Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/August 1899/Best Methods of Taxation: Part II


By the Late Hon. DAVID A. WELLS.


IN passing from the tariff, or duties on imports, to the internal or excise taxes imposed by the Federal Government, there is evidently a distinct change in purpose. However subject to abuse the tax on distilled spirits has proved, and however frequently its agency has been invoked to exaggerate the profits of interested parties, there has never been an open and avowed intention of turning it to private gain. The policy that has become almost inseparable from the customs tariff, and is by most people regarded as inherent in all customs legislation, has not been transferred to the internal revenue taxes save in one or two instances of recent application and secondary importance. The danger of permitting taxation to be employed by either State or Federal Government for a purpose other than that of raising necessary revenue has been dwelt upon. When a police power is exercised in conjunction with a tax framed for revenue, and is regarded as the more important function to be performed, the policy requires careful examination. If revenue is the real object, the method of imposing the tax and the determination of the rate which will give the highest return with the least interference in the production, distribution, and export of the commodity taxed remains to be defined. If restriction in manufacture, sale, or consumption is intended, the question is no longer one of taxation proper, but of police regulation. The Federal taxes on oleomargarine, filled cheese, and mixed flour are of the nature of police inspection, and the tax on the circulation of State banks, amounting, as it has, to prohibition, is a still more extreme exercise of the same power. The imposition and collection of these duties have a penal quality, an intention to restrict or prohibit the production or sale or use of some article. They are not properly taxes; they are not a proper application of tax principles, but have originated, in private interest, or in the deliberate intention to constitute a monopoly. State or other.

The approach of war, or its actual presence, is made the excuse of an extension of taxes, and the Federal Government tacitly admits its inability to increase indirect taxes on consumption by its general resort to an extension of the internal taxes and excise. The instrumentalities of business offer a fair field for stamp taxes, and these, when not so burdensome as to invite evasion, are acceptable because of the ease with which they are assessed and collected. A specific duty on the more important acts of commerce and daily business may be evaded, it is true, but not when the paper or instrument taxed must become public evidence. Stamps of small denomination on bonds, debentures, or certificates of stock and of indebtedness; on a bill of sale or memorandum to sell; on bank checks, drafts, or certificates of deposit; bills of exchange, draft, or promissory note; money orders and bills of lading; on express and freight receipts, on telegraph messages, and a large number of legal and other instruments, such as leases, mortgages, charter party, insurance policies—these are simple duties, productive of large returns, and not unequal in their weight. The law of 1898 included such stamp taxes, as well as others on proprietary articles and wines. It was not simple to predict the incidence of these rates, and the distribution has been unequal. The charges of one cent on telegraph messages and express packages are paid by the sender in the larger number of cases, the companies merely adding a penny to their rates. This was not the intention of the law, and the courts have held that it was not so intended. The individual is powerless in a few transactions, and only the great concerns are able to avail themselves of this decision. The duties for seats or berths in a parlor car or for proprietary medicines, are paid by the company or manufacturer, though in certain preparations the price to the consumer was advanced on the passage of the act. With all their drawbacks, and they are not few in number, these stamp duties afford a ready means of obtaining a good revenue without increasing unduly the general burdens of taxation. The law of 1898 was modeled after that of 1863, and many of the rates and descriptions will undoubtedly be incorporated into the permanent internal revenue system of the country—a measure enforced by the remarkably unequal returns derived from the customs.

The existing system of internal duties is even more defensible than the tariff as a source of revenue. Its inequalities, due to the haste in which the measure was prepared and the inexperience of those who framed the provisions and fixed upon the rates, are worn away in use, and where the rates are moderate and are not infected with a penal quality, the community adapts itself to them, accepting them as a necessary convenience. In the United States this spirit of acquiescence is most marked, not only because of a natural patience of tax burdens, but because of as natural a fear of other untried and more radical or oppressive measures. The situation of "business" when a general tariff bill is pending in Congress is one almost of panic, and the scramble to protect interests or to obtain some special advantage against rivals has become a scandalous feature of tariff revision. Except in the instances named, as oleomargarine and filled cheese, the internal revenue system presents less of a field for such an exhibition of greed and self-interest; but the spirit duties, and even the tobacco rates, may be used in such a way as to favor the large manufacturer against the small concerns, and are to that extent misused and applied for purposes antagonistic to those properly pertaining to taxation. In a time of tax revision the suggestions for new taxes and ideas for changing the old are freely offered, and do not stop short of absolute prohibition of an industry, of total destruction of interest. The vagaries of a legislative body under such suggestions have instilled into the public mind a wholesome fear of its possible acts and fully explain the timid and uneasy condition of "business" when a general tax measure is under discussion. Whether it be the manufacturer or producer seeking protective duties, or the Granger or Populist asking for taxes of confiscation against capital and accumulated property, the spirit is the same—a desire to turn taxation to improper purposes.

The tendency of Federal taxation to turn to taxes on capital and the instruments of "business"—direct, rather than indirect taxes—found its most extreme illustration in the income tax of 1894, the principles of which have already been discussed. It finds a more moderate and restricted exercise in certain graduated duties under the act of 1898, and especially in the duties on legacies and distributive shares of personal property. It was no sentimental or even theoretical argument based upon the right of inheritance or the inequality of taxation that led to the adoption of these duties in 1898; it was only a blind following of the provisions of the earlier act, and the consciousness that revenue must be had at every cost, and no possible source of income should be overlooked. Yet the legacy tax is essentially a tax of democracy and defensible for much the same reasons as a tax, whether graduated or not, upon income might be.

By the act approved June 13, 1898, entitled "An act to provide ways and means to meet war expenditures, and for other purposes," the national Government imposed a tax upon legacies and distributive shares of personal property. This tax has been one of the features of the tax law of 1862 (§§ 111-114), but in a much simpler form and in a form better calculated to produce a revenue. This earlier law imposed a duty on all legacies exceeding one thousand dollars in amount, but very properly made a distinction in the rate according to the degree of connection between the person from whom the property came and the receiver of the legacy. Thus, lineal issue or lineal ancestor, brother or sister, should pay at the rate of seventy-five cents for each and every hundred dollars of the clear value of the interest in the property. A descendant of a brother or sister of the decedent paid double this rate; an uncle or an aunt was taxed three dollars for every one hundred dollars passing; a great-uncle or a great-aunt, four dollars; and persons in any other degree of collateral consanguinity, or a stranger, or a body politic or corporate, five dollars. The only exemption made was in favor of a wife or husband. As only personal property was intended to be reached, all land and real estate escaped the duty.

The law of 1898 made important modifications in these rates and manner of assessing. In the first place, the rates fell only on legacies in excess of $10,000, a limit ten times larger than that of the law of 1862. The degrees of relationship were the same, the rates were copied from those of the earlier act, and the same exemption of property passing between husband and wife was admitted. But the idea of a progressive tax was ingrafted into the law. Thus, the old rates applied only to legacies of more than $10,000 and not more than $25,000. When the property passing was valued between $25,000 and $100,000 the rates were multiplied by one and a half; between $100,000 and $500,000, they were multiplied by two; between $500,000 and $1,000,000, they were multiplied by two and a half; and by three when the property was in excess of $1,000,000. In restricting the tax to personal property passing by inheritance the measure aims at a crude means of making the burdens of personal more nearly approach those of real property. No such consideration controlled the views of those responsible for the act, and, after all, it offers only a question of theoretical interest. The inheritance tax collected in many of the States may have owed their adoption to such an idea, but the United States, in taking up these duties, merely saw a means of obtaining revenue without regarding the actual results of the tax on the estates paying it.

"The inheritance tax in one form or another has come to stay, and new States are being added every year to the list of those which have adopted it. Five years ago it was found in only nine States of the Union—Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, New York, West Virginia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and New Jersey. During the first half of 1893 Ohio, Maine, California, and Michigan were added to the list, though the Michigan law was afterward annulled because of an unusual provision in the State Constitution which was not complied with. In 1894 Louisiana revived her former tax on foreign heirs; Minnesota adopted a constitutional amendment permitting a progressive inheritance tax which has not yet been given effect by the Legislature; and Ohio added to her collateral inheritance tax a progressive tax on direct successions. In 1895 progressive inheritance taxes were adopted in Illinois and Missouri, and an old proportional tax was revived in Virginia; and last year Iowa adopted in part the inheritance tax recommendation of her revenue commission,"[1]

The real problems are to be encountered in local taxation. The many different methods used in the different States, the want of uniformity in the local divisions of each State, and the extraordinary diversity in the interpretation or application of tax laws by the courts and executive authorities of the States have introduced a confusion, to end which, many would invoke the intervention of the Federal Government. The haphazard manner in which the laws have been framed and passed is only the least notable explanation of the variety of phrase and interpretation to be found. Even were the Federal Government to establish definitions, and frame rules of uniform assessment, there would still be room for difference. The customs tariff is known to be variously applied in the different ports of the country, and there is greater certainty in the tariff rate than could be found in a tax resting on the assessed valuation of land, for example.

The difficulty encountered by France in its attempt to determine the net income from land for the purposes of taxation carries an important lesson. Failing to obtain uniformity of appraisement of this net income under the crude method first employed—of basing it on the character of soil and nature of cultivation, deducting the expenses of cultivation—a cadastre was decreed.[2] In this cadastre each particular piece of property was recorded, with its boundaries, its manner of cultivation, and its net rental. Begun in 1807, it was not completed until 1850, and proved of little value, as no provision had been made for recording the changes in cultivation, rentals, or other conditions, except those of ownership, buildings, and exemption from taxes. Instead of proving a successful means to a desired end, it "turned out to be a stupendous disillusionment." "The experience of both the western Prussian provinces and of France showed that the newly constructed cadastre was of considerable service in equalizing the land tax within a relatively small area, but not as a basis for alterations in the contingents to be paid by large and widely separated regions. The officials in charge of the cadastre on the Rhine, as well as those in France, themselves admitted that any computation of net income was uncertain; that the coincidence of the figures obtained by the cadastral computation with the actual net income could never be assured; that the figures afforded by the cadastre were rather of the nature of a proportion, while uniformity of assessment was to be attained rather by observation of the business transacted than by depending on the figures obtained by computation."[3] This effort to discover and record the net income from land was a failure.

So thorough an experiment, carried through so long a time, and presenting an example to be avoided, was in fact imitated by Prussia under a law of 1865. In each division (Kreis) was appointed a commissioner, who was chairman of a committee, the size of which ranged from four to ten members, according to the size of the division. One half of this committee was appointed by the representatives of the division and one half by the central Government. A number of divisions formed a department, with its commissioner and committee of similar composition as in the division, and above all was a central committee, presided over by the Minister of Finance. The valuation was accomplished in less than four years. The method was applied only to land employed in agriculture or forests; a separate law provided for the taxation of buildings and gardens. In the end the results were no better than those obtained in France. In either case a plan too refined to work to advantage had been employed, and, apart from its simplest function, that of making a general survey of the land and the uses to which it was applied, it could not advance the theory of a proper land tax. No modification could make it a better instrument of taxation. The gross income from land as a taxing basis would involve heavy injustice, and further supervision by government officers could not do away with the mechanical difficulties of securing uniformity. The English plan of making rental value the foundation is more easily applied and gives better results.

If land be difficult of assessment, personal property offers a very much more difficult problem. On this particular question this country has much to learn from the experience of other governments. In Great Britain a Royal Commission has been making a study of local taxation, and, in a preliminary report, concludes that an alteration in the law for the purpose of obtaining a uniform basis of valuation in England and Wales is a necessary preliminary to any revision of the existing system of local taxation. It has been already stated that the poor rate constituted the basis of valuation of property for local rates. In its development the system has become more complicated. Two valuations of the same property may be made for raising imperial taxes—namely, one for the income tax, and one for the land tax. Three valuations of the same property may be made for raising local rates—namely, one for the poor rate, one for the county rate, and one for the borough rate. Here, then, are five different valuations in activity.

Of these the parish was the first and most important division, having been introduced in the sixteenth century, when the dissolution of the monasteries had raised the question of poor relief. It was adopted for convenience, as the contributions were at first entirely voluntary; but as the problem of the poor increased in importance, compulsion was applied, and at the beginning of the seventeenth century, by the acts of Elizabeth of 1597 and 1601, compulsion was fully established and the parish adopted as the area for levying rates for the relief of its poor. It now became necessary to define more specifically the persons liable for this rate, but the law framed no system by which assessments were to be made or rates collected. A distinction was made between the occupier of certain properties (such as lands, houses, coal mines, or salable underwoods) and an inhabitant of the parish. The occupier was to be taxed upon the basis of the annual benefit arising from the property situated in the parish; but the inhabitant was taxed not in respect to any specified subjects, implying an intention to tax them upon some other basis. This raised the question of "ability," and how that question was to be determined. The act said nothing that could point to personal property, "and it was only on the ground of his being an inhabitant that any owner of personal property could be rated for that property, because there was no word in that statute to include him, except the word inhabitant. Under that statute, therefore, there was necessarily a distinction between residents and nonresidents, because the resident would be ratable for his personalty within the place, the nonresident not. The distinction, however, under that statute applied only to those kinds of property which the statute did not specify, for the occupier of lands, houses, etc., and whatever the statute enumerated, was ratable whether he were resident or not."[4] And when the judge of assize was asked to give an opinion he decided that lands should be taxed equally and indifferently, but an additional tax could be laid on the "personal visible ability" of the parishioner. Further," all things which are real, and a yearly revenue must be taxed to the poor." Yet there were limitations on this apparently wide interpretation, and as early as 1633 it was only visible properties, both real and personal, of the inhabitants within the parish, and only within the parish, that could be taxed. The property to be assessed must be local, visible, and productive; it must consist only of the surplus left after deducting debts; it must be rated according to the profit produced; and its nature must be distinctly specified. "Consequently, such subjects as wages, pensions, easements, profits derived from labor and talent, profits from money invested or lent elsewhere, and furniture, were exempt."

The absence of all attempts to tax or value property other than what was visible and tangible continued to the reign of Queen Anne, when a single decision of the court pointed to the taxation of the stock in trade of a tradesman, a decision that does not appear to have been acted upon. As late as 1775 Lord Mansfield said, "In general, I believe neither here nor in any other part of the kingdom is personal property taxed to the poor." At all events, it could not be taxed unless usage could support it. Toward the end of the century, when taxation for the Napoleonic wars was touching more intimately the concerns of the people, the idea of subjecting personal property to the poor rate was favored, but nearly half a century passed before it attracted attention. In their report for 1843 on local taxation the poor-law commissioners gave the following summary of the status of this question:

"The practice of rating stock in trade never prevailed in the greater part of England and Wales. It was, with comparatively few exceptions, confined to the old clothing districts of the south and west of England. It gained ground just as the stock of the wool staplers and clothiers increased, so as to make it an object with the farmers and other rate payers, who still constituted a majority in their parishes, to bring so considerable a property within the rate. They succeeded by degrees, and there followed upon their success a more improvident practice in giving relief than had ever prevailed before in England.… When the practice of rating stock in trade was fully established in this district, the ancient staple trade rapidly declined there and withdrew itseK still more rapidly into the northern clothing districts, where no such burden was ever cast upon the trade."

A final determination of the question was imposed upon Parliament by the pressure of the manufacturing and commercial classes arising from a decision in the case of R. vs. Lumsdaine, in 1839, looking to the taxation of personal property. In consequence, an act was passed (3 and 4 Vict., c. 89), and has remained in force until the present time, exempting an inhabitant from any tax "in respect of his ability derived from the profits of stock in trade or any other property, for or toward the relief of the poor." Thus it is that the English local taxation has managed to keep clear from the bog of assessing personal property, and the annual value of immovable property, such as lands and houses, within the parish has come to be selected as the simplest and most practicable basis for assessments. The history is of high importance, because the basis of the poor rate was adopted as the basis for all other rates levied in local taxation. Whatever confusion has been introduced has arisen from other causes, such as the constituting poor-law unions containing more than one parish, the levying of county rates, a county having a boundary other than a parish or a union, and the assessing for rates by parish officers who acted independently of each other. Many efforts have been made to introduce a uniform system of assessment, but without success. One of the clearest thinkers on this subject was Sir George Cornewall Lewis. In appearing before a committee on taxation, in 1850, he said: "We have never recognized the principle of having one valuation for all the different rates. If that principle were once admitted, the inducement to have an accurate and complete valuation would be at its maximum, because then you would know that whatever charge might be imposed it would be imposed upon that valuation, whereas if there is one assessment for one rate and another assessment for another rate, and an amended assessment for a third rate, no one cares much about making any assessment perfect. This is one defect of the present system of valuation."

The defect has persisted and become more aggravated each year. In 1870 a special commission came to the resolution that "the great variety of rates levied by different authorities, even in the same area, on different assessments, with different deductions and by different collectors, has produced great confusion and expense; and that in any change of the law as regards local taxation, uniformity and simplicity of assessment and collection, as well as of economy of management, ought to be secured as far as possible." When it is considered that for the five independent valuations for raising rates on property there are in England and Wales more than one thousand valuation authorities, the hopelessness of obtaining uniformity is apparent. With such a multiplicity of agents it is useless to look for good results. There is no fixed or necessary time for making the valuation lists; no uniform system of or scale for making deductions for arriving at the ratable values of certain classes of property; exemptions and allowances are said to be given unduly, through undue pressure on the assessing authorities; and the assessment committees have no statutory power to ascertain from owners or occupiers the rentals and other particulars needed to determine values. The reforms needed are a geographical redistribution of taxing limits and uniform rules of assessments.

If so great confusion can occur where the property to be valued for taxation is visible and tangible property, and where the principles underlying the assessment are few and comparatively simple, what is to be expected when the attempt to reach invisible and intangible property is added?

Constitutional provisions have not secured equality of valuation, and the statute laws are powerless to make effective the sounding phrases of the Constitutions. "Property shall be assessed for taxes," says the Constitution of New Jersey, "under general laws and by uniform rules, according to true value." The Assembly sought to embody this principle or rule in the laws of the State. "All real and personal estate within this State, whether owned by individuals or corporations, shall be liable to taxation at the full and actual value thereof, on the day in each year when by law the assessment is to commence."[5] Such assertions of the basis of taxation need no further explanation, for the intention of the framers of constitution and law is unmistakable—equal and uniform taxation, a common burden involving a common obligation to discharge it. The practice at once creates the necessity for recognizing the inaptitude of the instruments called upon to carry the law into execution. More than four hundred separate assessors and boards of assessors determine the taxable values upon no uniform system and in defiance of law and Constitution. "In practice they value real estate all the way from twenty-five to seventy-five per cent of its true value, depending on its location, income, etc., and their personal or political prejudices, and value different contiguous areas at different valuations, though of equal values really; and as to personal property, I regret to say, they appear to make no earnest or honest effort to reach it anywhere, except in the agricultural districts, and even there very imperfectly."[6]

Enough has been said in these articles to show that this defect of method is not peculiar to one State, but is to be found in all. The remedies proposed or adopted have proved ineffectual to produce a better result. It is asserted that the more careful selection of the assessors, a higher salary for service, and a more strict accountability for their acts would introduce a reform; but this could, even under the most favorable of conditions, be only a partial reform. A State assessor with power to remove the assessors has been recommended, but this officer could not become so conversant with conditions throughout the State as to be able to decide on the many questions of assessments coming before him. Certain descriptions of property could be dealt with by such an officer and with an approach to fair and equal treatment. The valuation of the "main stem" of the New Jersey roads was made by civil engineers, and it is believed to have met the constitutional provision as to "true value." In the valuation of a vast quantity of other property no such expert knowledge could be applied, and especially is this true as to "personal property." Real estate might be approximately valued and a cadastre or record prepared, but after twelve months the most carefully compiled valuation would be out of date. Before personal property the assessor would still stand powerless. No multiplication of officers or no system of control over the many local assessors can solve this question in a manner satisfactory to justice to both State and taxpayer.

It would seem, then, as if an abandonment of what has been regarded as almost essential features of the State tax systems alone offers relief. No such abandonment can be effected unless an adequate revenue from other sources be provided. The "general property tax," with its futile and laughable incompetency to reach the most profitable sources of revenue, should be modified, and even eliminated as far as is possible. The general principle underlying it, of taxing every form of property, was suited only to a time when the bulk of a man's estate consisted in visible and tangible objects—lands, houses, live stock, and furniture. With every creation of a credit instrument, with the immense development of corporations, the principle has become weaker, until it now stands confessedly inapplicable to at least four fifths of the personal property in existence, and this proportion grows larger each year.

  1. Max West, in North American Review, May, 1897, p. 635.
  2. The word cadastre was derived from the Latin capitastrum, or register of capita, griga, or units of territorial taxation into which the Roman provinces were divided far the purposes of capi'atio terrena, or land tax. It is of modern use and is locally found in Louisiana.
  3. Cohn, Science of Finance, p. 477.
  4. Abbott (Chief Justice) in R. vs. The Hull Dock Company, 8 B and C, p. 525.
  5. General Statutes of New Jersey, p. 3929, section 62.
  6. James F. Rusling, in the New Jersey report of 1897.