This section is from the "The Science Of Wealth" book, by Amasa Walker.
It is unnecessary to say that this tax is in perfect accordance with the first maxim laid down by Adam Smith, that "every man should be taxed according to the revenue he derives under the state," and also consistent with every other principle we have stated. It is "clear and plain" to the contributor, and every other person. The income-tax payer knows when and how much he pays; and it can be collected as conveniently and economically as any other.
This kind of tax was established in England in 1798, during the wars with Napoleon, but was abolished soon after the close of that struggle. About 1842, however, the government, finding its revenues fall short of the expenditures, restored the tax; and it has been continued to the present time.
This tax was unknown, we believe, in the United States, until the civil war, when it was laid by Congress, and has been continued thus far. Total amount collected for the year ending June 30, 1865, was $20,740,451.33; while the whole internal revenue, for the same time, was $211,129,-529.17; so that the income tax produced nearly ten per cent of the amount.
Of all modes of taxation, this is the most just and equitable. Every man can afford to pay according to his income, and ought to do so. There is no other perfect standard of taxation; none other which does not inflict more or less hardship and injustice.
The tax comes upon the annual private revenue of each year, out of which the government should receive its share for the annual revenue of the state. If the private revenue is increased, so should be the contribution to the public revenue: if the former is diminished, the latter should be also. This is fair and just. Were it to supersede all other forms of taxation, perfect equality would be established; property and labor would bear each its just share of the public burdens. To do this, it would be necessary to ascertain the income of every man; of every laborer, whether his wages amounted to one hundred or one thousand dollars a year; of every professional man; of every operative, male or female; every capitalist, banker, merchant, and mechanic. Upon the gross income, thus ascertained, the general tax should be levied, pro rata. In this way, it is clear, equality, as far as that is practicable, would be established; and each member of the community would be made to bear his just proportion, and, of course, would be obliged to save, in his expenditures, to that amount.
The objection to this form of taxation is the difficulty of ascertaining what a person's income actually is. In the first place, it is said that many do not know their affairs so as to be able to state their true income. There is doubtless much of truth in this; but the very fact that such a tax is certain to be enforced every year will, in a short time, remove this difficulty to a considerable extent, because men will be compelled so to keep their accounts as;to know what they gain or lose. The operation of the law in this respect, therefore, is favorable to private interest; since the more intelligent every man is in regard to his affairs, the better for him. Such, we believe, has been the operation of the income tax in England.
Secondly, It is said that some men will be dishonest in their disclosures and statements, and therefore a correct result cannot be reached.
That many men are dishonest there can be no doubt; but, when the law taxing incomes is regularly enforced from year to year, the difficulty of concealment, on the part of the tax-payer, is constantly increasing. His neighbors and competitors in business have an eye upon him, if they believe he is making false statements; and he cannot long escape detection. Besides, as a man may be put under oath (and, by the way, ought always to be), the crime of perjury must be committed with every misrepresentation of his affairs. The immense difference between the reported incomes of the United States in 1864 and those of 1863, even after allowing for the general rise of prices, serves to give an idea of the advance that will naturally be made in the application of the income tax.
The third objection made is, that men do not always like to have their incomes known. But why should they not? We have already said, that, in the matter of taxation, all are copartners,having a pro-rata interest. What one does not pay, others must. All, therefore, may rightfully demand such information as shall furnish the means of assessing a correct tax.
Besides this, an income tax well enforced will be the means of diffusing a large amount of information most important in regard to the credits which business men are required to give. The position and ability of every man. will be better understood. This is not an unimportant consideration. It is difficult to see any reason for objecting to a disclosure of income for taxation, which does not equally apply to the disclosure of property for the same purpose.
Estimated Income. — But it may be said that the income-tax principle would not work well in some communities, because a considerable share of its wealth produces no income, and therefore would go untaxed; that this is especially so in the new States, where vast quantities of land are held which yield no rent or income whatever.
But this is a mistaken view of the matter. If these lands are appreciating from year to year, — and, as a general fact, owing to the increase of population, they are, — the income from them is as, real as any other; but it is a deferred income, which is sure to come in the end. All such property, whether in city lots or farms, should, if an income tax only were levied, be estimated yearly, according to its increasing value, and be assessed upon that principle.
We do not advocate the adoption of the income tax as a substitute for all other modes of taxation: our purpose is to show, that, so far as practicable, it is the most just and economical mode of raising a revenue.