Mises Daily Articles
The Tax Gatherer
[The Bastiat Collection (2011); originally from the second series of Economic Sophisms (1848)]
JACQUES BONHOMME, a vintner.
Mr. LASOUCHE, tax gatherer.
L.: You have secured 20 tuns of wine?
J.: Yes, by dint of my own skill and labor.
L.: Have the goodness to deliver up to me six of the best.
J.: Six tuns out of 20! Good Heaven! you are going to ruin me. And please, Sir, for what purpose do you intend them?
L.: The first will be handed over to the creditors of the state. When people have debts, the least thing they can do is to pay interest upon them.
J.: And what has become of the capital?
L.: That is too long a story to tell you at present. One part was converted into cartridges, which emitted the most beautiful smoke in the world. Another went to pay the men who had got crippled in foreign countries after having laid them waste. Then, when this expenditure brought invasion upon us, our gracious enemy was unwilling to take leave of us without carrying away some money, and this money had to be borrowed.
J.: And what benefit do I derive from this now?
L.: The satisfaction of saying —
Que je suis fier d'etre Francois
Quand je regarde la colonne!
J.: And the humiliation of leaving to my heirs an estate burdened with a perpetual rent-charge. Still, it is necessary to pay one's debts, whatever foolish use is made of the proceeds. So much for the disposal of one tun; but what about the five others?
L.: One goes to support the public service, the civil list, the judges who protect your property when your neighbor wishes wrongfully to appropriate it, the policemen who protect you from robbers when you are asleep, the road men who maintain the highways, the curé who baptizes your children, the schoolmaster who educates them, and, lastly, your humble servant, who cannot be expected to work exactly for nothing.
J.: All right; service for service is quite fair, and I have nothing to say against it. I should like quite as well, no doubt, to deal directly with the rector and the schoolmaster on my own account; but I don't stand upon that. This accounts for the second tun — but we have still other four to account for.
L.: Would you consider two tuns as more than your fair contribution to the expense of the army and navy?
J.: Alas! that is a small affair, compared with what the two services have cost me already, for they have deprived me of two sons whom I dearly loved.
L.: It is necessary to maintain the balance of power.
J.: And would that balance not be quite as well maintained if the European powers were to reduce their forces by one-half or three-fourths? We should preserve our children and our money. All that is requisite is to come to a common understanding.
L.: Yes; but they don't understand one another.
J.: It is that which fills me with astonishment, for they suffer from it in common.
L.: It is partly your own doing, Jacques Bonhomme.
J.: You are joking, Mr. Taxgatherer. Have I any voice in the matter?
L.: Whom did you vote for as deputy?
J.: A brave general officer, who will soon be a marshal, if God spares him.
L.: And upon what does the gallant general live?
J.: Upon my six tuns, I should think.
L.: What would happen to him if he voted a reduction of the army, and of your contingent?
J.: Instead of being made a marshal he would be forced to retire.
L.: Do you understand now that you have yourself?
J.: Let us pass on to the fifth tun, if you please.
L.: That goes to Algeria.
L.: To Algeria! And yet they tell us that all the Muslims are wine-haters, barbarians as they are! I have often inquired whether it is their ignorance of claret which has made them infidels, or their infidelity which has made them ignorant of claret. And then, what service do they render me in return for this nectar that has cost me so much toil?
L.: None at all; nor is the wine destined for the Muslim, but for good Christians who spend their lives in Barbary.
J.: And what service do they render me?
L.: They make raids, and suffer from them in their turn; they kill and are killed; they are seized with dysentery and sent to the hospital; they make harbors and roads, build villages, and people them with Maltese, Italians, Spaniards, and Swiss, who live upon your wine; for another supply of which, I can tell you, I shall soon come back to you.
J.: Good gracious! that is too much. I give you a flat refusal. A vintner who could be guilty of such folly would be sent to Bedlam. To make roads through Mount Atlas — good Heavens! when I can scarcely leave my house for want of roads! To create harbors in Barbary, when the Garonne is silted up! To carry off my children whom I love, and send them to torment the Kabyles! To make me pay for houses, seed, and horses, to be handed over to Greeks and Maltese, when we have so many poor people to provide for at home!
L.: The poor! Just so; they rid the country of the redundant population.
J.: And we are to send after them to Algeria the capital on which they could live at home!
L.: But then you are laying the foundations of a great empire; you carry civilization into Africa, thus crowning your country with immortal glory.
J.: You are a poet, Mr. Taxgatherer. I am a plain vintner, and I refuse your demand.
L.: But think that in the course of some thousands of years your present advances will be recouped and repaid a hundredfold. The men who direct the enterprise assure us that it will be so.
J.: In the meantime, in order to defray the expense, they asked me first of all for one cask of wine, then for two, then for three, and now I am taxed by the tun! I persist in my refusal.
L.: Your refusal comes too late. Your representative has stipulated for the whole quantity I demand.
J.: Too true. Cursed weakness on my part! Surely, in making him my representative I was guilty of a piece of folly; for what is there in common between a general officer and a poor vintner?
L.: Oh, yes; there is something in common — namely, your wine which he has voted to himself in your name.
J.: You may well laugh at me, Mr. Taxgatherer, for I richly deserve it. But be reasonable. Leave me at least the sixth tun. You have already secured payment of the interest of the debt, and provided for the civil list and the public service, besides perpetuating the war in Africa. What more would you have?
L.: It is needless to higgle with me. Communicate your views to the general, your representative. For the present he has voted away your vintage.
J.: Confound the fellow! But tell me what you intend to make of this last cask, the best of my whole stock? Stay, taste this wine. How ripe, mellow, and full-bodied it is!
L.: Excellent! delicious! It will suit Mr. D., the cloth manufacturer, admirably.
J.: Mr. D., the cloth manufacturer? What do you mean?
L.: That he will reap the benefit.
J.: How? What? I'll be hanged if I understand you!
L.: Don't you know that Mr. D. has set in motion a grand undertaking that will prove most useful to the country, but which, when everything is taken into account, causes each year a considerable pecuniary loss?
J.: I am sorry to hear it, but what can I do?
L.: The Chamber has come to the conclusion that, if this state of things continues, Mr. D. will be under the necessity of either working more profitably, or of shutting up his manufacturing establishment altogether.
J.: But what have these losing speculations of Mr. D. to do with my wine?
L.: The Chamber has found out that, by making over to Mr. D. some wine taken from your cellar, some wheat taken from your neighbor's granaries, some money taken from the workmen's wages, the losses of D. may be converted into profits.
J.: The recipe is as infallible as it is ingenious. But, zounds! it is awfully iniquitous. Mr. D., forsooth, is to make up his losses by laying hold of my wine!
L.: Not exactly of the wine, but of its price. This is what we denominate premiums of encouragement, or bounties. Don't you see the great service you are rendering to the country?
J.: You mean to Mr. D.?
L.: To the country. Mr. D. assures us that his manufacture prospers in consequence of this arrangement, and in this way he says the country is enriched. He said so the other day in the Chamber, of which he is a member.
J.: This is a wretched quibble! A speculator enters into a losing trade, and dissipates his capital; and if he extorts from me and from my neighbors wine and wheat of sufficient value, not only to repair his losses, but afford him a profit, this is represented as a gain to the country at large.
L.: Your representative having come to this conclusion you have nothing more to do but to deliver up to me the 6 tuns of wine that I demand, and sell the remaining 14 tuns to the best advantage.
J.: That is my business.
L.: It will be unfortunate if you do not realize a large price.
J.: I will think of it.
L.: For this price will enable you to meet many more things.
J.: I am aware of that, Sir.
L.: In the first place, if you purchase iron to renew your plows and your spades, the law decrees that you must pay the iron master double what the commodity is worth.
J.: Yes, this is very consolatory.
L.: Then you have need of coal, of butchers' meat, of cloth, of oil, of wood, of sugar, and for each of these commodities the law makes you pay double.
J.: It is horrible, frightful, abominable!
L.: Why should you indulge in complaints? You yourself, through your representative —
J.: Say nothing more of my representative. I am amazingly represented, it is true. But they will not impose upon me a second time. I shall be represented by a good and honest peasant.
L.: Bah! you will re-elect the gallant general.
J.: Shall I re-elect him to divide my wine among Africans and manufacturers?
L.: I tell you, you will re-elect him.
J.: This is too much. I am free to re-elect him or not, as I choose.
L.: But you will so choose.
J.: Let him come forward again, and he will find whom he has to deal with.
L.: Well, we shall see. Farewell. I carry away your six tuns of wine, to be distributed as your friend, the general, has determined.