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Saturday, May 4, 2013

A single tax

n the late sixteenth century, Jean Bodin and others had raised the question of removing many or all of the crippling network of taxation, and substituting a single universal direct tax proportionate to property or income. With taxes far higher and more oppressive by the mid-seventeenth century, the call for a simpler, single direct tax was heard once again. Not only the people, but even the Crown, would benefit by eliminating a legion of unproductive and parasitic tax farmers and other tax officials.

One of the earliest of these tax reformers was Isaac Loppin, who published Les mines gallicanes in 1638. The tract went through four editions, including one during the fronde era in 1648, and directly influenced later tax reformers. Loppin explained how all members of society, from the poorest to the king, suffered from the depredations of the tax officials: ‘without excepting even the sacred person of His Majesty, there is not a single inhabitant of his Kingdom who, from the top of his head to the soles of his feet, does not carry some vestment or eat some food which is not burdened by the said subsidies and imposts’. Loppin urged the abolition of all existing taxes, and their replacement by a small fixed tax per year on the wealthiest 10 per cent of the population.

Loppin's pamphlet greatly influenced a one-time assistant to the secretary of state for foreign affairs, the Sieur de Bresson. Bresson addressed a tract to King Louis XIV in 1675, entitled Propositions au Roi. He realistically denounced the tax ‘officials and exacters’ as having ‘no other goal than their private interests’. He then pointed out that the king himself was at the mercy of the tax collectors, and repeated the above quotation from Loppin word for word. Bresson divided up the wealthiest 10 per cent or so of the non-privileged into 19 income classes, and suggested a single direct tax upon them, graduated by class.

In the meanwhile, in 1668, Geraud de Cordemoy urged his own single tax plan upon the government. In his Letter Concerning the Reform of State, Cordemoy urged a single head tax, payable by everyone. He set forth the plan in the form of a dream recounting an ideal state in a distant land, a land enjoying such a single head tax (or capitation) paid ‘by each person’ for the ‘charges and necessities of state’. Furthermore, in an unusual twist, Cordemoy declared that such a head tax would be ‘voluntary’, since everyone would know that he was much better off then he had been in the current, existing system.
An immensely popular work, written about the same time, was Paul Hay, Marquis du Chastelet's Traité de la politique de la France. The Traité was written in 1667, with copies circulating throughout France until its publication two years later. Attacking the oppressive burden of taxation, Chastelet called for a tax on property extending to the previously exempt estates of the nobility, and the transformation of the onerous salt tax into a universal direct tax on income. He also urged relief of the tax burden on the peasantry by accepting payment in kind as a legal substitute for specie.

A more radical plan, originating in the late 1650s, was conceived by a marshall of France, and governor of the principality of Sedan, Abraham de Fabert. Fabert died in 1662, but in 1679, an unknown author presented the Fabert plan to the chancellor of France. Fabert had called for transformation of the salt tax into a graduated direct tax upon the non-privileged members of society. This plan was not designed as a single tax, but ‘all new taxes’ could be abolished, and other taxes could be brought down to their original rates. Reminiscent of Bresson, Fabert's plan was to divide the non-privileged Frenchmen into 30 income classes, the tax graduated by class. Collection costs for enforcing the tax would be reduced to a minimum, and the king would be liberated from 100 000 ‘blood-sucking’ tax officials. In 1684, a second edition of the Fabert-based pamphlet added a substantial amount of statistical backing to the plan.

Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (2 volume set)

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