Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/February 1899/Principles of Taxation: The Law of the Diffusion of Taxes XXXI

Popular Science Monthly Volume 54 February 1899  (1899) 
Principles of Taxation: The Law of the Diffusion of Taxes XXXI by David Ames Wells


By the Late Hon. DAVID A. WELLS.



ATTENTION is next asked to an analysis of the incidence of-taxation, what is mainly direct, on processes and products, and on the machinery by which one is effected and the other distributed, and at the outset the following propositions in the nature of economic axioms are submitted, which it is believed will serve as stepping stones to the attainment of broad generalizations.

Thus, property is solely produced to supply human wants and desires; and taxes form an important part of the cost of all production, distribution, and consumption, and represent the labor performed in guarding and protecting property at the expense of the State, in all the processes of development and transformation. The State is thus an active and important partner in all production. Without its assistance and protection, production would be impeded or wholly arrested. The soldier or policeman guards, while the citizen performs his labor in safety. As a partner in all the forms of production and business, the State must pay its expenses—i. e., its agents, for their services; and its only means of paying are through its receipts from taxation. Taxes, then, are clearly items of expense in all business, the same as rent, fuel, cost of material, light, labor, waste, insurance, clerical service, advertising, expressage, freight, and the like, and on business principles they find their place on the pages of profit and loss; and, like all other expenses which enter into the cost of production, must finally be sustained by those who gratify their wants or desires by consumption. Production is only a means, and consumption is the end, and the consumer must pay in the end all the expenses of production. Every dealer in domestic or imported merchandise keeps on hand, at all times, upon his shelves, a stock of different and accumulated taxes—customs, internal revenue, State, school, and municipal—with his goods; and when we buy and carry away from any store or shop an article, we buy and carry away with it the accompanying and inherential taxes.

Any primary taxpayer, who does not ultimately consume the thing taxed, and who does not include the tax in the price of the taxed property or its products, must literally throw away his money and must soon become bankrupt and disappear as a competitor; and accordingly the tax advancer will add the tax in his prices if he understands simple addition. How rapidly bankruptcy would befall dealers in imported goods, wares, and merchandise in the United States who did not strictly observe this rule will be realized when one remembers that the average tax imposed by its Government (in 1896) on all dutiable imports is in excess of fifty per cent.

When Dr. Franklin was asked by a committee of the English House of Commons, prior to the American Revolution, if the province of Pennsylvania did not practically relieve farmers and other landowners from taxation, and at the same time impose a heavy tax on merchants, to the injury of British trade, he answered that "if such special tax was imposed, the merchants were experts with their pens, and added the tax to the price of their goods, and thus made the farmers and all landowners pay their part of the tax as consumers."

Taxes uniformly levied on all the subjects of taxation, and which are not so excessive as to become a prohibition on the use of the thing taxed, become, therefore, a part of the cost of all production, distribution, and consumption, and diffuse and equate themselves by natural laws in the same manner and in the same minute degree as all other elements that constitute the expenses of production. We produce to consume and consume to produce, and the cost of consumption, including taxes, enters into the cost of production, and the cost of production, including taxes, enters into the cost of consumption, and thus taxes levied uniformly on things of the same class, by the laws of competition, supply, and demand, and the all-pervading mediums of labor, will be distributed, percussed, and repercussed to a remote degree, until they finally fall upon every person, not in proportion to his consumption of a given article, but in the proportion his consumption bears to the aggregate consumption of the taxed community.

A great capitalist, like Mr. Astor, bears no greater burden of taxation (and can not be made to bear more by any laws that can be properly termed tax laws) than the proportion which his aggregate individual consumption bears to the aggregate individual consumption of all others in his circuit of immediate competition; and as to his other taxes, he is a mere tax collector, or conduit, conducting taxes from his tenants or borrowers to the State or city treasury. A whisky distiller is a tax conduit, or tax collector, and sells more taxes than the original cost of whisky, as finds proof and illustration in the fact that the United States imposes a tax of one dollar and ten cents per gallon on proof whisky which its manufacturer would be very glad to sell free of tax for an average of thirteen cents per gallon. The tax, furthermore, is required to be laid before the whisky can be removed from the distillery or bonded warehouse and allowed to become an article of merchandise. Tobacco in like manner can not go into consumption till the tax is paid. In Great Britain, where all tobacco consumed is imported, for every 3d. paid by the consumer, 2.5d. represents customs duties or taxes. In Russia it is estimated that the Government annually requires of its peasant producers one third the market value of their entire crop of cereals in payment of their taxes, and fixes the time of collecting the same in the autumn, when the peasant sells sufficient of his grain (mainly for exportation), and with the purchase money meets the demands of the tax collector. Can it be doubted that the sums thus extorted enter into and form an essential part of the cost of the entire crop or product of the land? It is, therefore, immaterial where the process of manufacture takes place; the citizens of a State pay in proportion to the quantity which they consume. The traveler who stops at one of the great city hotels can not avoid reimbursing the owner for the tax he primarily pays on the property; and the owner, in respect to the taxation of his hotel property, is but a great and effective real-estate and diffused tax collector. Again, the farmer charges taxes in the price of his products; the laborer, in his wages; the clergyman, in his salary; the lender, in the interest he receives; the lawyer, in his fees; and the manufacturer, in his goods.

The American Bible Society is always in part loaded with the whisky and tobacco taxes paid by the printers, paper-makers, and bookbinders, or by the producers of articles consumed by these mechanics, and reflected and embodied in their wages and the products of their labor according to the degree of absence of competition from fellow mechanics who abstain from the use of these and other taxed articles.

These conclusions respecting the diffusion of taxes may be said to be universally accepted by economists so far as they relate to the results of production before they reach the hands of the final consumers; but they are not accepted by many, as Mr. Henry George has recently expressed it, in respect to taxes on special profits or advantages on things of which the supply is strictly limited, or of wealth in the hands of final consumers, or in the course of distribution by gift, and finally in respect to taxes on land. But a little examination would seem to show that all of these exceptions are of the kind that are said to prove the rule. Special profits and advantages in this age of quick diffusion of knowledge and intense competition are exceedingly ephemeral, and are mainly confined to results which the State with a view of encouraging removes for a limited time from the natural laws of competition by granting patents, copyrights, and franchises. Of things which are strictly limited in respect to supply, what and where are they? Only a very few can be specified: ivory, Peruvian guano, whalebone, ambergris, and the pelts of the fur seal. Of wealth in the process of transmission, or in the hands of final consumers, it is not tangible wealth unless it is tangible property, which conforms under any correct system of taxation to the principles of taxation; and if any one advocates the taxation of the right to receive property which has already been taxed, he in effect advocates a double exaction of one and the same thing. If it be asked, Will an income tax on a person retired from business be diffused? the answer, beyond question, must be in the affirmative, if the tax is uniform on all persons and on all amounts, and is absolutely collected in minute sums. Would any one pay the same price for a railroad bond which is subject to an income tax as he would for it if it was free from tax? If one's land is taxed, either in the form of rent or income, will not the tenant have the burden primarily thrown upon him? And, finally, will not the consumer of the tenant's goods pay through or by reason of such consumption?

Respecting the incidence of the tax on mortgages, it does not make any difference how mortgages are taxed—no earthly power can make the lender pay it. If the borrower would not agree to pay the tax, the lender would not loan him money, and whenever possible loans would be foreclosed and payment insisted upon if the borrower should refuse to pay the tax.

Let us next subject to analysis the incidence of the so-called taxation of land. Considered per se (or in itself), land, in common with unappropriated air and water, has no value; and it can not in any strict sense be affirmed that we tax land; and when such affirmation is made, its only legitimate and justifiable meaning is that we tax the value of land; which value is due entirely to the amount of personal property (in the sense of embodied labor) expended upon it, and the pressure or demand of such property or labor to use, possess, and occupy it.

Vattel, in his Law of Nations, enunciates as a self-evident and irrefutable proposition that "Nature has not herself established property, and in particular with regard to lands. She only approves this introduction for the advantage of the human race."

One of the most striking examples of evidence in illustration and proof of this proposition is to be found in an incident, which has heretofore escaped attention, which occurred during a debate in the Senate of the United States in 1890 on a bill for revision of duties on imports, in respect to the article borax (borate of soda). Formerly the world's supply of this mineral substance, which enters largely into industrial processes and medicine, was limited, and mainly derived from certain hot springs in Tuscany, Italy; but within a comparatively recent period it has been found that it exists in such abundance in certain of the desert regions of California, Nevada, and Arizona, that it can be gathered with the minimum of labor from the very surface of the ground. Were a single acre of similar desert to be found in any section of a country enjoying the most ordinary privileges in respect to transportation and water supply, it would be a source of wealth to its proprietor. But under existing circumstances, although thousands and thousands of acres of this land can be bought with certain title from its owner—the Federal Government—for two dollars and twenty-five cents an acre, no one wants it at any price; and the prospective demand for it has not yet been sufficient to warrant the Government in instituting even a survey as a preliminary to effecting a sale. In the Senate debate above alluded to it was proposed to increase the duty on imported borax, with the expectation that a consequent increase in its domestic price would afford sufficient profit to induce such construction of roads and such a supply of water and labor on the borax tracts of the deserts as to enable them to become property.[1]

In the oases of the deserts of North Africa and Egypt the value of a tract of land depends very little upon its size or location, but almost exclusively upon the number of the date-bearing palms, the result of labor, growing upon it, and the quality of their fruit. John Bright on one occasion stated that if the land of Ireland were stripped of the improvements made upon it by the labor of the occupier, the face of the country would be "as bare and naked as an American prairie."

An exact parallel to this state of things is afforded in the case of lands of no value reclaimed from the sea and made valuable, as has been often done in England, Holland, and other countries, by embodying labor upon them in the shape of restraining embankments and the transportation and use of filling material. Again, the value of springs or running streams of water is generally limited and of little account. But when, through direct labor, or the results of labor, the water is collected in reservoirs and made the instrumentality of imparting power to machinery, or conducted through conduits to centers of population which otherwise could not obtain it, it becomes extremely valuable, and capable of being sold in large or small quantities. Another similar illustration is to be found in the case of atmospheric air, which in its natural and ordinary state has no marketable value, but when compressed by labor embodied in the form of machinery and made capable of transmitting force, it at once becomes endowed with value and can be sold at a high price.

An opinion entertained and strongly advocated by not a few economic writers and teachers of repute (more especially in Europe, but not in the United States)[2] is, that taxes on land do not diffuse themselves, but fall wholly on the landowner, and that there is no way in which he can throw it off and cause any considerable part of them to be paid by anybody else. The concrete argument in support of this opinion has been thus stated: "When land is taxed, the owner can not, as a general rule, escape the tax, for the reason that, to get rid of the tax, the price of the land or of the rent must be raised the full amount of the tax, and the only way in which this can be done is by reducing the supply or quantity offered in market, or else by increasing the demand. The supply of land can not be reduced, and the demand being created by capital and population, both of which are beyond the control of the landowner, he can do nothing to raise the price of land, and hence can not get rid of the tax. It may be stated, then, as a general rule, that a tax on land, or on any commodity the supply of which is limited absolutely, must be paid by the owner. It is possible to suggest cases in which, through combination of owners and the necessities of consumers, a demand may be created strong enough to raise the price to the full amount of such tax, but it is doubted if such cases ever really occur."[3]

The source of the contention on this important economic and social question, and the difficulty in the way of the attainment of harmonious conclusions, is due to a nonrecognition of the fact that land is taxed under two conditions, and can not be taxed otherwise. Thus, if a person holds land for his exclusive use or enjoyment, and consumes all of its product, a tax on such land, which has been characterized by some economists as, its "pure rent," will not diffuse itself, because it is a tax on personal enjoyment or final consumption. The same is the case when a portion of a river or lake or its shore is rented for fishing for the purposes of sport. A like result will also follow, in a greater or less degree, from the inability or unwillingness of tenants, as has been often the case in Ireland, to pay rent sufficient to reimburse the landowner for interest on his investment of capital and cost of repairs. But if one employs land as an instrumentality for acquiring gain through its uses, the taxation of land must include the taxation of its uses—its contents, all that rests upon it, all that is produced, sold, expended, manufactured, or transported on it—and all such taxes will diffuse themselves. On the other hand, if the taxation of land under such circumstances and conditions does not diffuse itself, then the taking is simply a process of confiscation, which if continued will ultimately rob the owner of his property, and is not governed by any principle.

It is indeed difficult to see how a theory so wholly inapplicable to fact and experience as that of the nondiffusion of taxes on land—which makes property in land an exception to the rule acknowledged to be applicable to all other property—could originate and be strenuously maintained to the extent even of stigmatizing any opposite view "as so very superficial as scarcely to deserve a refutation."[4] !No little of confusion and controversy on this subject has arisen from the assumption that land specifically, and the rent of land, constitute two distinct and legitimate subjects for taxation, when the fact is just the contrary. The rent of land is in the nature of an income to its owner; and it is an economic axiom that when a government taxes the income of property it in reality taxes the property itself. In England and on the continent of Europe land is generally taxed on its yearly income or income value, and these taxes are always considered as land taxes. Alexander Hamilton, in discussing the taxation of incomes derived directly from property, used this language: "What, in fact, is property but a fiction, without the beneficial use of it? In many instances, indeed, the income is the property itself." The United States Supreme Court, in its recent decision of the income tax (1895), also practically indorsed this conclusion. To levy taxes on the rent of land and also upon the land itself is, therefore, double taxation on one and the same property, which in common with all other unequal and unjust taxes can not be diffused; and for this reason should be regarded as in the nature of exactions or confiscation, concerning the incidence of which nothing can be safely predicated. In short, this whole discussion, and the unwarranted assumption involved in it and largely accepted, is an illustration of what may be regarded as a maxim, that the greatest errors in political economy have arisen from overlooking the most obvious facts or deductions from experience.

With a purpose of further elucidating this problem, attention is asked first to its consideration from an "abstract," and next from a practical standpoint of view. Let us endeavor to clearly understand the common meaning of the word "rent." It is derived from the Latin reddita, "things given back or paid," and in plain English is a word for price or hire. It may be the hire of anything. It is the price we pay for the right of exclusive use over something which is not our own. Thus we speak of the rent of land, of buildings and apartments, of a fishery, of boats, of water, of an opera box, of a piano, sewing machines, furniture, vehicles, and the like. In Scotland at the present time farmers hire cows to dairymen, who pay an agreed-upon price by the year or for a term of years for each cow, and reimburse themselves for such payment and make a profit on the transaction by the sale of the products of the animal. This hire is called a rent, and is clearly the same in kind as the rent of land. We do not apply the word "hire" to the employment of men, because we have a separate word—"wages"—for that particular case of hire. Neither do we apply the word "rent" in English to the hire of money, because we have another separate word—"interest"—which has come into special use for the price paid for the loan or hire of money. But in the French language the word rent is habitually and specially used to signify the price of the hire money, and that of "rentes" to investments of money paying interest; the French national debt being always spoken of as "les rentes"; while the men who live on the lending of money, or capital in any form, are called "rentiers."

The question next naturally arises, Why is it necessary to set up any special theory at all about the natural disposition of the price which we pay for the hire of land, any more than about the price we pay for the hire of a house, of furniture, of a boat, of an opera box, or of a cow? The particular kind of use to which we put each of these various things is no doubt very different from the kind of use to which we put each or all the others. But all of these uses resolve themselves into the desire we have to derive some pleasure or some profit by the possession for a time of the right of exclusive use of something which is not our own, and for which we must pay the price, not of purchase, but of hire.

The explanation of this curious economic phenomenon is to be found in the assumption and positive assertion on the part of not a few distinguished economists that the truly scientific and only correct use of the term "rent" is its application to the "income derived from things of all kinds of which the supply is limited, and can not be increased by man's action."[5] As a rule, economists who accept this definition confine its application to the hire of land alone, although it professes to include other things, "of all kinds," to which the same description applies—namely, that they can not be increased in quantity by any human action. There are, however, no such other things specified, and in any literal sense there are no such other things existing, unless water and the atmosphere be intended.

Now, although it is indisputably true that man by his action can not increase the absolute or total quantity of land, any more than of water and air, appertaining to the whole globe on which we live, there is practically no limitation to the degree of value which man's action can impart to land, and which is the only thing for which land is wanted, bought, or sold, and which, as already shown, can be truly made the subject of taxation. The tracts of land on the earth's surface which are of no present marketable value are its deserts, its wildernesses, the sides and summits of its mountains, and its continually frozen zones, where no results of labor are embodied in or reflected upon it; while, on the other hand, its tracts of greatest value are in the large cities and marts of trade and commerce, as in the vicinity of the Bank of England, or in Wall Street, where the results of labor are so concentrated and reflected upon land that it is necessary to cover it with gold in order to acquire by purchase a title to it and a right to its exclusive use. The difference between land at twenty-five dollars an acre and twenty-five dollars a square foot is simply that the latter is or may be in the near future covered or surrounded by capital and business, while the former is remote from these sources of value. One of the greatest possible, perhaps probable, outcomes of the modern progress of chemistry is that through the utilization of microbic organizations the value of land as an instrumentality for the production of food may be increased to an extent that at the present time is hardly possible of conception. Again, in the case of air and water, although their total absolute quantity can not be increased, their available and useful quantity in any place, as before shown, can be by the agency of man, and their use made subject to hire or rent.

Consideration is next asked to the question at issue from what may be termed its practical standpoint. We have first a proposition in the nature of an economic axiom, that the price of everything necessary for production, or the hire of anything—land, money, and the like—without which the product could not arise, is, and must be, without exception, a part of the cost of that product; second, that all levies of the State which are worthy of being designated as taxes constitute an essential element of the cost of all products. The rent of an opera box, given to obtain a mere pleasure, constitutes a part of the fund out of which the musicians are paid, and if they are not so paid they will not play or sing. The rent given for the right to fish on a certain part of a river or its shores is a part of the cost of producing the fish as a marketable commodity. If a house is hired for the purpose of conducting any business in it, the price of that hire does most certainly enter into the cost of that business, whatever it may be, assuming that the use of the house is a necessity for carrying it on. As no man will produce a commodity by which he is sure to lose money, or fail to obtain the ordinary rate of profit, the tax must be added to the price, or the production will cease. If a uniform tax is imposed on all land occupied, it will be paid by the occupier, because occupation (house-building) will cease until the rent rises sufficiently to cover the tax. The landlord assesses upon his tenants the tax he has paid upon his real estate; each tenant assesses his share upon each of his customers; and so perfect is this diffusion of land taxation that every traveler from a distant part of the country who remains for even a single day at a hotel pays, without stopping to think about it, a portion of the taxes on the building, first paid by the owner, then assessed upon the lessees, and next cut up by them minutely in the per diem charge. But of course neither the owner nor lessee really escapes taxation, because a portion of somebody else's tax is thrown back upon them.

Is it possible to believe that in a city like New York, where less than four per cent of its population pay any direct tax on real estate, or in a city like Montreal, where the expenses of the city are mainly derived from taxes on land and the building occupancy of land, the great majority of the inhabitants of those cities are exempt from all land taxation? In China, where, as before shown, the title or ownership of all land vests in the emperor, and the revenue of the Government is almost exclusively derived from taxation of land in the form of rent, does the burden of tax remain upon the owner of the land? If the tax in the form of rent is paid in the products of the land, as undoubtedly it is in part, will not the cost of the percentage of the whole product of the land that is thus taken increase to the renter the cost of the percentage that is left to him; or, if the product is sold for money with which to pay the tax rent, will not its selling price embody the cost of the tax, as it will the cost of every other thing necessary for production? To affirm to the contrary is to say that the price which the Chinese farmer pays for the right of the exclusive use of his land is no part of the crops he may raise upon it.

Consider next the assertion of those who maintain the non-diffusion theory that taxes on land are paid by the owners because the supply of land can neither be increased nor diminished. In answer to it we have the indisputable fact that the owners of land, whenever taxes are increased, attempt to obtain an increased rental for it if the circumstances will permit it. And the very attempt tends to increase the rent. Nothing but adverse circumstances, such as diminishing population or commercial and industrial distress, can prevent a rise in the rental of land on which the taxes are increased; and in the case of dwellings and warehouses the rise is almost always very prompt, because no man will erect new dwellings or warehouses unless their rent compensate fully the increase of taxation. And in any prosperous community, in which population increases in the natural ratio, there must be a constant increase of dwellings and warehouses to prevent a rise of rent, independent of higher wages and higher taxation. In no other occupation is capital surer of obtaining the average net remuneration than in the erection of dwellings and warehouses, and nothing but lack of general prosperity and diminishing population can throw the burden of taxation on real estate or its owners, without the slightest attempt at combination on their part. If the owners of land are not reimbursed for its taxation by its occupants, new houses "would not be erected, the old ones would wear out, and after a time the supply would be so small that the demand would raise rents, and house building begin again, the tax having been transferred to the occupier."

It is pertinent at this point to notice the averment that is frequently made, that cultivators of the soil can not incorporate taxes on the land in the price of their products, because the price of their whole crop is fixed by the price at which any portion of it can be sold in foreign markets. In answer to this we have first the fact that, to give the population of the world an adequate supply of food and other agricultural products, it is not only necessary that all the land at present under cultivation shall continue to be so employed, but further that new lands shall each year be brought under cultivation, or else the land already cultivated shall be made more productive.

The population of the world steadily increases, notwithstanding wars, epidemics, and all the evils which are consequences of man's ignorance and of his improper use of things, his own faculties included. Hence, in case of increased taxation on land, the cultivator of the soil is generally enabled to transfer easily and promptly the burden of the tax to the purchasers of the products he raises, without abandoning the cultivation even of the least productive soil.

Furthermore, the exports of many agricultural products are due not to the cheapness of their cost of production, but to the variations which occur in the productiveness of the crops of other countries. M. Rouher, a French economist, and for a period a minister of commerce, thoroughly investigated this matter, and proved by incontestable data that almost invariably when the yield of breadstuffs in Europe was large in the country drained by the Black and Baltic Seas, it was small in the countries drained by the Atlantic. This variation in the yield of agricultural crops forces the countries where crops are deficient to purchase from those where they are abundant, or who have a surplus on hand from previous abundant harvests. In the United States, when the harvests are abundant, the American farmers, rather than sell below a certain price, keep a portion of their crops on hand until bad crops in Europe produce a foreign demand, which has to be supplied at once. Under such circumstances those who hold the surplus stock of breadstuffs, or any other product, would control the price, and not the foreigners who stand in need of it. The only check, then, to the cupidity of the holders of breadstuffs is the competition between themselves, which invariably suffices to prevent any undue advantage being taken of the necessities of the countries whose harvests are deficient. These bad crops occur frequently enough to consume all the surplus of the countries that produce in excess of their own wants. In fact, this transient, irregular demand is counted upon and provided for by producers just as much so as the regular home demand—hence is one of the elements that regulate production and control prices.

At this point of the discussion it is desirable to obtain a clear and true idea of the meaning or definition of the phrase "diffusion of taxes." As sometimes used in popular and superficial discussions, it is held to imply that every tax imposed by law distributes itself equitably over the whole surface of society. Such implication would, however, be even more fallacious than an assumption that every expenditure made by an individual distributes itself in such a way that it becomes equally an expenditure by every other individual. On the other hand, a fair consideration of the foregoing summary of facts and deductions would seem to compel every mind not previously warped by prejudice to accept and indorse the following as great fundamental principles in taxation: First, that in order to burden equitably and uniformly all persons and property, for the purpose of obtaining revenue for public purposes, it is not necessary to tax primarily and uniformly all persons and property within the taxing district. Second, equality of taxation consists in a uniform assessment of the same articles or class of property that is subject to taxation. Third, taxes under such a system equate and diffuse themselves; and if levied with certainty and uniformity upon tangible property and fixed signs of property, they will, by a diffusion and repercussion, reach and burden all visible property, and also all of the so-called "invisible and intangible" property, with unerring certainty and equality.

All taxation ultimately and necessarily falls on consumption; and the burden of every man, under any equitable system of taxation, and which no effort will enable him to avoid, will be in the exact proportion or ratio which his aggregate consumption maintains to the aggregate consumption of the taxing district, State, or community of which he is a member.

It is not, however, contended that unequal taxation on competitors of the same class, persons, or things diffuses itself whether such inequality be the result of intention or of defective laws, and their more defective administration. And doubtless one prime reason why economists and others interested have not accepted the law of diffusion of taxes as here given is that they see, as the practical workings of the tax systems they live under, or have become practically familiar with, that taxes in many instances do seem to remain on the person who immediately pays them; and fail to see that such result is due—as in the case of the taxation of large classes of the so-called personal property—to the adoption of a system which does not permit of equality in assessment, and therefore can not be followed by anything of equality in diffusion. Such persons may not unfairly be compared to physicists, who, constantly working with imperfect instruments, and constantly obtaining, in consequence, defective results, come at last to regard their errors as in the nature of established truths.[6]

According to these conclusions, the greatest consumers must be the greatest taxpayers. The man also who evades a tax clearly robs his neighbors. The thief also pays taxes indirectly, for he is a consumer, and must pay the advanced price caused by his own roguery for all he consumes, although he does steal the money to pay with. Idlers and even tramps pay taxes, but the amount that they indirectly pay into the fund is much less than they take out of it. People are sometimes referred to or characterized as non-taxpayers, and in political harangues and socialistic essays measures or policies are recommended by which certain persons or classes, by reason of their extreme poverty, shall be entirely exempt from all incidence or burden of taxation. Such a person does not, however, exist in any civilized community. If one could be found he would be a greater curiosity than exists in any museum. To avoid taxation a man must go into an unsettled wilderness where he has no neighbors, for as soon as he has a companion, if that companion be only a dog,

which he in part or all supports, taxation begins, and the more companions he has, the greater improvements he makes, and the higher civilization he enjoys, the heavier will be the taxes he must pay.

Taxes legitimately levied, then, are a part of the cost of all production, and there can be no more tendency for taxes to remain upon the persons who immediately pay them than there is for rents, the cost of insurance, water supply, and fuel to follow the same law. The person who wishes to use or destroy the utility of property by consumption to gratify his desires, or satisfy his wants, can not obtain it from the owners or producers with their consent, except by gift, without giving pay or services for it; and the average price of all property is coincident with the cost of production, including the taxes advanced upon it, which are a part of its cost in the hands of the seller. Again, no person who produces any form of property or utility, for the purpose of sale or rent, sustains any burden of legitimate taxation, although he may be a tax advancer; for, as a tax advancer, he is the agent of the State, and a tax collector from the consumer. But he who produces or buys, and does not sell or rent, but consumes, is the taxpayer, and sustains a tax in his aggregate consumption, where all taxation must ultimately rest. In short, no person bears the burden of taxation, under an equitable, legitimate system, except upon the property which he applies to his own exclusive use in ultimate consumption. The great consumer is the only great taxpayer.

Finally, a great economic law pointed out by Adam Smith, which has an important and almost conclusive bearing upon this vexed problem of the diffusion of taxes, should not be overlooked—namely, his statement in The Wealth of Nations that "no tax can ever reduce for any considerable time the rate of profit in any particular trade, which must always keep its level with other trades in the neighborhood." In other words, taxes and profits, by the operation of the laws of human nature, constantly tend to equate themselves. Man is always prompted to engage in the most profitable occupation and to make the most profitable investment. And since the emancipation from feudalism with its sumptuary laws, legal regulations of the price of labor and merchandise, and other arbitrary governmental invasions of private rights, individual judgment and self-interest have been recognized as the best tests or arbiters of the profitableness of a given investment or occupation. The average profits, therefore, of one form of investment, or of one occupation (as originally shown by Adam Smith), must for any long period equal the average profits of other investments and occupations, whether taxed or untaxed, skill, risk, and agreeableness of occupation being taken into consideration.[7] Natural laws will, accordingly, always produce an equilibrium of burden between taxed and untaxed things and persons. There is a level of profit and a level of taxation by natural laws, as there is a level of the ocean by natural laws. In fact, all proportional contributions to the State from direct competitors are diffused upon persons and things in the taxing jurisdiction by a uniformity as manifest as is the pressure upon water, which is known to be equal in every direction.

A word here in reference to the popular idea that the exemption of any form of property is to grant a favor to those who possess such property. This idea has, however, no warrant for its acceptance. Thus, an exemption is freedom from a burden or service to which others are liable; but in case of the exclusion of an entire class of property from primary taxation, no person is liable, and therefore there is no exemption. An exclusion of all milk from taxation, while whisky is taxed, is not an exemption, for the two are not competing articles, or articles of the same class. It is true that highly excessive taxation of a given article may cause another and similar article, in some instances, to become a substitute or competing article; and hence the necessity of care and moderation in establishing the rate of taxation. We do not consider that putting a given article into the free list, under the tariff, is an exemption to any particular individual; but if we make the rate higher on one taxpayer or on one importer of the same article than on another taxpayer or importer, we grant an exemption. We use the word "exemption," therefore, imperfectly, when we speak of "the exemption of an entire class of property," as, for example, upon all personal property; for if the removal of the burden operates uniformly on all interested, or owning such property, then there can be no primary exemption.

  1. "Senator Paddock: I should like to ask the Senator from Nevada if, in the region of country where borax is found, by reason of finding it the land in the particular State or Territory is appreciated in value on account of its existence.

    "Senator Stewart: Not at all.

    "Senator Paddock: The value then given to it is all in labor."—Congressional Record, July, 1890.

  2. "In America, where there has been but little serious study of taxation, the few writers of prominence are, remarkable to relate, almost all abject followers of Thiers," the French economist and statesman, who claimed to have invented the term "diffusion" of taxes.
  3. "Our conclusion is, that under actual conditions in America to-day the landowner may virtually be declared to pay in the last instance the taxes that are imposed on his land, and that at all events it is absolutely erroneous to assume any general shifting to the consumer. In so far as our land tax is a part of a general property tax, it can not possibly be shifted; in so far as it is more or less an exclusive tax, it is even then apt to remain where it is first put—on the landowner."—Seligman: Incidence of Taxation, p. 99.
  4. Seligman. Shifting and Incidence of Taxation.
  5. Professor Marshall.
  6. In a like experience the Duke of Argyll, in his work The Unseen Foundations of Society, finds an explanation of the so-called theory of Ricardo, that the rent which a farmer of agricultural land pays as the price of its hire—that is to say, the price which he pays for the exclusive use of it—is no part of the cost of the crops he may raise upon it; a conclusion that can not be possibly true, unless it be also true that rent is paid for something that is not an indispensable condition of agricultural production. "Thus rights are in their very nature impalpable and invisible. They are not material things, but relations between many material things and the human mind and will. The right of exclusive use over land is a thing invisible and immaterial, as other rights are, and, although it is, and has been since the world began, the basis of all agricultural industry, it is a basis impalpable and invisible, whereas the material visible implements and tools, whose work depends upon it, are all visible and palpable enough, and all of which would never be were we to see them without the invisible rights upon which they depend. All of the former, in their place and order, are instruments of production; all of them catch the eye, and may easily engross the attention. On the other hand, if we are induced to forget those other elements, which are equally essential instruments of production, merely because they are out of sight, then our deception may be complete, and fallacies which become glaring when memory and attention are awakened may find in our half vacant minds an easy and even a cordial reception."

    Adam Smith may be fairly considered as having fully committed himself beyond all controversy in his great work, The Wealth of Nations, to the principle that taxes, with a degree of infallibility, diffuse themselves when they are levied uniformly on the same article; and he even goes so far as to admit that a tax upon labor, if it could be uniformly levied and collected, would be diffused, and that the laborer would be the mere conduit through which the tax would pass to the public treasury. Thus he says, "While the demand for labor and the price of provisions, therefore, remain the same, a direct tax upon wages can have no other effect than to raise them somewhat higher than the tax." The German economist Bluntschli, who has carefully studied this question of the final incidence of all just and equitable taxes, is in substantial agreement with the above conclusions, but prefers to use a different term for characterizing such finality than consumption, and expresses himself as follows: "In the end taxes fall on enjoyments. Hence the amount of each man's enjoyments and not his income is the justest measure of taxation." (Bluntschli, vol. x, p. 146.) M. Thiers, the French statesman and economist, was also a believer and earnest advocate of the theory of the diffusion of taxes, and lays down his principles in the following words: "Taxes are shifted indefinitely, and tend to become a part of the price of commodities, to such an extent that every one bears his share, not in proportion to what he pays the state, but in proportion to what he consumes." And in his book Rights to Property he thus illustrates the method in which taxation diffuses itself: "In the same manner as our senses, deceived by appearances, tell us that it is the sun which moves and not the earth, so a particular tax appears to fall upon one class, and another tax upon another class, when in reality it is not so. The tax really best suited to the poorest member of society is that which is best suited to the general fortune of the state; a fortune which is much more for the possession and enjoyment of the poor man than it is for the rich; a fact of which we are never sufficiently convinced. But of the manner, nevertheless, in which taxes are divided among the different classes of the state, the most certain thing we can say is: That they are divided in proportion to what each man consumes, and for a reason not generally recognized or understood, namely, that taxes are reflected, as it were, to infinity, and from reflection to reflection become eventually an integral part of the prices of things. Hence the greatest purchasers and consumers are everywhere the greatest taxpayers. This is what I call 'diffusion of taxation,' to borrow a term from physical science, which applies the expression 'diffusion of light' to those numberless reflections, in consequence of which the light which has penetrated the slightest aperture spreads itself around in every direction, and in such a manner as to reach all the objects which it renders visible. So a tax which at first sight appears to be paid directly, in reality is only advanced by the individual who is first called upon to pay it."

  7. As applied to the wages of labor, the truth of this principle is equally incontestable. "The sewing girl performing her toilsome work by the needle at one dollar a day, the street sweeper working the mud with his broom at a dollar and a half, the skilled laborer at two and three dollars, the professor at five, the editor at five or ten, the artist and the songstress at ten or five hundred dollars a day are all members of the working classes, though working at different rates. And it is only the difference in their effectiveness that causes the difference in their earnings. Bring them all to the same point of efficiency, and their earnings also will be the same."—W. Jungst, Cincinnati.

    John Locke, in his treatise On the Standard of Value, treats of taxation, and shows conclusively that if all lands were nominally free from taxation, the owners of lands would proportionally pay more taxes than now, because the same amount of money must continue to be collected in some form, and the average profits of lands would only be equal to the average profits of other investments; and further, that the expense and annoyance (another form of expense) would be increased if the tax were exclusively levied in the first instance upon personal property; and hence the landowner would be burdened with his proportion of the unnecessary expense and annoyance. He also shows that you may change the form of a uniform tax, but that you can not change the burden; and that the change will increase the burden, if the new system is more expensive and annoying than the old. Locke wrote nearly a century before Adam Smith published his Wealth of Nations, and it would seem probable that Smith acquired his ideas relative to the average profits of investments from Locke.