Guest Lecture: John Stuart Mill
Jude Wanniski
January 5, 2001


Memo To: Students of SSU
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Guest Lecture: John Stuart Mill

Welcome back from the holidays to the final lessons in this semester’s concentration on public finance. My intention is to devote the next two lessons, this week’s and next’s, to the second chapter of Book 5 of John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy [1848], which is the section devoted to taxation. One of the most amazing and influential intellects of the 19th century, Mill thought through the whole of political economics, “the way the world works,” which is why his work seems so fresh and lucid even today. In the more than four years since Supply Side University began, we’ve printed guest lectures before from economists of yore, but I think we have not done as much as we should. Mill is, after all, a classical economist who most definitely must be classed as one of the greatest of supply-side theoreticians of history. As you will see, he is readily accessible as he discusses taxation as it relates to society, weighing the pros and cons of the taxation of capital, the progressivity of estate taxation, and matters of equity, fairness and incentives. You can almost imagine him taking a chair at the House Ways&Means Committee next month as it sits down to discuss the tax program of President Bush. Indeed, the members of the committee, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, would benefit greatly from a reading and find themselves agreeing with much of his discourse.

The full text of Principles, published when he was 42, is available on-line, and is worth reading in its entirety. Mill, who never went to school but was taught entirely by his  father, was reading the classics in the original Greek and Latin when he was 10 years old. I originally planned to condense the 8500 words of this section into one lesson, but found his writing and logic so tight that very little could be excised. Hence, the two parts.

[For following Mill’s examples in British pounds (£), a carpenter at the time would earn one pound per week or 50£ per year. In today’s purchasing power, this would be $75 per week or $3750 per year.]

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Principles of Political Economy by John Stuart Mill
Book 5 Chapter 2 On the General Principles of Taxation

1. The qualities desirable, economically speaking, in a system of taxation, have been embodied by Adam Smith in four maxims or principles, which, having been generally concurred by subsequent writers, may be said to have become classical, and this chapter cannot be better commenced than by quoting them.

'1. The subjects of every state ought to contribute to the support of the government, as nearly as possible in proportion to their respective abilities: that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state. In the observation or neglect of this maxim consists what is called the equality or inequality of taxation.

'2. The tax which each individual is bound to pay ought to be certain, and not arbitrary. The time of payment, the manner of payment, the quantity to be paid, ought all to be clear and plain to the contributor, and to every other person. Where it is otherwise, every person subject to the tax is put more or less in the power of the tax-gatherer, who can either aggravate the tax upon any obnoxious contributor, or extort by the terror of such aggravation, some present or perquisite to himself. The uncertainty of taxation encourages the insolence and favours the corruption of an order of men who are naturally unpopular, even when they are neither insolent nor corrupt. The certainty of what each individual ought to pay is, in taxation, a matter of so great importance, that a very considerable degree of inequality, it appears, I believe, from the experience of all nations, is not near so great an evil, as a very small degree of uncertainty.

'3. Every tax ought to be levied at the time, or in the manner, in which it is most likely to be convenient for the contributor to pay it. A tax upon the rent of land or of houses, payable at the same term at which such rents are usually paid, is levied at a time when it is most likely to be convenient for the contributor to pay; or when he is most likely to have wherewithal to pay. Taxes upon such consumable goods as are articles of luxury, are all finally paid by the consumer, and generally in a manner that is very convenient to him. He pays them by little and little, as he has occasion to buy the goods. As he is at liberty, too, either to buy or not to buy, as he pleases, it must be his own fault if he ever suffers any considerable inconvenience from such taxes.

'4. Every tax ought to be so contrived as both to take out and to keep out of the pockets of the people as little as possible over and above what it brings into the public treasury of the state. A tax may either take out or keep out of the pockets of the people a great deal more than it brings into the public treasury, in the four following ways. First, the levying of it may require a great number of officers, whose salaries may eat up the greater part of the produce of the tax, and whose perquisites may impose another additional tax upon the people. Secondly, it may divert a portion of the labour and capital of the community from a more to a less productive employment. Thirdly, by the forfeitures and other penalties which those unfortunate individuals incur who attempt unsuccessfully to evade the tax, it may frequently ruin them, and thereby put an end to the benefit which the community might have derived from the employment of their capitals. An injudicious tax offers a great temptation to smuggling. Fourthly, by subjecting the people to the frequent visits and the odious examination of the tax-gatherers, it may expose them to much unnecessary trouble, vexation, and oppression': to which may be added, that the restrictive regulations to which trades and manufactures are often subjected to prevent evasion of a tax, are not only in themselves troublesome and expensive, but often oppose insuperable obstacles to making improvements in the processes. The last three of these four maxims require little other explanation or illustration than is contained in the passage itself. How far any given tax conforms to, or conflicts with them, is a matter to be considered in the discussion of particular taxes. But the first of the four points, equality of taxation, requires to be more fully examined, being a thing often imperfectly understood, and on which many false notions have become to a certain degree accredited, through the absence of any definite principles of judgment in the popular mind.

2. For what reason ought equality to be the rule in matters of taxation? For the reason, that it ought to be so in all affairs of government. As a government ought to make no distinction of persons or classes in the strength of their claim on it, whatever sacrifices it requires from them should be made to bear as nearly as possible with the same pressure upon all, which, it must be observed, is the mode by which least sacrifice is occasioned on the whole. If any one bears less than his fair share of the burthen, some other person must suffer more than his share, and the alleviation to the one is not, caeteris paribus [everything else being equal], so great a good to him, as the increased pressure upon the other is an evil. Equality of taxation, therefore, as a maxim of politics, means equality of sacrifice. It means apportioning the contribution of each person towards the expenses of government, so that he shall feel neither more nor less inconvenience from his share of the payment than every other person experiences from his. This standard, like other standards of perfection, cannot be completely realized; but the first object in every practical discussion should be to know what perfection is.

There are persons, however, who are not content with the general principles of justice as a basis to ground a rule of finance upon, but must have something, as they think, more specifically appropriate to the subject. What best pleases them is, to regard the taxes paid by each member of the community as an equivalent for value received, in the shape of service to himself; and they prefer to rest the justice of making each contribute in proportion to his means, upon the ground, that he who has twice as much property to be protected, receives, on an accurate calculation, twice as much protection, and ought, on the principles of bargain and sale, to pay twice as much for it. Since, however, the assumption that government exists solely for the protection of property, is not one to be deliberately adhered to; some consistent adherents of the quid pro quo principle go on to observe, that protection being required for person as well as property, and everybody's person receiving the same amount of protection, a poll-tax of a fixed sum per head is a proper equivalent for this part of the benefits of government, while the remaining part, protection to property, should be paid for in proportion to property. There is in this adjustment a false air of nice adaptation, very acceptable to some minds. But in the first place, it is not admissible that the protection of persons and that of property are the sole purposes of government. The ends of government are as comprehensive as those of the social union. They consist of all the good, and all the immunity from evil, which the existence of government can be made either directly or indirectly to bestow. In the second place, the practice of setting definite values on things essentially indefinite, and making them a ground of practical conclusions, is peculiarly fertile in false views of social questions. It cannot be admitted, that to be protected in the ownership of ten times as much property, is to be ten times as much protected. Neither can it be truly said that the protection of 1000£ a year costs the state ten times as much as that of 100£. a year, rather than twice as much, or exactly as much. The same judges, soldiers, and sailors who protect the one protect the other, and the larger income does not necessarily, though it may sometimes, require even more policemen. Whether the labour and expense of the protection, or the feelings of the protected person, or any other definite thing be made the standard, there is no such proportion as the one supposed, nor any other definable proportion. If we wanted to estimate the degrees of benefit which different persons derive from the protection of government, we should have to consider who would suffer most if that protection were withdrawn: to which question if any answer could be made, it must be, that those would suffer most who were weakest in mind or body, either by nature or by position. Indeed, such persons would almost infallibly be slaves. If there were any justice, therefore, in the theory of justice now under consideration, those who are least capable of helping or defending themselves, being those to whom the protection of government is the most indispensable, ought to pay the greatest share of its price: the reverse of the true idea of distributive justice, which consists not in imitating but in redressing the inequalities and wrongs of nature.

Government must be regarded as so pre-eminently a concern of all, that to determine who are most interested in it is of no real importance. If a person or class of persons receive so small a share of the benefit as makes it necessary to raise the question, there is something else than taxation which is amiss, and the thing to be done is to remedy the defect, instead of recognizing it and making it a ground for demanding less taxes. As, in a case of voluntary subscription for a purpose in which all are interested, all are thought to have done their part fairly when each has contributed according to his means, that is, has made an equal sacrifice for the common object; in like manner should this be the principle of compulsory contributions: and it is superfluous to look for a more ingenious or recondite ground to rest the principle upon.

3. Setting out, then, from the maxim that equal sacrifices ought to be demanded from all, we have next to inquire whether this is in fact done, by making each contribute the same percentage on his pecuniary means. Many persons maintain the negative, saying that a tenth part taken from a small income is a heavier burthen than the same fraction deducted from one much larger: and on this is grounded the very popular scheme of what is called a graduated property tax, viz. an income tax in which the percentage rises with the amount of the income.

On the best consideration I am able to give to this question, it appears to me that the portion of truth which the doctrine contains, arises principally from the difference between a tax which can be saved from luxuries, and one which trenches, in ever so small a degree, upon the necessaries of life. To take a thousand a year from the possessor of ten thousand, would not deprive him of anything really conducive either to the support or to the comfort of existence; and if such would be the effect of taking five pounds from one whose income is fifty, the sacrifice required from the last is not only greater than, but entirely incommensurable with, that imposed upon the first. The mode of adjusting these inequalities of pressure, which seems to be the most equitable, is that recommended by Bentham, of leaving a certain minimum of income, sufficient to provide the necessaries of life, untaxed. Suppose 50£ a year to be sufficient to provide the number of persons ordinarily supported from a single income, with the requisites of life and health, and with protection against habitual bodily suffering, but not with any indulgence. This then should be made the minimum, and incomes exceeding it should pay taxes not upon their whole amount, but upon the surplus.

If the tax be ten per cent, an income of 60£ should be considered as a net income of 10£, and charged with 1£a year, while an income of 1000£ should be charged as one of 950£. Each would then pay a fixed proportion, not of his whole means, but of his superfluities. An income not exceeding 50£ should not be taxed at all, either directly or by taxes on necessaries; for as by supposition this is the smallest income which labour ought to be able to command, the government ought not to be a party to making it smaller. This arrangement however would constitute a reason, in addition to others which might be stated, for maintaining taxes on articles of luxury consumed by the poor. The immunity extended to the income required for necessaries, should depend on its being actually expended for that purpose; and the poor who, not having more than enough for necessaries, divert any part of it to indulgences, should like other people contribute their quota out of those indulgences to the expenses of the state.

The exemption in favour of the smaller incomes should not, I think, be stretched further than to the amount of income needful for life, health, and immunity from bodily pain. If 50£ a year is sufficient (which may be doubted) for these purposes, an income of 100£ a year would, as it seems to me, obtain all the relief it is entitled to, compared with one of 1000£, by being taxed only on 50£ of its amount. It may be said, indeed, that to take 100£from 1000£ (even giving back five pounds) is a heavier impost than 1000£ taken from 10,000£ (giving back the same five pounds). But this doctrine seems to me too disputable altogether, and even if true at all, not true to a sufficient extent, to be made the foundation of any rule of taxation. Whether the person with 10,000£ a year cares less for 1000£than the person with only 1000£a year cares for 100£, and if so, how much less, does not appear to me capable of being decided with the degree of certainty on which a legislator or a financier ought to act.

Some indeed contend that the rule of proportional taxation bears harder upon the moderate than upon the large incomes, because the same proportional payment has more tendency in the former case than in the latter, to reduce the payer to a lower grade of social rank. The fact appears to me more than questionable. But even admitting it, I object to its being considered incumbent on government to shape its course by such considerations, or to recognize the notion that social importance is or can be determined by amount of expenditure. Government ought to set an example of rating all things at their true value, and riches, therefore, at the worth, for comfort or pleasure, of the things which they will buy: and ought not to sanction the vulgarity of prizing them for the pitiful vanity of being known to possess them, or the paltry shame of being suspected to be without them, the presiding motives of three-fourths of the expenditure of the middle classes. The sacrifices of real comfort or indulgence which government requires, it is bound to apportion among all persons with as much equality as possible; but their sacrifices of the imaginary dignity dependent on expense, it may spare itself the trouble of estimating.

Both in England and on the Continent a graduated property tax (l'impot progressif) has been advocated, on the avowed ground that the state should use the instrument of taxation as a means of mitigating the inequalities of wealth. I am as desirous as any one, that means should be taken to diminish those inequalities, but not so as to relieve the prodigal at the expense of the prudent. To tax the larger incomes at a higher percentage than the smaller, is to lay a tax on industry and economy; to impose a penalty on people for having worked harder and saved more than their neighbours. It is not the fortunes which are earned, but those which are unearned, that it is for the public good to place under limitation. A just and wise legislation would abstain from holding out motives for dissipating rather than saving the earnings of honest exertion. Its impartiality between competitors would consist in endeavouring that they should all start fair, and not in hanging a weight upon the swift to diminish the distance between them and the slow. Many, indeed, fail with greater efforts than those with which others succeed, not from difference of merits, but difference of opportunities; but if all were done which it would be in the power of a good government to do, by instruction and by legislation, to diminish this inequality of opportunities, the differences of fortune arising from people's own earnings could not justly give umbrage.

With respect to the large fortunes acquired by gift or inheritance, the power of bequeathing is one of those privileges of property which are fit subjects for regulation on grounds of general expediency; and I have already suggested, as a possible mode of restraining the accumulation of large fortunes in the hands of those who have not earned them by exertion, a limitation of the amount which any one person should be permitted to acquire by gift, bequest, or inheritance. Apart from this, and from the proposal of Bentham (also discussed in a former chapter) that collateral inheritance ab intestato should cease, and the property escheat to the state, I conceive that inheritances and legacies, exceeding a certain amount, are highly proper subject for taxation: and that the revenue from them should be as great as it can be made without giving rise to evasions, by donation inter vivos or concealment of property, such as it would be impossible adequately to check. The principle of graduation (as it is called,) that is, of levying a larger percentage on a larger sum, though its application to general taxation would be in my opinion objectionable, seems to me both just and expedient as applied to legacy and inheritance duties.

The objection to a graduated property tax applies in an aggravated degree to the proposition of an exclusive tax on what is called 'realized property', that is, property not forming a part of any capital engaged in business, or rather in business under the superintendence of the owner: as land, the public funds, money lent on mortgage, and shares (I presume) in joint-stock companies. Except the proposal of applying a sponge to the national debt, no such palpable violation of common honesty has found sufficient support in this country, during the present generation, to be regarded as within the domain of discussion. It has not the palliation of a graduated property tax, that of laying the burthen on those best able to bear it; for 'realized property' includes the far larger portion of the provision made for those who are unable to work, and consists, in great part, of extremely small fractions.

I can hardly conceive a more shameless pretension, than that the major part of the property of the country, that of merchants, manufacturers, farmers, and shopkeepers, should be exempted from its share of taxation; that these classes should only begin to pay their proportion after retiring from business, and if they never retire should be excused from it altogether. But even this does not give an adequate idea of the injustice of the proposition. The burthen thus exclusively thrown on the owners of the smaller portion of the wealth of the community, would not even be a burthen on that class of persons in perpetual succession, but would fall exclusively on those who happened to compose it when the tax wa laid on. As land and those particular securities would thenceforth yield a smaller net income, relatively to the general interest of capital and to the profits of trade; the balance would rectify itself by a permanent depreciation of those kinds of property. Future buyers would acquire land and securities at a reduction of price, equivalent to the peculiar tax, which tax they would, therefore, escape from paying; while the original possessors would remain burthened with it even after parting with the property, since they would have sold their land or securities at a loss of value equivalent to the fee-simple of the tax. Its imposition would thus be tantamount to the confiscation for public uses of a percentage of their property, equal to the percentage laid on their income by the tax. That such a proposition should find any favour, is a striking instance of the want of conscience in matters of taxation, resulting from the absence of any fixed principles in the public mind, and of any indication of a sense of justice on the subject in the general conduct of governments. Should the scheme ever enlist a large party in its support, the fact would indicate a laxity of pecuniary integrity in national affairs, scarcely inferior to American repudiation.

4. Whether the profits of trade may not rightfully be taxed at a lower rate than incomes derived from interest or rent, is part of the more comprehensive question, so often mooted on the occasion of the present income tax, whether life incomes should be subjected to the same rate of taxation as perpetual incomes: whether salaries, for example, or annuities, or the gains of professions, should pay the same percentage as the income from inheritable property.

The existing tax treats all kinds of incomes exactly alike, taking its sevenpence (now fourpence) in the pound, as well from the person whose income dies with him, as from the landholder, stockholder, or mortgagee, who can transmit his fortune undiminished to his descendants. This is a visible injustice: yet it does not arithmetically violate the rule that taxation ought to be in proportion to means. When it is said that a temporary income ought to be taxed less than a permanent one, the reply is irresistible, that it is taxed less; for the income which lasts only ten years pays the tax only ten years, while that which lasts for ever pays for ever. On this point some financial reformers are guilty of a great fallacy. They contend that incomes ought to be assessed to the income tax not in proportion to their annual amount, but to their capitalized value: that, for example, if the value of a perpetual annuity of 100£ is 3000£, and a life annuity of the same amount, being worth only half the number of years' purchase, could only be sold for 1500£, the perpetual income should pay twice as much per cent income tax as the terminable income; if the one pays 10£a year the other should pay only 5£ But in this argument there is the obvious oversight, that it values the incomes by one standard and the payments by another; it capitalizes the incomes, but forgets to capitalize the payments. An annuity worth 3000£ ought, it is alleged, to be taxed twice as highly as one which is only worth 1500£, and no assertion can be more unquestionable; but it is forgotten that the income worth 3000£ pays to the supposed income tax 10£ a year in perpetuity, which is equivalent, by supposition, to 300£, while the terminable income pays the same 10£ only during the life of its owner, which on the same calculation is a value of 150£, and could actually be bought for that sum. Already, therefore, the income which is only half as valuable, pays only half as much to the tax; and if in addition to this its annual quota were reduced from 10£ to 5£, it would pay, not half, but a fourth part only of the payment demanded from the perpetual income. To make it just that the one income should pay only half as much per annum as the other, it would be necessary that it should pay that half for the same period, that is, in perpetuity...

All attempts to establish a claim in favour of terminable incomes on numerical grounds - to make out, in short, that a proportional tax is not a proportional tax - are manifestly absurd. The claim does not rest on grounds of arithmetic, but of human wants and feelings. It is not because the temporary annuitant has smaller means, but because he has greater necessities, that he ought to be assessed at a lower rate. In spite of the nominal equality of income, A, an annuitant of 1000£ a year, cannot so well afford to pay 100£ out of it, as B who derives the same annual sum from heritable property; A having usually a demand on his income which B has not, namely, to provide by saving for children or others; to which, in the case of salaries or professional gains, must generally be added a provision for his own later years; while B may expend his whole income without injury to his old age, and still have it all to bestow on others after his death. If A, in order to meet these exigencies, must lay by 300£ of his income, to take 100£from him as income tax is to take 100£ from 700£, since it must be retrenched from that part only of his means which he can afford to spend on his own consumption. Were he to throw it rateably on what he spends and on what he saves, abating 70£ from his consumption and 30£ from his annual saving, then indeed his immediate sacrifice would be proportionately the same as B's: but then his children or his old age would be worse provided for in consequence of the tax. The capital sum which would be accumulated for them would be one-tenth less, and on the reduced income afforded by this reduced capital, they would be a second time charged with income tax; while B's heirs would only be charged once.

The principle, therefore, of equality of taxation, interpreted in its only just sense, equality of sacrifice, requires that a person who has no means of providing for old age, or for those in whom he is interested, except by saving from income, should have the tax remitted on all that part of his income which is really and bona fide applied to that purpose.

If, indeed, reliance could be placed on the conscience of the contributors, or sufficient security taken for the correctness of their statements by collateral precautions, the proper mode of assessing an income tax would be to tax only the part of income devoted to expenditure, exempting that which is saved. For when saved and invested (and all savings, speaking generally, are invested) it thenceforth pays income tax on the interest or profit which it brings, notwithstanding that it has already been taxed on the principal. Unless, therefore, savings are exempted from income tax, the contributors are twice taxed on what they save, and only once on what they spend. A person who spends all he receives, pays 7d. in the pound, or say three per cent, to the tax, and no more; but if he saves part of the year's income and buys stock, then in addition to the three per cent which he has paid on the principal, and which diminishes the interest in the same ratio, he pays three per cent annually on the interest itself, which is equivalent to an immediate payment of a second three per cent on the principal. So that while unproductive expenditure pays only three per cent, savings pay six per cent: or more correctly, three per cent on the whole, and another three per cent on the remaining ninety-seven. The difference thus created to the disadvantage of prudence and economy, is not only impolitic but unjust. To tax the sum invested, and afterwards tax also the proceeds of the investment, is to tax the same portion of the contributor's means twice over. The principal and the interest cannot both together form part of his resources; they are the same portion twice counted: if he has the interest, it is because he abstains from using the principal; if he spends the principal, he does not receive the interest. Yet because he can do either of the two, he is taxed as if he could do both, and could have the benefit of the saving and that of the spending, concurrently with one another.

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Next week, the conclusion of this section of Mills’ Principles. Then a windup session on taxation and finance before we begin the spring semester.