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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 56/April 1900/A State Official on Excessive Taxation


IT is not to government reports that a student of social science looks for warnings against the perils lurking in the enormous expenditures and the extraordinary enlargement of the duties of the state. Officials are usually so deeply impressed with the importance of their positions and so anxious to magnify the worth of their labors that they are prone to take the rosiest view of any part of the great clanking machine intrusted to their care. With the keenest pride they point to their achievements in furthering the work of human welfare. If modesty does not restrain them, they are certain to paint, with an artless faith in their own abilities, the still greater work that could be done with a slight increase of funds and a little more assistance. Not all officials, however, permit themselves to indulge in the natural vanity of bureaucrats. They refuse either to be blinded to the perpetual failure of state-made civilization, or to deceive the impoverished victims of the same costly system of modern magic. Of the very few of this class Mr. James H. Roberts, for five years Comptroller of the State of New York,[1] is perhaps the most conspicuous. Astray as he is on the question of a graded inheritance tax, and trustful as he is in the virtue of State supervision, he puts himself beyond criticism in his opposition to the policy of State socialism, now the rage at home and abroad. Indeed, no one could hold it up to graver reproach.

Whenever an observer of the signs of the times in the United States ventures to say that they offer little food for hope, he is branded as pessimistic or unpatriotic. He is told that if he had the confidence in democratic institutions of a man with a good digestion and a fair intelligence, he would know that they possess a vitality, a power of rejuvenation, that does not belong to an autocracy nor an aristocracy. If he is particularly despondent, and seeks to justify himself with fact and argument, he is denounced as a dangerous agitator, or, what is a shade more odious, as an absurd doctrinaire. But Mr. Roberts has not been consigned to any such depths of contempt. He is known as a "hard-headed business man," a title of honor that always frees the most ridiculous optimist from any suspicion of the theorist or sentimentalist. Yet, as the supervisor of the finances of a great State, he was brought in contact with a mass of phenomena that forced upon him the conviction that something is wrong, and that if it is not righted it will bring disaster. Indeed, I do not recall a pessimist, however dyspeptic, nor a doctrinaire, however visionary, that has struck a more melancholy note than he. In all his reports much will be found that indicates anything but a belief that a democracy that plunders and enslaves a people is any better than any other despotism guilty of the same offense, or that the practice in the one case will be productive of greater prosperity and happiness than in the other.

It is, however, in the report for 1897 that Mr. Roberts gives the fullest expression to his apprehensions. "This country," he says in an elaborate argument for a graded inheritance tax, which he believed would bring some relief to the poor and discontented, "has just passed through the most threatening political campaign in its history. The portents in 1896 were vastly more dangerous than those of 1860, when peace and internecine war hung in the balance. Issues were advanced last year, and vigorously supported by a large element of the American electorate, which, if adopted, would have undermined the very foundations of American institutions. These issues were largely the outgrowth of discontent among the people. The farmer, as a class, the work people, and the small trade folk were in distress. . . . Hundreds of thousands of industrious people were out of employment, the best efforts of the farmer had been attended with poor results, and the small tradesman and business man were worse off than if they had been doing nothing." In the report for the following year he spoke again of the "public discontent and dissatisfaction with existing conditions in this State." Instead of joining the comfortable and contented in a denunciation of them as a delusion, born of envy or criminal instincts, he expressed the opinion that they had a very substantial basis. "My four years of close official study of the State finances," he says, "compels me to say there is serious ground for complaint." After giving an impressive summary in another place of the enormous increase of public expenditures within recent years he is moved to ask, "Whither are we drifting?"

The answer commonly given to this question is one quite flattering to American vanity. It is that we are drifting away from "parochial" things and taking our proper place as a great "world power." Having solved all the petty problems that have absorbed our thoughts and energies for a hundred years, we have gone forth to "take up the white man's burden," and to solve the greater problems that a discriminating Providence has so wisely confided to our ability and philanthropy. At the same time we are going to have our say as to how the affairs of the world outside of our narrow and cramping borders shall be managed. Mr. Roberts, however, does not appear to take any such pleasant view of the future. He has none of the blood of Don Quixote flowing in his veins. The bestowal of the blessings of a Christian civilization with machine guns upon breech-clouted savages has no attractions for him. He sees that we have made such a disgraceful failure of the management of the contemptible things in which we have been so ignobly absorbed that we are threatened with national decadence! "While the contests against unjust and oppressive taxation," he says in his report for 1899, "have been the contests of freedom and civil and religious liberty in the world, it must not be forgotten that unjust and burdensome taxation has been in all ages the most prolific cause of national decadence as well. There are nations in Europe, once great and prosperous," he adds, thus recalling the warnings of Lord Salisbury's famous speech on the same subject, "which to-day seem dying of dry rot because, to meet their immense expenses and to pay interest on their great bonded debts, taxation has been increased beyond the safe limit, and the very sources of national prosperity have been taxed so that they run dry, or send down a rill where it should be a river. Few national diseases are more dangerous or harder to cure than burdensome taxation. Can any one charged with the responsibility of making tax laws," he asks, profoundly stirred by the startling facts that have come under his observation, "afford to ignore the undoubted lessons of history or the manifest tendency of the times in the matter of revenue raising and expending?"

Obvious as is the fitting answer to this question, it is one that few people stop to give. Both the lessons of history and the tendency of the times are willfully and incessantly ignored. Not only are they ignored by demagogues, who thrive most when public distress is greatest, and by misguided philanthropists, who seek to relieve it in ways that only intensify it. Even publicists, whose studies in history ought to make them more familiar with the signs of social decadence than a man of affairs with vision less extended, ignore them also. They seem to be as insensible to the real significance of what is going on before their eyes as the wooden totems of a burning tepee. But to minds more alert and penetrating, even if less congested with musty lore and fine intentions, the flight of the farming population to the cities is something besides "a great natural movement toward urban life that accompanies an advance in civilization"—it is a desperate but futile attempt to escape conditions that have become too hard to be borne. The swarms of impoverished and degraded humanity that crowd the slums to suffocation are not altogether the product of willful sloth and incapacity; they are due, in a measure, to the growing taxation that has wiped out the narrow margin that separates independence from dependence—self-support and self-respect from destitution and pauperism. The hatred of the rich, the denunciation of capital, the contempt for the Church, the bloody insurrections of labor, the general feeling of rancor, accompanied by an increase of the tyranny of trades unions and government regulations, are not the inevitable manifestations of envy, ignorance, and criminal instincts; they are the inevitable fruits of the perpetual aggressions in a thousand forms that spring from politics and war. But instead of acting upon this natural interpretation of the signs of the times and seeking to solve the social problem in the only way that it can be solved, the "new" reformers tormenting the world are engaged in the invention of schemes that add to the public burdens and hasten the nation's decay.

The reckless expenditure of public money in the United States has not been confined to any particular political division nor to any particular geographical section. The national, State, and municipal governments have seemed to vie with one another in the plunder of the taxpayer. From the North, the South, the East, and the West have come the same complaints of excessive burdens.[2] But figures are needed to give these statements the vividness of reality. Beginning with national expenditures, Mr. Roberts says that during the decade from 1820 to 1830 they were $1.07 per capita; from 1851 to 1861, they were $2.06; and for the year 1894, $6.08. "In a word," he adds, "the per capita expense of the national Government in 1894 was nearly six times as great as it was in 1820, and nearly three times as great as it was in the decade before our great civil war." The per capita expenditures of the State of New York in 1830 were $1.30, thirty years later they were $1.89, in 1890 they were $2.15, and "in 1897 the estimated per capita expenditure reached the alarming amount of $4.95." That is to say, the combined expenditures of the State and national governments gave a rate as high as that prevailing in France before the outbreak of the Revolution. "The tendency to increase," says Mr. Roberts, commenting on these figures, "is a persistent one. In 1881 the amount expended by the State was $9,878,214.59; in 1884, $10,479,517.31; in 1887, $14,301,102.48; in 1890, $13,076,881.86; in 1893, $17,367,335.98; and in 1896, $20,020,022.47." Coming to municipal expenditures, where the hand of the prodigal has been most lavish, Mr. Roberts says that "between 1860 and 1880 the municipal debts of our Union increased from $100,000,000 to $682,000,000, and in fifteen cities, believed to represent the average, the increase in taxation was 362.2 per cent, while the increase in taxable valuation was but 156.9 per cent, and of population but 70 per cent. In the year 1860 the direct taxes for State, county, town, and city purposes in New York were $4.90 per capita, in 1880 it was $8.20, and in 1896 it had reached $10.43, an increase in thirty-six years of 213 per cent." It should be added that the bonded debt—State, county, city, town, village, and school district—in the State is estimated by Mr. Roberts to be $450,000,000. Is it any wonder that people so mercilessly plundered feel that the times are out of joint? Is it any wonder, either, that in 1896 Mr. Roberts was moved to say that, without the discovery of new sources of revenue, "a low tax rate would never again be enjoyed in this State"? Is it any wonder, finally, that he declared again that if "we have not yet passed the danger limit of taxation," we have reached "a point where there is a deep feeling of unrest and dissatisfaction, and where a halt should be called or there will be danger"?

The stock explanation of this growth of expenditure is that with the advance of civilization the cost of government must increase in like degree; there must be more regulation and supervision of the activities becoming more numerous and complex. But this means, if it means anything, that the more enlightened and humane people are, the more difficult it is to maintain order and enforce justice, the more inclined are they to attack and plunder one another—in a word, the more barbarous they are. Preposterous as this theory of civilization is, it is precisely the one upon which the American people are acting with unparalleled energy. While we should naturally think them moving toward a point where they could get along without government, they are moving toward a point where they will have nothing but government. Referring to the increase of expenditures already mentioned, Mr. Roberts says it "corresponds almost exactly with the increase of the number of commissions and departments. . . . These departments and commissions," he continues, "are largely for the purpose of extending social supervision and regulation over many things which, in the earlier days of our Commonwealth, were left to the localities or to self-regulation," Again he says: "The amount of State inspection has become very great, reaching out constantly over new fields, and employing in the aggregate an army of inspectors. . . . The system of laissez faire, which was the rallying cry of democracy and free government at the beginning of the century, has yielded gradually to a system of supervision and control which monarchies never attempted. . . . What our State has done in this line can not probably be undone," he says in a repetition of his warning, "but this tendency to expand and multiply and differentiate and segregate State supervision and regulation must cease, or the burden will soon become too grievous to be borne."

But there is no warrant for the assumption that the more civilized we are—that is, the greater our self-control—the more are we in need of inspection and regulation. Such an explanation of the enormous increase in public expenditure is worthless. The true explanation lies in the greed of politicians and the delusion of social reformers. To both of these causes must be attributed the evils that Mr. Roberts deplores. "The truth of history," he says, referring to the thirty-six new offices and commissions created since 1880, "compels the statement that it looks as if many of these creations were made not so much to satisfy a public want as to relieve a political situation." That is to say, they were designed to provide spoils for the insatiable maw of politicians. One of the most flagrant examples of this popular method of forwarding the beneficent work of civilization and hastening the dawn of the millennium is the State Board of Mediation and Arbitration, created in 1886. Up to the present year it has cost the taxpayers $195,828.57. For this expenditure little can be shown but a shelf full of reports seldom read, and a pigeon hole of vouchers for salaries never earned. With one of the former members of this board, who served thirteen years and received $39,000 for his able services, I am personally acquainted. Of my own knowledge, I can say that for nearly three years at least his duties as commissioner never interfered perceptibly with his duties as editor. That most of the other offices and commissions are equally worthless there can be no doubt. Altogether they have cost the State the startling sum of $31,768,899.85, and are increasing the public burdens at the rate of more than $1,000,000 a year. But their true character as asylums for decayed politicians, or as stepping stones for ambitious young ones, and at all times as centers of political intrigue and personal profit, is gradually dawning upon the public. Already several Governors have demanded, in their annual messages to the Legislature, that they be consolidated or abolished. As yet, however, it has been impossible to relax their grip on the taxpayer. Obedient to the instincts of their kind, they are inventing new arguments to establish their claims to the confidence and gratitude of the victims of their greed and incompetency.

But the creation of new and needless offices is not the only manifestation of what Mr. Roberts fitly calls "the vicious tendencies of legislation." More demoralizing are the laws that actually encourage the robbery of one class of people for the benefit of another. A familiar example is the bounty law for the destruction of fishing nets. Almost as soon as passed it produced a new industry—namely, the manufacture of cheap nets, which were deposited in fishing waters, subsequently discovered and seized by a prearrangement, and made the basis of demands upon the public treasury out of proportion to their value. So great have been the frauds perpetrated under it that the cry for its repeal comes from every quarter. Another law even worse morally was passed to meet the clamor of the bicyclists and bicycle manufacturers. It provides that twenty-five per cent of the cost of so-called good roads to be built under it shall be paid by the State. As cities and villages are exempt from its provisions, this sum, which comes out of the pockets of all taxpayers, urban as well as rural, is, as Mr. Roberts says, simply "a gratuity to the towns for the benefit of country roads." As a sign of the moral decadence of the times, I ought to add that one of the most powerful and effective arguments in favor of the law was this very discrimination. Still more shameless was one of the chief arguments in favor of the Raines liquor law. With a moral callousness truly astounding, its advocates framed tables of figures to show how great a percentage of taxation it would shift from the country to the city districts. In the heated political campaign that followed, these tables were made to do service again to save from defeat the party responsible for the enactment. To indicate, finally, how legislation may encourage vice, I must not omit to mention the provision that created the Raines hotel. Under it assignation houses have multiplied to a degree that Satan himself could not have foreseen nor have been more enchanted with.

But the greatest inroads on the pockets of the taxpayer have been made under the pretense of charity. I say "pretense" because it is a gross misuse of language to decorate with so fine a word the seizure of a man's property under the forms of law and to devote it to the ostensible relief of want and suffering. It is the infliction of an aggression that has no more warrant in a court of sound morals than the seizure of his property in disregard of the forms of law. Yet this evil has reached such vast proportions that Mr. Roberts was moved to protest against it. After speaking of "the tendency of the State in building up a gigantic system" that "will call for an enormous and ever-increasing annual expenditure for maintenance," he expressed the belief in 1896 that "the time has come to call a halt before this burden of taxation becomes too heavy." He then mentioned the significant fact that while the State spent $6,000,000 for charity, $4,800,000 for public schools, $800,000 for the militia, it spent only $500,000 for judges' salaries! He pointed out also that the expenditures under the head of charity had increased from $1,468,471.58 in 1887 to $5,888,193.74 in 1897, or over four hundred per cent in ten years. He added the prophecy that it would be "a matter of a short time only when the annual expenditures for charity alone in this State will reach $10,000,000." At that time five large State charitable institutions were in process of construction, and were soon to be thrown open to the public. In the following year he reverted to the subject in still stronger terms. "God forbid," he says, "that I should put a straw in the way of charity rationally directed; but my four years' experience as comptroller . . . compels me to say that charity is dispensed in this State with an almost lavish hand, and in my judgment it is in many cases unwisely dispensed." In his last report to the Legislature the aggregate cost of the fourteen great institutions in operation, with a population of 6,621, is put at $6,898,304.52.

That this enormous largess, wrested from the taxpayers without the slightest consideration for their own wants and sufferings, is unwisely dispensed in many cases Mr. Roberts furnishes the amplest proof. The charges that he brings against this form of State activity are most serious. They reveal the same odious traits that characterize the management of public affairs in no wise connected with the love of humanity. "Nearly every locality," says Mr. Roberts, "having a State charitable institution deals with it as though it were established to afford that locality an avenue through which to reach the State treasury, and in most cases, where a majority of the managers live under or are dominated by local influence, the avenue has been profitably traveled. The result of such predominance is combination among local dealers, a division of the furnishing of the supplies among them at greatly advanced prices, the palming off upon the institution of inferior articles which would find no sale in the market, a row with the superintendent if he undertakes to expend money outside of the locality, and, through friction and disturbance, the work of the institution is more or less demoralized." He charges that "the only aim" of some institutions "seems to be the expenditure of their entire appropriation, irrespective of the number of inmates provided for or the results obtained." Putting the same charge in another way, he says that "the cost of an institution is more frequently based upon the amount of the appropriation granted by the Legislature than upon its real or apparent necessities." When it is remembered that the managers of the institutions against whom these astonishing charges are brought are picked people, representing much more than the average character and ability, the conclusion is not unnatural that ward heelers and caucus packers have no monopoly of the rotten ethics of politics.

If we look a little further into the management of the institutions, all the familiar footprints of the unscrupulous politician become visible. Money appropriated for specific purposes is diverted from them. Over fifty-five per cent of the amount expended in 1898 under special appropriations was used for the benefit of two institutions, leaving less than forty-five per cent for the remaining fourteen. Plans for new buildings or the improvement of old are so changed as to require an expenditure considerably in excess of the money appropriated for the purpose. Not infrequently the excess ranges from twenty-five to fifty per cent, and thus the way is paved for further appeals to the Legislature to meet the dishonest deficits. A more reprehensible use of public money is appropriations for new buildings and improvements of old ones belonging to private institutions. As examples, Mr. Roberts cites the expenditure of $77,473 upon the private property of the Malone Institute for Deaf-Mutes, and $457,556 upon that of the Randall's Island Reformatory. "In my judgment," he says, expressing an opinion that every fair-minded person will approve, "this is a mistaken public policy. If these institutions are to be steady recipients of State aid for permanent improvements, the title of the property should be transferred to the State." Otherwise any philanthropist might found a charitable institution to provide himself with congenial employment, and, availing himself of the courtesy of the State to thrust his hands into the pockets of his neighbors, make additions to it and keep it in repair.

But these are by no means the only ways that money picked from the pockets of taxpayers is poured into the bottomless pit of State philanthropy. One of the most common and most expensive is the unjustifiable increase of salaries. In 1894 and 1895, when the country was still in the throes of the great panic of 1893 and when hundreds of thousands of people were glad to get work at almost any pay, the salary list of nine charitable institutions was increased forty thousand dollars a year. Indefensible variations in the per capita cost of practically the same service discloses another mode of waste. Mr. Roberts gives elaborate tables in exposure of this evil. While the per capita cost of the inmates of the Western House of Refuge for Women at Albion is $254.27, that of the inmates of the House of Refuge for Women at Hudson is $217.63. Again, while the per capita cost of the inmates of the State Industrial School at Rochester is $219.49, that of the inmates of the Reformatory on Randall's Island is $210.59. Still again, while the per capita cost of the inmates of the State School for the Blind at Batavia is $313.74, that of the inmates of the Northern New York Institute for Deaf-Mutes at Malone is $258.36. If it be remembered that the institutions on Randall's Island and at Malone are under private management, the lower rate prevailing there, compared with the higher rate at the Batavia and Rochester institutions, suggest a fact of no slight significance. "Private institutions," says Mr. Roberts, calling attention to it, "are only paid in some instances $110 per annum for the care and support of inmates, . . . while the cost in State institutions is more than $200 per annum." Yet, despite the possible indefinite multiplication of such facts, the "new" reformer pins his faith to the State as a fit agent for the regeneration of his fellows.

Before leaving these institutions I must call attention to another characteristic form of waste. I refer to the delicacies furnished to the officials and inmates. "It has not seemed exactly right," says Mr. Roberts, setting forth the scandal in very moderate terms, "that the taxpayers of the State should be required to pay for Blue Points, lobster, terrapin, frogs' legs, partridge, quail, venison, and most of the delicacies of the season to supply the tables of officials already well paid and well housed by the State." But solicitude about table economies was never known to be a trait of bureaucratic parasites. They never trouble themselves to prolong their vision to the meager tables of the poor and suffering robbed of the necessaries of life to load theirs with luxuries. The same limited vision is exhibited on holidays in their generosity at other people's expense. "Is it fair," says Mr. Roberts, protesting against this touching display of human goodness, "that the average workingman should wear poor clothes and live on plain fare in order that he may bring up his family decently and honestly, while the inmates of State institutions are indulged with turkey at eighteen cents a pound, footballs at $4.83 each, oranges, candy, nuts, ice cream., and expensive luxuries? . . . It must not be forgotten," he adds, mentioning a truth commonly forgotten even by people that have reached a higher civilization than that of the average State official, "that the money spent for these inmates is not voluntary contribution, but is the product of enforced taxation."[3]

Resistance to aggression is one of the fundamental instincts of the human race. It has been enforced during countless ages by the penalty of extermination. Only the people that refuse to be killed, or robbed and enslaved, which are modified forms of the same crime, can respond to a scriptural injunction; they alone can be fruitful, multiply, and replenish the earth. All others must succumb to the pitiless law of the survival of the fittest. Efforts to escape taxation not sanctioned by justice, so common throughout the United States, are not, therefore, exhibitions of hopeless depravity; they are exhibitions of the natural desire for self-preservation that demands study and heed.

In New York State the efforts of taxpayers to escape this increasing aggression have had a deplorable effect. To still the voice of discontent and complaint, legislators have tried to lay on their burdens as lightly as possible. Acting upon a familiar definition of taxation, they have tried to pluck the goose so as to get the most feathers with the least squawk. But in their observance of the principles of humanity they have shown but slight regard for the principles of economics or justice. Mr. Roberts characterizes their enactments as "confused, illogical, and conflicting"; he adds that they are "nearly all legislative makeshifts, and many of them blunders." The moral effect of the aggression has, however, been more disastrous than either the economic or statutory. To escape it, the owners of every class of property, no matter what their intelligence, their religious professions, or their social standing, resort to every possible subterfuge. With the cries of the tortured fowl ringing in sympathetic ears, complaisant officials refuse to assess real estate, as required by law, at its full value. "The assessor," says Mr. Roberts, describing this form of evasion and its evil consequences, "undertakes, by reducing valuations on his own responsibility and in defiance of law, to protect his own county or town from paying more than its fair proportion of tax, and self-interest lulls the moral sense of the community into support of his action." The same law of assessment applies to the whole State, yet there are twenty-five rates of assessment in the sixty counties, and these rates range from fifty to ninety-two per cent of the value of the land. The owners of personal property avoid their obligations in a manner still more reprehensible. They either conceal it or lie about it. While its amount during the past forty years has reached the enormous total of $18,000,000,000, or more than four times the value of the real estate, its assessed value has not increased. It is Mr. Roberts's conviction, based upon "study and observation," that not "more than three per cent" of it is assessed. The result is that, although real estate pays a revenue of over $9,000,000 a year, personal property pays one of only about $1,000,000. As to the corporations, they are equally alert in avoiding their obligations. Before the enactment of a recent law they did it by watering their stocks and issuing bonds, thus creating an indebtedness equal to their capital. They do it now by incorporating in other States and carrying on business in this State. They do it also by neglecting for a certain time to make the reports required by law, and then taking refuge behind the statute of limitations. If the burdens thrust upon them can not be shirked or borne, they fly to other States, where the aggressions of the tax collector are less ruinous.

To compel officials to do their duty, countless expedients have been invented from time immemorial. In the face of proof mountains high that no legislative or administrative device can uproot the selfishness imbedded in human nature or reshape the conduct molded to this immutable fact, social quacks still continue to spawn their schemes to work the miracle. Slight as is Mr. Roberts's sympathy with them, he is no exception. As a panacea for the dishonesty and incompetency of the county treasurers that mismanage court and trust funds, he recommends the substitution of State for local inspection. By a similar application of hocus-pocus, he would transmute the extravagance of the managers of charitable institutions into exemplary economy. Disgusted with the charlatans in charge of certain duties connected with these institutions requiring special skill and knowledge, he thinks "it would be well to provide a corps of enthusiastic scientists . . . who have more than a pecuniary interest" in their work. But another recommendation of his is a direct assault on this simple faith in the honor and integrity of specialists. Already many of the departments of the State are in the hands of men supposed to have a special aptitude and liking for their duties. But Mr. Roberts finds that "leaving the department to expend the money as it deems best," instead of appropriating it for a specific purpose, "is not in the interest of economy." He says that "it absolutely deprives the Legislature of that judicial scrutiny of the necessity of appropriations" that "it should always exercise, and leaves to the judgment of one what could often be better decided if considered by several." Could a deadlier blow be given to a common theory that under government management we have the same division of labor and the same perfect adjustment of means to ends that we have under private management? What legislative body, chosen by universal suffrage, the most perfect instrument ever invented for the selection of incompetents, would enable it to exercise the supervision over the thousand activities of life that Mr. Roberts recommends?

The same futile ingenuity exhibited in making officials do their duty is exhibited in making taxpayers do theirs. One of the multitude of plans suggested is a single tax on land; but that does not seem promising, for it would not prevent the discriminations that assessors make—discriminations that Mr. Roberts himself believes to be beyond the reach of even State supervision. Another is a more rigid enforcement of the personal-property tax; but this is equally unpromising. "The fact is," says Mr. Roberts, "that from the dawn of civilization the wit of man has failed to discover a plan by which intangible personal property could be made to pay its share of taxation, and it will never be made to pay on the ordinary assessment plan." Besides the increase of taxes on corporations, the taxation of franchises, which has just been authorized, and a general revision and simplification of tax laws, it has been proposed that a graded inheritance tax be adopted. Mr. Roberts is particularly enamored of this idea. But his advocacy of it betrays the same disregard of the rights of others, and leads to the same appeals to specious facts and arguments that always accompany the commission of aggression in politics as well as in war. His reasoning is that since "special privileges conferred by government," such as tariff laws, corporation laws, public franchises, etc., are "the foundation of most of the great fortunes of the country to-day"; since these fortunes are, to a considerable extent, "composed of personal property" that "very largely escapes taxation"; since the decedent has been "allowed the use and enjoyment of his fortune during life," and the beneficiary simply pays "a fee for the privilege of receiving an estate in the creation of which he had little or no hand"; and, finally, since he can make no just complaint against the payment of such a fee, as his right to receive his fortune "comes from the State—is by the grace of the State"—the seizure at death of a certain percentage of all estates beyond a prescribed amount would be only justice to "the mass of small landowners and taxpayers who have from year to year borne more than their equitable share of the burden of taxation." But the fallacies of such an argument are easily exposed. The moral ownership of property does not lie in the State; it lies in the labor and skill of the man that accumulated the property. The moral title to a bequest does not lie in that fiction either; it lies in the right of the decedent to do whatever he pleases with his own. If great fortunes have been unjustly acquired in consequence of special privileges a great wrong has been committed, and it is not righted by the commission of another wrong. The only reparation that can be made is to abolish the privileges. So obvious a suggestion does not, however, appear to have occurred to Mr. Roberts. But even if all the reforms in taxation that could be imagined were put in operation they would not meet the situation; they would not deliver the American people from the great and alarming evil of over-legislation and excessive taxation. An increase of revenue, like an increase of supervision, is almost certain to increase the injustice that it was designed to abate. The first year's operation of the Raines law contributed more than $3,500,000 to the State treasury, yet the addition to the public expenditures that accompanied its enactment made a high tax rate necessary. What the situation requires, therefore, is not more but less social regulation and taxation. We need also a gradual restriction of the duties of the State to the limits laid down by Mr. Spencer—to the preservation of order and the enforcement of justice. Although not apparently a disciple of that philosopher, Mr. Roberts himself virtually subscribes to this view. In his last report he demands "far greater economy and care in public expenditures, and no further excursions in the field of social supervision and regulation."


  1. He was in office from January 1, 1894, to January 1, 1899.
  2. From the mass of proofs of this statement in my possession I will select only one. In a call for a convention at Portland, Me., on the 10th of June last, of all persons "interested in the revision of the present system of State taxation and a more economical management of the State affairs," it is stated that "the expenses of the State have increased fifty per cent in ten years, while the wealth and population of the State have steadily declined." The object of the convention was "to protest against the course of extravagance that is rapidly bringing reproach upon the government of the State and reducing the farmers and taxpayers to automatons to grind out revenue to be absorbed by a rapacious and ever-multiplying horde of office-holders, who devour the people's substance as fast as they produce it." After showing how "once prosperous farming towns and townships have been reduced to but little better than a howling wilderness, the call says in conclusion:" These once prosperous farming communities were redeemed from the native wilderness by men who were no more temperate, industrious, or economical than the farmers of to-day, and the prices they received for their products were as low as, and in some instances lower than, to-day, but the fruits of their honest toil were not drawn from them as fast as acquired by national, State, county, and, in many instances, by municipal extravagance, as it is to-day."The plundered peasantry of Spain, Italy, or Russia, army ridden as they are, could not have made a more just complaint.
  3. But I ought to add that this mismanagement of State charitable institutions is duplicated in the management of other State departments that came under Mr. Roberts's observation. Although more than $24,000,000 have been spent on the new Capitol, it proves to be too small for the purposes it was designed to meet. Mr. Roberts recommends the conversion of the old State Hall into a finance building. The State Library has become so large that it will soon require a separate building. The racing tax law was so bunglingly framed that the collections under it in 1896 were attended with "more difficulty and expense than usual." As the forest-preserve law stood in 1896, it permitted people purchasing State lands to strip them of lumber, and then, owing to certain irregularities connected with the sale, making it illegal, to recover the money originally paid with interest at six and seven per cent added. Because of the absence of any law covering the personal expenditures of members of legislative investigating committees, claims for seven and eight dollars a day are rendered, although four or five dollars a day are believed to be ample. Let me add that these investigations, which, during the period from 1879 to 1896 inclusive, cost $823,534.51, reveal another source of waste from State management. Still another source of waste is State printing. Pointing out the "growing expenses of State printing," Mr. Roberts shows that they have increased from $95,029.51 in 1887 to $315,585.81 in 1896. At one time the law was so defective that it was impossible to frame specifications for bids that would allow for printing of different kinds. For example, blanks varying from two to three inches square to two and three feet had to be classed in the same schedule and price. A needless quantity of reports is printed. Some of them are printed in the highest style of the art and richly embellished with expensive plates and engravings. One report for 1 895 cost $42,000, and others cost as high as $20;000 and $30,000. "It does not seem logical," says Mr. Roberts, commenting on this extravagance, "to spend as much on the illustration of a report as it costs for clerk hire in many departments." Another evil is the failure of the Legislature to appropriate money enough to meet the printing bills each year, thus making it necessary either to borrow money to pay them or to compel the printer to wait for his pay at a loss of interest on the amount due him. In this connection attention must be called to the failure of the Legislature to provide money enough to cover expenditures during the period intervening before funds are available from taxation. Although Mr. Roberts recommended repeatedly legislation for the avoidance of this difficulty, which causes waste, no attention was paid to him. The management of court and trust funds by county treasurers has been particularly scandalous. In disregard of the express direction of the courts, thousands of dollars were retained by parties or their attorneys for their own personal benefit. Money has been paid out by county treasurers without certified orders of the courts merely upon the assurance of attorneys that the payments were proper. The rules framed by the comptroller in regard to this matter were constantly disregarded. Excessive allowances were made for costs of attorneys. In the case of one estate of $750, thus robbed, only $60 remained for the payment of the debts against it. By the defalcations of county treasurers, court and trust funds are often depleted, and the beneficiaries, often widows, orphans, and unfortunate litigants, are robbed. Mr. Roberts has recommended legislation on this subject, but no attention, as far as I know, has been paid to it. It is one of those "parochial" questions that the American people appear to have no taste for. But it would seem as if the protection of citizens, especially the poor and weak, was the first duty of the State.