and their example, the general mass may long remain sadly behind.
Again, the author, in his chapter on the Rights of Capital [pp. 124ff.], very truly and forcibly argues, that these are a portion of the rights of labour. They are the rights of past labour, since labour is the source of all capital; and are sacred, in the same sense, and in an equal degree, with those of present labour. From this he deduces the equal legitimacy of any contract for employment, which past labour may impose on the necessities of present labour, provided there is no taint of force or fraud. But is there no taint of force or fraud in the original title of many owners of past labour? The author states the case as if all property, from the beginning of time, had been honestly come by; either produced by the labour of the owner himself, or bestowed on him by gift or bequest from those whose labour did produce it. But how stands the fact? Landed property at least, in all the countries of modern Europe, derives its origin from force; the land was taken by military violence from former possessors, by those from whom it has been transmitted to its present owners. True, much of it has changed hands by purchase, and has come into the possession of persons who had earned the purchase-money by their labour; but the sellers could not impart to others a better title than they themselves possessed. Movable property, no doubt, has on the whole a purer origin, its first acquirers having mostly worked for it, at something useful to their fellow-citizens. But, looking at the question merely historically, and confining our attention to the larger masses, the doctrine that the rights of capital are those of past labour is liable even here to great abatements. Putting aside what has been acquired by fraud, or by the many modes of taking advantage of circumstances, which are deemed fair in commerce, though a person of a delicate conscience would scruple to use them in most of the other concerns of life—omitting all these considerations, how many of the great commercial fortunes have been, at least partly, built up by practices which in a better state of society would have been impossible—jobbing contracts, profligate loans, or other abuses of Government expenditure, improper use of public positions, monopolies, and other bad laws, or perhaps only by the manifold advantages which imperfect social institutions gave to those who are already rich, over their poorer fellow-citizens, in the general struggle of life? We may be told that there is such a thing as prescription, and that a bad title may become a good one by lapse of time. It may, and there are excellent reasons of general utility why it should; but there would be some difficulty in establishing this position from any principle. It is of great importance to the good order and comfort of the world that an amnesty should be granted to all wrongs of so remote a date that the evidence necessary for the ascertainment of title is no longer accessible, or that the reversal of the wrong would cause greater insecurity and greater social disturbance than its condonation. This is true, but I believe that no person ever succeeded in reconciling himself to the conviction, without doing considerable violence to what is called the instinctive sentiment of justice. It is not at all conformable to intuitive morality that a wrong should cease to be a wrong because of what is really an aggravation, its durable character; that because crime has been successful for a certain limited period, society for its own convenience should guarantee its success for all time to come. Accordingly, those who construct their systems of society upon the natural rights of man, usually add to the word natural the word imprescriptible, and strenuously maintain that it is impossible to acquire a fee-simple in an injustice.