Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 52.djvu/17

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PRINCIPLES OF TAXATION.

permitted to offset debts against the value of his goods; or if the law was peremptory that his oath alone should be given, and that there should be no legal examination, inspection, or proof of the value or character of the importations?

In whatever aspect, therefore, we regard the present popular system of local taxation in the United States, it is arbitrary and in violation of the principles of constitutional government. If the assessor acts, he acts solely by his despotic will, and without any reference to legal proof or evidence, such as is enforced in recovering private debts; and if the taxpayer, by his oath, becomes the arbiter, his will is supreme and not subject to investigation or control. It is a system, in short, that violates all the laws of evidence, the growth of centuries in civilized countries; that makes secret that which should have publicity, and proceeds upon a basis that could not be recognized for one moment in the collection of debts, or in the trial of persons accused of the most heinous of offenses.

Such, then, are the difficulties which all experience has shown to be attendant upon every attempt to tax personal property of an intangible and invisible character, and which all who have investigated the subject acknowledge to be insuperable. As not a few, however, who are ready to make this acknowledgment nevertheless insist, that all personal property that is visible and tangible and can not be concealed, but can be reached effectively and equally, ought to be taxed; and as the drift of popular sentiment in the United States at the present time favors this assumption, it is important to next consider the nature and extent of the results attainable by intelligent and faithful assessors acting in conformity with it.

As the experience, however, of the States that have enacted the most precise and stringent methods of taxation proves beyond question, that the returns of the owners of visible, tangible personal property, even when supported by oaths, will not, as a rule, afford a basis for the correct valuation and assessment of such property, the further assumption is warranted, that the attainment of such a result in even an approximate degree must depend on the personal visitation and inspection of the most intelligent and honest assessors. And here at the very outset of the prospective investigation its inherent insuperable difficulties begin to manifest themselves.

Thus a large proportion of the so-called personal property of every highly civilized country which is not intangible and invisible, and which requires only ordinary perception for recognition and valuation, is in the nature of instruments or subjects of commerce between states and nations; such as railroad machinery, ships, steam-boats, immense stocks of raw and manufactured products accumulated in store for the sole purpose of movement, or actually in