This section is from the "The Science Of Wealth" book, by Amasa Walker.
A general valuation of all real and personal property is made by the authority of the State, according to which all State taxes are apportioned to each county, city, or town. The municipal authorities then assess the amount allotted them upon the property and polls of their constituents, together with the amount required for city or town expenditures.
Thus all taxes, whether for State, city, town, or school-district, are direct, and laid wholly on property, except the small amount of poll-taxes. There may be some slight variation in different States from the course we have stated; but it is quite unessential, and does not materially change the grand result.
The law makes it the duty of each person to furnish the assessors annually a true invoice of his estate, and to its correctness he may be required to make oath; and, if any person neglects or refuses to make such inventory, the assessors make one for him, according to their own judgment.
The rate of tax varies from year to year, and is widely different in different towns and cities. Before the Rebellion, the rate in Massachusetts was seldom less than sixty cents, or more than one hundred on a hundred dollars; but such have been the expenditures caused by the war, that few now have a rate less than one hundred, and some have been as high as three hundred and fifty, cents on the hundred dollars.
This tax, if the valuation be fairly made, approximates to justice and equality. It is assumed that every man's ability to pay is in proportion to the property he holds; that his revenue corresponds with his wealth. This may, or may not, be true; and, as we shall have occasion to show, there are circumstances which disturb, to some extent, the equal operation of this tax.
And here we may notice some of the objections to this compound system of poll and property taxation. Poll-tax payers vote directly upon the public appropriations; yet they have no personal interest whatever in the amount of expenditures. No matter whether a proposal to expend money is wise and necessary, or frivolous and wasteful, the poll-tax payer can vote for it with entire impunity. It is nothing to him whether the sum be one thousand or ten thousand dollars. Indeed, the influence of poll-tax payers is often in favor of the most lavish expenditures. A new road, for example, is proposed in town meeting. It may be quite unnecessary, and ought not to be made; but the poll-tax payers, a large share of whom are laborers, will be immediately benefited by the demand that will be made for labor, and will be very likely to go in favor of it. It needs no argument to show the bad effects of such a state of things, regarded only in an economical point of view. If men may vote away money in the payment of which they have no interest, is it likely to be done to the advantage of the public interests? Is it not certain that there will be unwise and reckless expenditures?
This false position of the poll-tax payer has attracted the attention of those who are narrowly watching the effects of equality of suffrage without equality of taxation. The result of popular votes during the civil war, by which immense, and often quite unnecessary, burdens were imposed upon towns, has caused no small anxiety amongst those who have noticed the natural consequences of giving to a class numerous and powerful, at the ballot-box, the power to impose taxes upon the public, from which they are themselves exempt.
On the other hand, the poll-tax payer, while he contributes heavily towards the national expenditures through customs and excise, has no direct vote in regard to them. He can vote where his own interest would lead him to vote wrong, but has no power to vote directly where his interest would lead him to vote right.
The income-tax principle, if universally adopted, while it would doubtless relieve poll-tax payers of their present taxation, would, at the same time, bring their interests into harmony with those of property-tax payers, and thus promote the general welfare of the public.
The property and poll tax being the two modes * by which all revenues are raised by the individual States, we will look for a moment at their operation as between the different classes upon which they are imposed. To do this, we refer to a valuation and tax list before us, and find the following examples.
* States have, in some cases, derived a revenue from a tax upon banks. In Massachusetts, it was for many years the greatest source of income; so great, indeed, as to render any direct State tax unnecessary. Licenses have also been granted, by State authority, in some instances; but the amount received in any other mode, except by direct taxation, is too small to affect essentially the public burdens. The establishment of the national-bank system has cut off bank taxation from the States as a source of revenue.
The poll-tax is one of the oldest and most general of all taxes imposed by State authority. In Massachusetts, "every male inhabitant over twenty years of age is included, except persons who, by reason of infirmity and poverty, are, in the judgment of the assessors, unable to contribute fully to the public charges."
It hardly need be said, that this form of taxation is not in accordance with the maxims laid down by Adam Smith; those who pay it not having equal ability, or enjoying "an equal revenue." It is a tax founded on no sound principle whatever; and, if it were, the only tax imposed would be as unjust as a tax could well be. It forms, however, only a part of a system which must be looked at in all its bearings, in order to form a correct judgment of the operation of the particular tax, which by law is a limited one, determined by State legislation. In Massachusetts, the maximum poll-tax is now fixed at "not over two dollars," but may be, as it has been, changed from time to time. It has never, we believe, been higher than at present.
We here find that these small farmers pay $19.57 each, equal to nine and a half times as much as the poll-tax contributors. Does any one suppose that the incomes of the former are nine and a half times as great as the latter? Let us test the question.