This section is from the "The Science Of Wealth" book, by Amasa Walker.
These are taxes upon importations, and collected through the custom-houses. Government establishes a tariff; that is, a list of duties upon such articles as it deems best: these are paid by the importer before he can gain possession of his goods.
Duties are generally of two kinds, — specific and ad-valorem. Specific duties are imposed by the pound, yard, gallon, &c. Ad-valorem duties, as the term imports, are charged upon the value of the goods, as twenty per cent upon an invoice of silks, hardware, sugar, &c.
In some of the American tariffs, the specific principle has predominated; in others, the ad-valorem. There has always been a struggle when the tariff was to be changed; those favoring specific duties, for protection, being in favor of specific, those of the opposite views contending for ad-valorem duties.
There are difficulties attending both. If specific duties are laid, they operate with great inequality. For example, suppose a duty of twenty-five cents per pound upon tea. This would be equal to a taxation of one hundred per cent on that which cost, originally, twenty-five cents, which the poor man must pay; while the rich, who would purchase tea that cost seventy-five cents, would pay but thirty-three per cent, or one-third as much per cent as the former.
This was the character, to a large extent, of British taxation. The tax on tea was, for a long time, two shillings and sixpence per pound (over sixty cents), paid alike by the hand-loom weaver and the wealthy nobleman.
When laid upon cloth, for example, a specific duty frequently operates in a most oppressive manner. By the American tariff of 1828, a duty of so many cents was laid upon the square yard of coarse woollens. In applying the principle, it was found that negro cloths, as they were called, paid more than two hundred and fifty per cent. This gave rise to great dissatisfaction, and was the ostensible cause of the nullification movement.
In regard to ad-valorem duties, the practical difficulty has been, when the rates were very high, to prevent fraudulent invoices. For example, the importer must present his original invoice at the custom-house, and make oath to its correctness. If dishonest, he may, by connivance with the shipper, furnish false papers, showing the cost to be much less than it really was.
Precautionary measures have been adopted. Appraisers have been appointed to determine the actual value; but, with all possible care on the part of the government, there is danger of deception, and consequent loss to the revenue, as well as injustice to the honest importer.
Of all modes of raising a revenue, that by customs is confessedly the most effective, and the most readily accomplished; and its great importance, as one of the chief sources of national revenue, demands that we give it a careful consideration.
The first principle we laid down was "that all should contribute, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities."
As all duties are laid upon articles of general consumption, it will at once be seen that such taxation cannot have an equal bearing, because men are thus taxed in proportion to what they consume, not in proportion to their wealth. The poor man, with a large family, may pay more than a millionaire. A case is personally known to us of one of the latter class, who actually paid less on dutiable articles than a printer, with a family, who received but fifteen dollars a week. Men are taxed in this way according to the mouths they have to feed, and the bodies they have to clothe.
In the second place, we inquire, Is "the time and manner plain to the person who pays" this indirect tax? The farmer who purchases a carriage, — is he aware that he is paying a government tax by so doing? If so, does he know how much he is paying? Does he understand that all the materials, except the wood, have paid duties to government; that the linings, trimmings, and ornaments, the paints and varnish, and the tools with which it was made, have all been taxed; and that he is to pay the sum total of the whole? Even if so, can he or any one else easily compute the amount of taxation which enters into the carriage? So of all commodities which have passed through the custom-house: people seldom realize when or how much they are taxed. Then the second principle we have laid down is violated.
But we shall not have a full view of the operation of duties on foreign merchandise, unless we take into consideration the fact that they raise the price of the home product, if there is one, to an equal degree with the foreign article, and, in that way, largely increase the burdens of the people, without adding to the-public revenue. We will take the article of sugar as an illustration: —
In 1858, there was imported into the United States
to the amount of...........$23,000,000
There was raised in the United States, same year 25,000,000
Total original cost of sugar consumed . . . $48,000,000
On all the imported sugar a duty was charged of twenty-four per cent; and, of course, the home product was raised to an equal extent; say, together: —
$48,000,000, at twenty-four per cent.....$11,520,000
Now, as all this sugar must pass through the hands of wholesale and retail dealers, if we allow them, altogether, only twenty-five per cent, we have 2,880,000
Of this last sum, the treasury gets the
amount paid as duties.....$5,520,000
Less expense of collection, ten per cent 552,000
Loss to the consumers........$9,432,000
Hence it appears, that the government gets in the present case but about thirty-five per cent of what the people have paid. "We have estimated that the merchant charges a profit upon what he pays as duties, just as much as upon any other part of the cost of his commodities. We have put the profits of the merchants at twenty-five per cent. This, we are aware, is a low estimate; but we are governed by the consideration, that there would be no importer's profit on the amount produced at home, and also that sugar is a "leading article," in the language of trade, upon which less aggregate profits are made.
It is apparent, from this illustration, that the real taxation of a people will depend very much upon the proportion of duties which, designedly or not, are positively protective.
If, in the case presented, instead of a duty upon sugar, the same impost had been laid upon tea and coffee, which articles were free in 1858, and of which together we imported in 1858 about the same amount as of sugar, while we produced no tea and coffee ourselves, the case would stand as follows: —
Such is the wide difference between duties imposed for revenue and those laid for the advantage of home productions. Some cases of protection would exceed this; others would come far short: but the principle is shown by this illustration.