Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

IMPOST.

§ I.

So many philosophical works have been written on the nature of impost, that we need say very little about it here. It is true that nothing is less philosophical than this subject; but it may enter into moral philosophy by representing to a superintendent of finances or to a Turkish teftardar that it accords not with universal morals to take his neighbor’s money; and that all receivers and custom-house officers and collectors of taxes are cursed in the gospel.

Cursed as they are, it must, however, be agreed that it is impossible for society to subsist unless each member pays something towards the expenses of it; and as, since every one ought to pay, it is necessary to have a receiver, we do not see why this receiver is to be cursed and regarded as an idolater. There is certainly no idolatry in receiving money of guests to-day for their supper.

In republics, and states which with the name of kingdoms are really republics, every individual is taxed according to his means and to the wants of society.

In despotic kingdoms — or to speak more politely — in monarchical states, it is not quite the same — the nation is taxed without consulting it. An agriculturist who has twelve hundred livres of revenue is quite astonished when four hundred are demanded of him. There are several who are even obliged to pay more than half of what they receive.

The cultivator demands why the half of his fortune is taken from him to pay soldiers, when the hundredth part would suffice. He is answered that, besides the soldiers, he must pay for luxury and the arts; that nothing is lost; and that in Persia towns and villages are assigned to the queen to pay for her girdles, slippers, and pins.

He replies that he knows nothing of the history of Persia, and that he should be very indignant if half his fortune were taken for girdles, pins, and shoes; that he would furnish them from a better market, and that he endures a grievous imposition.

He is made to hear reason by being put into a dungeon, and having his goods put up to sale. If he resists the tax-collectors whom the New Testament has damned, he is hanged, which renders all his neighbors infinitely accommodating.

Were this money employed by the sovereign in importing spices from India, coffee from Mocha, English and Arabian horses, silks from the Levant, and gew-gaws from China, it is clear that in a few years there would not remain a single sous in the kingdom. The taxes, therefore, serve to maintain the manufacturers; and so far what is poured into the coffers of the prince returns to the cultivators. They suffer, they complain, and other parts of the state suffer and complain also; but at the end of the year they find that every one has labored and lived some way or other.

If by chance a clown goes to the capital, he sees with astonishment a fine lady dressed in a gown of silk embroidered with gold, drawn in a magnificent carriage by two valuable horses, and followed by four lackeys dressed in a cloth of twenty francs an ell. He addresses himself to one of these lackeys, and says to him: “Sir, where does this lady get money to make such an expensive appearance?” “My friend,” says the lackey, “the king allows her a pension of forty thousand livres.” “Alas,” says the rustic, “it is my village which pays this pension.” “Yes,” answers the servant; “but the silk that you have gathered and sold has made the stuff in which she is dressed; my cloth is a part of thy sheep’s wool; my baker has made my bread of thy corn; thou hast sold at market the very fowls that we eat; thus thou seest that the pension of madame returns to thee and thy comrades.”

The peasant does not absolutely agree with the axioms of this philosophical lackey; but one proof that there is something true in his answer is that the village exists, and produces children who also complain, and who bring forth children again to complain.

§ II.

If we were obliged to read all the edicts of taxation, and all the books written against them, that would be the greatest tax of all.

We well know that taxes are necessary, and that the malediction pronounced in the gospel only regards those who abuse their employment to harass the people. Perhaps the copyist forgot a word, as for instance the epithet pravus. It might have meant pravus publicanus; this word was much more necessary, as the general malediction is a formal contradiction to the words put into the mouth of Jesus Christ: “Render unto Cæsar the things which are Cæsar’s.” Certainly those who collected the dues of Cæsar ought not to have been held in horror. It would have been, at once, insulting the order of Roman Knights and the emperor himself; nothing could have been more ill-advised.

In all civilized countries the imposts are great, because the charges of the state are heavy. In Spain the articles of commerce sent to Cadiz, and thence to America, pay more than thirty per cent. before their transit is accomplished.

In England all duty upon importation is very considerable; however, it is paid without murmuring; there is even a pride in paying it. A merchant boasts of putting four or five thousand guineas a year into the public treasury. The richer a country is, the heavier are the taxes. Speculators would have taxes fall on landed productions only. What! having sown a field of flax, which will bring me two hundred crowns, by which flax a great manufacturer will gain two hundred thousand crowns by converting it into lace — must this manufacturer pay nothing, and shall I pay all, because it is produced by my land? The wife of this manufacturer will furnish the queen and princesses with fine point of Alençon, she will be patronized; her son will become intendant of justice, police, and finance, and will augment my taxes in my miserable old age. Ah! gentlemen speculators, you calculate badly; you are unjust.

The great point is that an entire people be not despoiled by an army of alguazils, in order that a score of town or court leeches may feast upon its blood.

The Duke de Sully relates, in his “Political Economy,” that in 1585 there were just twenty lords interested in the leases of farms, to whom the highest bidders gave three million two hundred and forty-eight thousand crowns.

It was still worse under Charles IX., and Francis I., and Louis XIII. There was not less depredation in the minority of Louis XIV. France, notwithstanding so many wounds, is still in being. Yes; but if it had not received them it would have been in better health. It was thus with several other states.

§ III.

It is just that those who enjoy the advantages of a government should support the charges. The ecclesiastics and monks, who possess great property, for this reason should contribute to the taxes in all countries, like other citizens. In the times which we call barbarous, great benefices and abbeys were taxed in France to the third of their revenue.

By a statute of the year 1188, Philip Augustus imposed a tenth of the revenues of all benefices. Philip le Bel caused the fifth, afterwards the fifteenth, and finally the twentieth part, to be paid, of all the possessions of the clergy.

King John, by a statute of March 12, 1355, taxed bishops, abbots, chapters, and all ecclesiastics generally, to the tenth of the revenue of their benefices and patrimonies. The same prince confirmed this tax by two other statutes, one of March 3, the other of Dec. 28, 1358.

In the letters-patent of Charles V., of June 22, 1372, it is decreed, that the churchmen shall pay taxes and other real and personal imposts. These letters-patent were renewed by Charles VI. in the year 1390.

How is it that these laws have been abolished, while so many monstrous customs and sanguinary decrees have been preserved? The clergy, indeed, pay a tax under the name of a free gift, and, as it is known, it is principally the poorest and most useful part of the church — the curates (rectors)— who pay this tax. But, why this difference and inequality of contributions between the citizens of the same state? Why do those who enjoy the greatest prerogatives, and who are sometimes useless to the public, pay less than the laborer, who is so necessary? The Republic of Venice supplies rules on this subject, which should serve as examples to all Europe.

§ IV.

Churchmen have not only pretended to be exempt from taxes, they have found the means in several provinces to tax the people, and make them pay as a legitimate right.

In several countries, monks having seized the tithes to the prejudice of the rectors, the peasants are obliged to tax themselves, to furnish their pastors with subsistence; and thus in several villages, and above all, in Franche-Comté, besides the tithes which the parishioners pay to the monks or to chapters, they further pay three or four measures of corn to their curates or rectors. This tax was called the right of harvest in some provinces, and boisselage in others.

It is no doubt right that curates should be well paid, but it would be much better to give them a part of the tithes which the monks have taken from them, than to overcharge the poor cultivator.

Since the king of France fixed the competent allowances for the curates, by his edict of the month of May, 1768, and charged the tithe-collectors with paying them, the peasants should no longer be held to pay a second tithe, a tax to which they only voluntarily submitted at a time when the influence and violence of the monks had taken from their pastors all means of subsistence.

The king has abolished this second tithe in Poitou, by letters-patent, registered by the Parliament of Paris July 11, 1769. It would be well worthy of the justice and beneficence of his majesty to make a similar law for other provinces, which are in the same situation as those of Poitou, Franche-Comté, etc.

By M. Chr., Advocate of Besançon.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25