Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 49.djvu/44

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
32
POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

eluded in the fiscal policy of France at the. period under consideration—namely, a so-called capitation tax, which was a kind of graduated tax on capital, and from the incidence of which there was theoretically no exemption; and the vingtiéme (one twentieth), instituted by Colbert, which was an income tax, and supposed to be levied on every class. Owing, however, to inefficient administration, and to the circumstance that the clergy occasionally bought exemption for themselves for a term of years by the payment of a lump sum, the revenue derived from these sources was always much less than it ought to have been, the privileged class to a large extent evading assessments.

The almost complete exemption of the clergy of France during the ante-revolutionary period from taxation, whereby those who were supposed to preach and practice charity were so intent upon securing worldly vantage as to have thrown nearly all their duties and responsibilities to the state upon the poor, constitutes one of those striking contradictions which so often confront us in history.

The indirect taxes were very numerous; comprising the customs, the octroi, the excise, and special taxes on wines, cards, tobacco, salt, and on a great variety of manufactured products; and in their collection the arbitrary, inquisitorial, infinitesimal, and penalty system was carried out to perfection. It was this class of taxes which undoubtedly pressed most heavily on the French poor, and from the direct incidence of which the Church and nobility managed in a great degree to escape. Very curiously, also, they constituted an inducement to the peasantry to seem poorer than perhaps they actually were, and to live in low, thatched cottages, without floors or glass in the windows, inasmuch as any improvement of their dwellings meant an increase of their taxes. Custom duties were levied, not only at frontiers of the kingdom, but between every province of France. The taille was exacted with military severity. "Carriages and carts were stopped on the highway and searched by the tax collectors; no private house was safe from them by day or by night; and on the slightest suspicion they used the power of arrest that was vested in them. Prosecutions for unpaid taxes were carried on with the utmost rigor. The clothes of the poor were seized, and even their last measure of flour, and the latches on their doors. Collectors, accompanied by locksmiths, forced open doors and carried away and sold furniture for one quarter of its value, the expenses exceeding the amount of the tax."—Taine.

The most vexatious, arbitrary, and extraordinary tax of this period was that imposed on salt, and known as the "gabelle"; and to one who now acquaints himself with its history and details it must seem almost inconceivable that any country claiming to