The adoption of any new plan for raising revenue has usually met with numerous objections, and the introduction of the excise tax did not escape. Its introduction in England was severely criticized, while, as will be later explained, its early use in the United States met with serious objection. But "an old tax is a good tax" is now applicable to the excise tax in so far as the people have become used to it, and the administrative machinery-has become so perfected as to do away with many of the earlier objections of inquisitorial processes, fraud, and evasions. The tax has come to represent a sort of silent flow of revenue to the treasury, with no one feeling any particular burden, and hence raising no complaints.
The amount of funds which accrues from the excise tax in the United States, at least, is as large as from any other source, and because of the efficient administrative machinery which has been developed, the expense of collecting the returns is comparatively low. With the machinery in existence, this form of tax can be made to respond rather quickly and satisfactorily to increased fiscal needs, either by increasing the duties upon articles already taxed, or by placing additional commodities upon the taxable list. This was illustrated by the wide use, not only of excise taxes, but of the direct consumption taxes during the Great War.
It may be difficult to square a tax upon the articles of consumption with the ideals of justice, yet a tax so productive as the excise tax finds little difficulty in squaring itself with fiscal authorities. Its use has been made easier and more uniform because of the dissemination of large-scale production throughout the principal nations of the world, and the increasing uniformity in the demands of individuals. But even though excise taxes are productive, inexpensive, and meet with comparatively little objection - three desirable qualities of a revenue system -yet too much reliance should not be placed upon them or their legitimate place will be destroyed.
It must always be kept in mind that consumption does not represent ability. An extensive use of taxes placed upon necessities, while it would doubtless be productive of much revenue, would be so extremely regressive as to discredit its place in a fiscal program. The future use of the excise, instead of expanding to all articles of consumption, as was formerly extensively advocated, will likely be limited to comparatively few goods, and these will be in the class of semiluxuries and luxuries, rather than in the class of necessities. The class of commodities chosen, moreover, will likely consist, to some extent, of those of which a diminution in use, because of the tax, would not be considered undesirable. While, under ordinary conditions, no levies will be made upon necessities, yet large returns will continue to be received from the class of semi-luxuries whose use is largely a matter of fixed habit.