EXCISE (derived through the Dutch, excijs or accijs, possibly from Late Lat. accensare,—ad, to, and census, tax; the word owes something to a confusion with excisum, cut out), a term now well known in public finance, signifying a duty charged on home goods, either in the process of their manufacture, or before their sale to the home consumers. This form of taxation implies a commonwealth somewhat advanced in manufactures, markets and general riches; and it interferes so directly with the industry and liberty of the subject that it has seldom been introduced save in some supreme financial exigency, and has as seldom been borne, even after long usage, with less than the ordinary impatience of taxation. Yet excise duties can boast a respectable antiquity, having a distinct parallel in the vectigal rerum venalium (or toll levied on all commodities sold by auction, or in public market) of the Romans. But the Roman excise was mild compared with that of modern nations, having never been more than centesima, or 1%, of the value; and it was much shorter lived than the modern examples, having been first imposed by Augustus, reduced for a time one-half by Tiberius, and finally abolished by Caligula, A.D. 38, so that the Roman excise cannot have had a duration of much more than half a century. Its remission must have been deemed a great boon in the marts of Rome, since it was commemorated by the issue of small brass coins with the legend Remissis Centesimis, specimens of which are still to be found in collections.
The history of this branch of revenue in the United Kingdom dates from the period of the civil wars, when the republican government, following the example of Holland, established, as a means of defraying the heavy expenditure of the time, various duties of excise, which the royalists when restored to power found too convenient or too necessary to be abandoned, notwithstanding their origin and their general unpopularity. On the contrary, they were destined to be steadily increased both in number and in amount. It is curious that the first commodities selected for excise were those on which this branch of taxation, after great extension, had again in the period of reform and free trade been in a manner permanently reduced, viz. malt liquors, and such kindred beverages as cider perry and spruce beer. The other excise duties remaining are chiefly in the form of licences, such as to kill game and to use and carry guns, to sell gold and silver plate, to pursue the business of appraisers or auctioneers, hawkers or pedlars, pawnbrokers or patent-medicine vendors, to manufacture tobacco or snuff, to deal in sweets or in foreign wines, to make vinegar, to roast malt, or to use a still in chemistry or otherwise. It may be presumed that the policy of the licence duties was at first not so much to collect revenue, though in the aggregate they yielded a large sum, as to guard the main sources of excise, and to place certain classes of dealers, by registration and an annual payment to the exchequer, under a direct legal responsibility. The excise system of the United Kingdom as now pruned and reformed, however, while still the most prolific of all the sources of revenue, is simple in process, and is contentedly borne as compared with what was the case in the 18th, and the beginning of the 19th century. The wars with Bonaparte strained the government resources to the uttermost, and excise duties were multiplied and increased in every practicable form. Bricks, candles, calico prints, glass, hides and skins, leather, paper, salt, soap, and other commodities of home manufacture and consumption were placed, with their respective industries, under excise surveillance and fine. When the duties could no longer be increased in number, they were raised in rate. The duty on British spirits, which had begun at a few pence per gallon in 1660, rose step by step to 11s. 81d. per gallon in 1820; and the duty on salt was augmented to three or fourfold its value.
The old unpopularity of excise, though now somewhat out of date, must have had real enough grounds. It breaks out in English literature, from songs and pasquinades to grave political essays and legal commentaries. Blackstone, in quoting the declaration of parliament in 1649 that “excise is the most easy and indifferent levy that can be laid upon the people,” adds on his own authority that “from its first original to the present time its very name has been odious to the people of England” (book i. cap. 8, tenth edition, 1786); while the definition of “excise” gravely inserted by Dr Johnson in the Dictionary, at the imminent risk of subjecting the eminent author to a prosecution for libel—viz. “a hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid”—can hardly be ever forgotten.
The duties of excise in the United Kingdom were, until the passing of the Finance Act 1908, under the control of the commissioners of inland revenue; they are now under the control of the commissioners of customs; the amount raised, apart from changes in the rate, shows a fairly constant tendency to increase, and is usually regarded as one of the best tests of the prosperity of the working classes.
The spirit duty is levied according to the quantity of “proof spirit” contained in the product of distillation, and the charge is taken at three different points in the process of manufacture, the trader being liable for the result of the highest of the three calculations. What is known as “proof spirit” is obtained by mixing nearly equal weights of pure alcohol and water, the quantity of pure alcohol being in bulk about 57% of the whole. Owing to the high rate of duty as compared with the volume and intrinsic value of the spirits, the whole process of manufacture is carried on under the close supervision of revenue officials. All the vessels used are measured by them and are secured with revenue locks; the premises are under constant survey; and notice has to be given by the distiller of the materials used and of the several stages of his operations. Though the charge for duty is raised at the time when the process of distillation is completed, the duty is not actually paid until the spirits are required for consumption. In the meanwhile they may be retained in an approved “warehouse,” which is also subject to close supervision.
The beer duty dates from 1880, in which year it was substituted for the duty on malt. The specific gravity of the worts depends chiefly on the amount of sugar which they contain, and is ascertained by the saccharometer.
Excise licences may be divided into—(a) licences for the sale or manufacture of excisable liquors, (b) licences for other trades, such as tobacco dealers or manufacturers, auctioneers, pawnbrokers, &c., (c) licences for male servants, carriages, motors and armorial bearings, and (d) gun, game and dog licences. Nearly the whole of the licence duties is paid over to the local taxation account.
The railway passenger duty, which was made an excise duty by the Railway Passenger Duty Act 1847, applies only to Great Britain. It is levied on all passenger fares exceeding 1d. per mile, the rate being 2% on urban and 5% on other traffic.
The other items which go to make up the excise revenue are the charges on deliveries from bonded warehouses, and the duties on coffee mixture labels and on chicory.
For more detailed information reference should be made to Highmore’s Excise Laws, and the annual reports of the commissioners of inland revenue, especially those issued in 1870 and 1885. See also Taxation; English Finance.