|2. The Effect of
the Single Tax on Farmers.
—The most caustic criticism of the Single Tax
ever written came from the pen of Voltaire, who was familiar with the Physiocrats'
idea of the impot unique. The Physiocrats arrived at the same conclusions
as Henry George, though by a different route. Holding that agriculture was
the only "productive" occupation, the French economists of the eighteenth
century advocated that it alone should be taxed. The land, when man's labor
was expended upon it, produced a peculiar surplus over and above the rewards
of labor and capital. This surplus, known as the "net product," included
all the available revenue of the nation. All taxation, therefore, should
fall on the land.
Voltaire replied to
this by describing the lot of a French peasant who toils laboriously to make
a scanty living and suffers from untold hardship during years of agricultural
distress. His piece of land would be worth an income of 40 crowns to him
if it were not taxed at all. Under the single tax system he is asked to pay
20 crowns in taxation. When he fails to find this sum, he is thrown into
prison. After his release he meets an old acquaintance, originally poor but
now rolling in wealth and living in proud style, for he has inherited an
income of 400,000 crowns a year. The peasant says to him: "You pay, of course,
200,000 crowns to the State, for I, who have only 40 crowns, must give up
half of that sum!" Voltaire's irony is well displayed in the answer he attributes
to the rich man*:
*(Euvres Complètes de Voltaire, Tome 57,
L'Homme á Quarante Écus. De l'Imprimerie de la Soceté~
Littéraire-Typographique, s. I., 1785, pp. 128-131. This apt quotation
was brought to our attention by E. R. A. Seligman, op. cit., p. 79.
"I contribute to the
needs of the State?" he said. "You are joking, my friend. I inherited my
fortune from an uncle who had made 8 millions … I have not one square inch
of land; my whole wealth is in securities and in money. I owe nothing to
the State. It is for you to give half of your substance. You, who are a landowner.
Don't you understand that, if the minister of finance called upon me to assist
in supporting the State, he would be a fool who couldn't even make a simple
calculation. … If, after having imposed a single tax ... I should still
be asked for money, don't you see that this would be double counting? . .
"You pay, my friend,
you who peacefully enjoy a clear, net revenue of 40 crowns. Serve your country
well, and come and dine sometimes with my lackeys."
The moral Voltaire wished
to point is still applicable today; what grounds of justice or ethics shall
the landowner be singled out for taxation?