This section is from the "The Science Of Wealth" book, by Amasa Walker.
While this work is passing through the press, a proposition is made in Congress to consolidate the debt of the United States into a uniform five per cent stock, having thirty years to run, payable, interest and principal, in gold.
It is, doubtless, desirable to effect such a consolidation, provided it can be done in an economical and proper manner; but the proposal to exempt the consols from taxation is quite another matter. We have already spoken of the invidious, as well as unjust, operation of a system which exempts from taxation one-sixth part of the national resources; but, since the proposal has been made, it becomes desirable, we think, to give the subject some further consideration.
We shall not dwell upon the political bearings of a measure sure to create abiding dissatisfaction; sure to be a most dangerous weapon in the hands of political aspirants, and certain to endanger eventually the security of the debt itself. We shall speak only of its economic bearings.
1st, The exemption of three billion dollars from taxation for all national, State, county, town, school-district, and parish purposes, will create a very considerable and influential class of persons, who, while they will have the legal right to vote appropriations for all public objects, will be under no obligation to pay a farthing of the amount raised; who, while interested in having large public improvements made, will have no responsibility for the expense of them: a class to whom it will be a matter of entire indifference how large the assessments may be, or how unwisely or wastefully the public finances may be conducted. Can any reasonable man think it expedient and proper to create such a class? Does any one doubt that its influence would be unfavorable to the public welfare? We already exempt labor, to a great extent, from the burdens of State and municipal taxation, by limiting the poll-tax to a fixed and very trifling amount, so that the poll-tax payer can vote any sum he pleases with entire impunity. By exempting three billions of the national credit from taxation, it is now proposed to place capitalists, so far as they are owners of the public stocks, in the same favored position. The interest of these two parties will then be identical in regard to all public expenditures paid for by a direct tax on property, as State and municipal charges generally are. Both can vote away money, and leave the unfortunate property-holders to settle the bills. By the exemption proposed, government creates a great antagonism in the body politic. It grants a special and most important favor to one class, at the expense of others. It may be urged, that the favor has been paid for by the creditors of the government, in that they took the stock at a less rate of interest than they would have done had it been subject to taxation. But can government, with any propriety, make any such condition? Can it rightfully grant, for any consideration whatever, a dispensation to one class of citizens from all pecuniary obligation to State, city, and town authority throughout the nation? Surely not, consistently with justice and equality, because in one community the favor granted may be worth one per cent, in another two.
In one locality, it may advance the general valuation one-half; in another, only one-tenth: in one municipality; it may increase the general rate of taxation five mills on the dollar; in another, twenty.
Can that be just and equal? And yet all taxation, under a free government, must be seen to be clearly impartial and just, or the people will not submit to it.
2d, Such an exemption will create a powerful influence against the payment of any thing but the interest of the debt. This can be readily seen, and hence we perceive another unfavorable effect from the proposed policy. The debt should be paid off as soon as practicable. It should not all be placed out of reach for thirty years, and exempted for all that time from contributing to its own discharge, unless we are prepared to resign ourselves to never-ending taxation for the payment of interest.
In a sectional point of view, the exemption principle will be very unequal in its bearings. In the new States, where capital is comparatively scarce, and local taxation necessarily heavy, its operation will be especially oppressive and odious. Every available dollar will be put into government bonds, unless it will command an excessive rate of interest on individual security. Will not this enhance the rate of interest, where capital is most scarce? If so, will it not be most burdensome to those who can least afford to bear severe taxation and high rates of interest?
3d, A consideration is, that the contemplated exemption has a direct and powerful tendency to cripple the industry of the country by absorbing a large proportion of its wealth into the debt of the government. If the national bonds should be relieved of taxation for thirty years, no more will go abroad for sale, and those now in Europe will be returned upon us. Of that there can be no doubt. The difference occasioned by the exemption here, which does not attach to bonds held abroad, will be so great as to insure their return to the American market. That this will make the working capital of the country scarce and high, and thus greatly injure all the industry of the nation, especially that engaged in manufactures, is beyond a question.
The last consideration we shall name is, that the proposed measure is entirely unnecessary. Such a policy should never have been entered upon. It was bad financiering, even in the darkest hour of our national struggle, and is wholly inexcusable now.
But it may be replied, "The government cannot negotiate its loans at five per cent, unless the exemption is made." Very well; then promise six. The rate of interest is far less essential than equality in the taxation by which that interest is paid. If one-sixth more interest is to be provided for, there will be one-sixth more property on which to assess the tax that is to meet it; the burden upon the people is not increased, only equalized.
The British government pursued a wise financial policy during its great contest with Napoleon. It consolidated its national debt, issued only three-per-cents, and negotiated these on an average discount of about forty-one per cent. Her exigency was great, but the United States is under no such extreme necessity. If a policy is adopted which commends itself to the capitalists of the world, American consols, at a low rate of interest, will, like the British, command money on the most favorable terms. But there must be no tricks, no subterfuges, no unjust exemptions, which sensible men well know are certain to breed public discontent, and imperil the national securities. All must be fair, honest, and just; the resources of the United States are ample, and rapidly increasing; we only need a wise and faithful administration of them.
We have said there was no necessity for the proposed measure; but it would be well to decide fully and finally upon the policy of consolidation into one stock, at one rate of interest; yet it is in no wise necessary to bind the government to issue the whole amount, as proposed, in thirty years. The debt is not all due at this time: if a part, say one thousand millions, were now authorized for thirty years, when that was taken up the expediency of issuing more on so long a time could be more judiciously decided upon than at present; besides, if only a part were now offered, it would be taken with more avidity than if the whole were put at once on the market. Policy, therefore, as well as economy, requires a limitation of the issue of thirty years' bonds.
The proposal to save thirty millions per annum, by issuing bonds at five per cent, untaxed, instead of six per cent, in order to form a sinking fund, we regard as idle and delusive. The project never will be carried through. National sinking funds have always failed of success, and, in the nature of things, always will; besides, if such a fund were to be provided for, it could be done more advantageously without exemptions from taxation.