Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The Old and the New Ideas in Taxation
By David Ames Wells (18281898)
[Born in Springfield, Mass., 1828. Died in Norwich, Conn., 1898. Second Report of the Commissioners to Revise the Laws for the Assessment, etc., of Taxes in the State of New York. 1872.]
THE FIRST attempt made to tax money at interest was instigated against money-lenders because they were Jews; but the Jew was sufficiently shrewd to charge the full tax over to the Christian borrower, including a percentage for annoyance and risk; and now most Christian countries, as the result of early experience, compel or permit the Jew to enter the money-market, and submit, without let or hindrance, his transactions to the higher law of trade and political economy. But a class yet exist who would persecute a Jew if he is a money-lender, and they regret that the good old times of roasting him have passed away. They take delight in applying against him, in taxation, rules of evidence admissible in no court since witches have ceased to be tried and condemned. They sigh at the suggestion that all inquisitions shall be abolished; they consider oaths, the rack, the iron boot and the thumbscrew as the visible manifestations of equality. They would tax primarily everything to the lowest atom; first for national purposes, and then for State and local purposes, through separate boards of assessors. They would require every other man to be an assessor or collector, and it is not probable that the work could then be accomplished with accuracy. The average consumption of every inhabitant of this State (New York), annually, is at least $200, or in the aggregate, $800,000,000; and this immense amount would fail to be taxed if the assessment was made at the end of the year, and not daily, as fast as consumption followed production. All this complicated machinery of infinitesimal taxation and mediæval inquisition is to be brought into requisition for the purpose of taxing money property, which is nothing but a myth. The money-lender parts with his property to the borrower, who puts it in the form of new buildings, or other improvements, upon which he pays a tax. Is not one assessment on the same property sufficient? But if you insist upon another assessment on the money-lender, it requires no prophetic power to predict that he will add the tax in his transactions with the borrower. If a tax of ten per cent. was levied and enforced on every bill of goods, or note given for goods, the tax would be added to the price of goods, and how would this form of tax be different from the tax on the goods?
Money property except in coin is imaginary, and cannot exist. There are rights to property of great value. The right to inherit property is valuable; and a mortgage on land is a certificate of right or interest in the property, but it is not the property. Land under lease is as much money property as a mortgage on the same land; both will yield an income of money. Labor will command money, and is a valuable power to acquire property, but is not property. If we could make property by making debts, it cannot be doubted that a national debt would be a national blessing. Attacking the bugbear of money property is an assault on all property; for money property is the mere representative of property. If we tax the representative, the tax must fall upon the thing represented.
A traveller in the Okefinokee swamp slaps the mosquitoes off his right cheek only to find that they immediately alight upon his left cheek; and that when he has driven them from thence, they return and alight on his nose; and that all the time he loses blood as a genuine primary or secondary tax-payer. And so it is with taxation. If we live in any country not wholly barbarous, we cannot escape it; and it is the fate of man to bear his proportion of its burdens in proportion to his expense, property, and consumption. The main question of interest and importance in connection with the subject, therefore, is, shall we have an economical system (and hence a species of labor-saving machine), and a uniform and honest system; or one that is expensive and encourages dishonesty and is arbitrary and inquisitorial? In either case the tax-collector will act the part of the mosquito, and will get blood from all; but in an honest and economical system he will get no unnecessary blood.