Montesquieu
 

XIII.7 On tributes in countries where villeinage is not established

When all indi­vi­duals in a state are citi­zens, and each one pos­ses­ses by his domain what the prince pos­ses­ses by his empire, there can be taxes on per­sons, on lands, or on mer­chan­dise, on two of these, or on all three.

For the tax on per­sons, the unjust pro­por­tion would be one that strictly fol­lo­wed the pro­por­tion of pro­perty. In Athens, the citi­zens had been divi­ded1 into four clas­ses. Those whose land yiel­ded five hun­dred mea­su­res of liquid or dried fruits paid the public one talent2 ; those whose yield was three hun­dred mea­su­res owed a half-talent ; those who had two hun­dred mea­su­res paid ten minas ; and those in the fourth class owed nothing. The tax was just, although it was not pro­por­tio­nal ; while it did not fol­low the pro­por­tion of pro­perty, it did fol­low the pro­por­tion of needs. It was dee­med that eve­ryone had an equal phy­si­cal neces­sity ; that this phy­si­cal neces­sity was not to be taxed ; that what was use­ful came next, and that it ought to be taxed, but less than excess ; and that the amount of the tax on excess pre­ven­ted excess.

For the tax on lands, rolls are drawn up on which are lis­ted the various clas­ses of resour­ces. But it is very dif­fi­cult to assess these dif­fe­ren­ces, and even more dif­fi­cult to find peo­ple who do not have an inte­rest in dis­coun­ting them. Two sorts of injus­tice are the­re­fore invol­ved : injus­tice of the man, and of the thing. But if in gene­ral the tax is not exces­sive, if the peo­ple are allo­wed to keep a gene­rous pro­vi­sion for neces­sity, these indi­vi­dual injus­ti­ces will be nothing. But if on the contrary the peo­ple are allo­wed to keep only enough barely to sur­vive, the sligh­test dis­pro­por­tion will be of the grea­test conse­quence.

If some citi­zens do not pay enough, lit­tle harm is done ; their affluence still returns to the public. If some indi­vi­duals pay too much, their ruin turns against the public. If the state pro­por­tions its for­tune to that of indi­vi­duals, the affluence of indi­vi­duals will soon make its for­tune rise. Everything depends on the moment : shall the state first impo­ve­rish its sub­jects in order to enrich itself ? Or shall it wait for affluent sub­jects to enrich it ? Will it have the first advan­tage, or the second ? Will it be rich at the start, or at the finish ?

Duties on mer­chan­dise are the ones that peo­ple feel the least, because they do not receive a for­mal demand. They can be so wisely admi­nis­te­red that the peo­ple will be almost una­ware they are paying them. For that, it is most impor­tant that it be the sel­ler of the mer­chan­dise who pays the duty. He well knows that he is not paying it for him­self ; and the buyer, who in rea­lity pays it, confla­tes it with the price. Some wri­ters have said that Nero had sup­pres­sed the duty of one-twenty-fifth on sla­ves who were sold3 ; yet all he had done was to order that it be paid by the sel­ler rather than the buyer ; this rule, which left the tax entire, appea­red to sup­press it.

There are two king­doms in Europe which have pla­ced very high taxes on beve­ra­ges : in one of them, the bre­wer alone pays the duty, in the other it is levied without dis­tinc­tion on all sub­jects who consume ; in the first, no one feels the seve­rity of the tax ; in the second, it is consi­de­red one­rous ; in the for­mer the citi­zen feels only the free­dom of not paying, in the lat­ter he feels only the neces­sity that obli­ges him to pay.

Besides, making the citi­zen pay requi­res cons­tant ins­pec­tions of his house. Nothing is more contrary to free­dom ; and those who ins­ti­tute these sorts of taxes are not blest in having in this res­pect hit upon the best sort of admi­nis­tra­tion.

[Julius] Pollux, book VIII, ch. x, art. 130.

Or 60 minas. [One mina = 100 drachmas or one livre (Trévoux).]

Vectigal [quoque] quintæ et vicesimæ venalium mancipiorum remissum specie magis quam vi, quia cum venditor pendere juberetur in partem pretii, emptoribus accrescebat [‘A tax of four per cent on the sale of slaves was remitted, an apparent more than a real boon, for as the seller was ordered to pay it, purchasers found that it was added as part of the price.’] (Tacitus, Annals, book XIII).