« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
ART. III.- THE BUDGET AND THE TREATY IN THEIR
RELATION TO POLITICAL MORALITY. The Chancellor of the Exchequer's Speech on the Finance of the Year
and Treaty of Commerce with France, Friday, February, 10th.
London: J. W. Parker. Writing on the 1st of April about a Budget and a Treaty both of which were virtually settled and approved by the 1st of March is rather melancholy work. To sing their praises would be simply superfluous, even were it not conscientiously impossible ; while to indulge in an impotent protest against faits accomplis would be undignified because futile. The consequences these measures must entail are already in a great measure incurred by the mere fact of their acceptance by the nation; the violations of consistent principle and high morality which they involve are already perpetrated, and cannot be cancelled, however sincerely and sadly they may hereafter be repented of. But we need not, by our silence, sanction the injurious inference that the whole English people were acquiescent accomplices in the pernicious error; and we may at least raise a note of warning sufficient to avert further slidings in the same direction.
We have only a few pages to devote to the subject; therefore we must be very brief, and must spend no space in prefatory matter. We will speak first of the Budget, then of the Treaty; though, in truth, it is not easy to separate the two. Mr. Gladstone's Budget, then, may be characterised as a good thing, done in a bad manner and at a wrong time; a measure, or rather a series of measures, sound to a certain extent in principle, and possibly beneficent in result, but suggested by motives that are more than questionable, brought forward in a fashion that is almost cynical, and carried under circumstances which almost transform a right into a wrong. Considered in itself, the simplification of the tariff is undeniably a gain; the removal of all the differential and protective duties which remained is only the completion of a wise and just policy long since inaugurated; the free admission of a number of small articles, the charges on which have to some extent fettered trade and checked consumption, was desirable no doubt, and will probably be beneficent in its operation, though more slightly and more slowly than the public has been led by the eloquence of its advocate to anticipate ; and as to the extinction of the paper duty, though we may differ greatly in our estimate of the benefits to be expected from it, no one will deny that a tax so open to objection might be fitly enough resigned whenever the country had a spare million which it could afford to give away, and when there were no more deserving claimants on its generosity.
If the Chancellor of the Exchequer had had a surplus to distribute; if commerce had been rendered stagnant and the revenue stationary in consequence of these fiscal burdens and cobweb restrictions which he proposed to remove; if even these modifications of the tariff, instead of being in the main abolitions of duty which involve a pure loss, had been reductions of duty which, by stimulating consumption, would ere long, according to sober calculations, have replaced that loss,—then, indeed, his position in defending these extensive operations would have been strong, if not absolutely inexpugnable. But none of these pleas could fairly be urged on his behalf. For, first, in place of a surplus, he had to face an enormous deficit, which by these changes he proposed still further to augment by a sum of four millions. Secondly, so far from the duties in the existing tariff having checked commerce, reduced consumption, and impaired the swelling productiveness of the revenue,, which was Sir Robert Peel's plea for his antitypal Budget, --no complaint of the sort was ever heard. Nor could it be; for year by year our imports and exports went on increasing with unparalleled rapidity, and the receipts from the Customs and Excise had never before been so large, or shown such irrepressible buoyancy. Thirdly, he did not even pretend to hope that he should recover by increased consumption the revenue which he proposed to sacrifice; at most he anticipated by a sanguine calculation, which few men share, that of the four millions surrendered, one will in time be recovered by increased consumption, and reduced and more economical establishments. Thus, in plain words, and to take his own figures, Mr. Gladstone, in the absence of all the recognised justifications and home motives for such a course, to an original deficit of nearly ten millions adds an artificial deficit of three millions more, de pure gaieté de cæur.
By this course Mr. Gladstone has deprived himself, and we fear his successors also, of the usual official and unanswerable reply to applicants for the remission of an unwelcome tax (and all taxes are unwelcome), “Gentlemen, I have no surplus." Mr. Gladstone has proclaimed to all future complainants, that neither heavy obligations nor an empty purse are any reasons for refusing the reduction or repeal of an obnoxious duty; or rather he has proclaimed that his obligations are never overwhelming, that his purse is never empty, that, in fact, he has always at any body's service a potential surplus, in the form of an elastic income-tax, augmentable avec ou sans discrétion. Herein lies the fatal mischief of the precedent he has created. Henceforth the rejoinder to the Treasury's plea of “no effects," on the part of those who wish to shift fiscal burdens from their own constituents or their own trade, will be this, “ Nothing can be easier or simpler than to grant our demand; you have only to add another penny to the income-tar, as you did avowedly in order to repeal the paper duty." We do not see how Mr. Gladstone can either deny the precedent or repel the argument, when brought forward to support other remissions; for assuredly more may be said against the tea and sugar duties than against the paper tax.
The second count of our indictment against Mr. Gladstone's Budget is, that, under cover of a treaty with a foreign power, and as it were by a side-stroke, he effects a substitution of direct for indirect taxation to the amount of four millions sterling. Now the principle of this substitution may be right or wrong. Without passing sentence, we may say that many sound financiers condemn it as an error; on the other hand, there is a small but active band of economists, who are agitating for this substitution throughout the whole of our fiscal system, and whose tool or whose accomplice Mr. Gladstone has condescended to become. It is a question on which an honest difference of opinion may well exist. But no difference of opinion, we should have fancied, could exist as to the impropriety of endeavouring to evade a full and free discussion of the question on its own merits, and of taking so vast a step in a special direction, without first asking the country to consider and decide whether that is the direction in which it thinks it wise to march. To determine the spirit and tendency of our whole financial policy, not by deliberate inquiry and reflection, but by sudden and secret diplomatic action, and by a sort of legislative surprise, appears to us, we confess, scarcely dignified and scarcely even decent. Again, the amount to which the Budget relieves the trading and consuming classes, and transfers the burdens hitherto borne by them to the “propertied” class, may possibly be just and fair-we do not prejudge this question; but at least it should not have been resolved upon except as the result of an inquiry as to the respective amounts already contributed to the revenue by the several classes of the community, since only by such inquiry could its equity have been ascertained. Yet, not only was no such investigation entered upon, but its propriety does not even seem to have occurred to Mr. Gladstone for a moment. And what renders this species of surprise, this sort of cavalier inconsideration, the more culpable and indecorous is, that Mr. Gladstone knows well-no man better--that a step of this sort is irretrievable; that customs and excise duties once repealed can never be re-imposed; and that a perseverance in the financial policy into which he has thus partly cajoled, partly tricked, partly forced the country, is irresistibly entailed upon his successors. We shall be reminded that not only each separate item of the Budget, but the entire details of the Treaty itself, were submitted to the decision of Parliament, which was free to repudiate the first, and to refuse its sanction to the second. We reply, that the freedom was only nominal, scarcely more than a congéd'élire, since it was universally felt that to reject a treaty entered into and ratified with a foreign sovereign, would have been an act of incivility to both the high contracting powers which it was virtually impossible to commit, and which might have been attended with very unfortunate diplomatic consequences. In a word, Parliament was in a manner compelled to accept the provisions of the Treaty,—and the provisions of the Budget, which logically flowed from it,-under pain of insulting our own Queen and quarrelling with the Emperor of the French.
Our third ground of quarrel with the Budget, and with the Treaty as its pretext and occasion, is, that we believe it to have been dictated in the main by certain ulterior designs and concealed motives in the minds of its authors, which it would have been more frank and more respectful to have avowed openly and followed out straightforwardly. We fear that in this matter Mr. Cobden has not acted quite loyally towards the government which employed him, or towards the nation which trusted him; nor Mr. Gladstone quite sincerely towards the parliament which listened to him, or towards the colleagues who supported him. As to the common preference felt by these two eminent men for direct taxes,-a preference which to the same extent the country does not share in theory, and which therefore it ought not to have been overreached into adopting in practice,-we have already spoken, and need say no more. But they have one other
, strong opinion and desire in common,-an opinion and a desire which, again, are at variance with the general sentiments of the nation for which, and in the name of which, they have in these transactions been acting. They both are strenuous advocates of economy: Mr. Cobden would have economy at any price; Mr. Gladstone, not indeed at any price, but at a price which few among us would feel disposed to pay. Mr. Cobden has again and again declared his anxiety and determination to reduce our public expenditure to the standard of 1835, that is, by about twenty millions. Mr. Gladstone, it is well known, entertains the strongest objection to our present rate of outlay, which he deems extravagant and alarming; it was only with the greatest difficulty that he has been persuaded to consent to it, and he has made no secret of the sentiments with which he regards it, nor of his determination not to be a party to it in future. His tone and language when he opened his Budget left no doubt on this head. The House of Commons and the country, however, do not echo these sentiments. The estimates, which terrify Mr. Gladstone and disgust Mr. Cobden, they vote cheerfully and almost enthusi
astically. It became necessary, therefore, for the purposes of these two gentlemen, to make us economical in our own despite, to enforce parsimony by creating poverty, to compel us to reduce our expenditure by depriving us of revenue. Mr. Cobden has repeatedly avowed his adherence to this line of tactics as the only one likely to be effectual; he has declared that so long as money could be obtained easily, so long it would be impossible to check an extravagant expenditure, which the House of Commons was just as ready to vote as the Government to propose. His aim, therefore, has always been deliberately and avowedly to abolish taxes, wherever practicable, with the distinct purpose of cutting off sources of supply, entirely irrespective of other considerations; and the government which intrusted him with a fiscal negotiation ought to have been on its guard against this well-known idiosyncrasy of his. Mr. Gladstone has never, so far as we are aware, expressed himself so nakedly or so strongly as Mr. Cobden on this subject; but we believe he would not disavow that he shares in his opinion, and is earnestly desirous to reduce taxation, as the most effective, and the only secure, means of ensuring a reduction of expenditure. He saw that it would be impossible for even his eloquence to persuade the House of Commons to cut down the estimates; but easy enough, by a sort of indirect method, to persuade them to diminish or repeal the duties by the yield of which alone those estimates could be met. He therefore, we are compelled to conclude, though it is not a pleasant inference in regard to a statesman whom we so much admire,-gladly seized the occasion offered to him by the suggested Treaty of repealing four millions of taxes, which were little felt and by no means unpopular, and replacing them by an impost which of all others is the most unpopular and the most severely felt. He substituted for a source of revenue which was ancient, not onerous, and therefore permanent, a source which every one detests, which has never been looked upon except as an expedient for meeting perilous emergencies, and which therefore was certain to be contested every year, and to be repudiated as soon as possible. In other words, in order to make expenditure unwelcome, he has made taxation unpleasant. He has deliberately exchanged a permanent for a temporary revenue to the extent of four millions; nay more, he has also provided for the necessities of the year by two other casual and transient expedients, viz. the malt and hop credit, and the closer collection of the income-tax; and he has done all this, we fear, with the purpose, which he did not avow, of depriving his successors of the means of supplying what he regards as the spendthrift propensities of the country. In fine, it is scarcely too much to say, that he has conspired with Mr. Cobden to im