The Same Subject Continued: Concerning the General Power of Taxation
For the Independent Journal.

Author: Alexander Hamilton

To the People of the State of New York:

BEFORE we proceed to examine any other objections to an indefinite power of taxation in the Union, I shall make one general remark; which is, that if the jurisdiction of the national government, in the article of revenue, should be restricted to particular objects, it would naturally occasion an undue proportion of the public burdens to fall upon those objects. Two evils would spring from this source: the oppression of particular branches of industry; and an unequal distribution of the taxes, as well among the several States as among the citizens of the same State.

Suppose, as has been contended for, the federal power of taxation were to be confined to duties on imports, it is evident that the government, for want of being able to command other resources, would frequently be tempted to extend these duties to an injurious excess. There are persons who imagine that they can never be carried to too great a length; since the higher they are, the more it is alleged they will tend to discourage an extravagant consumption, to produce a favorable balance of trade, and to promote domestic manufactures. But all extremes are pernicious in various ways. Exorbitant duties on imported articles would beget a general spirit of smuggling; which is always prejudicial to the fair trader, and eventually to the revenue itself: they tend to render other classes of the community tributary, in an improper degree, to the manufacturing classes, to whom they give a premature monopoly of the markets; they sometimes force industry out of its more natural channels into others in which it flows with less advantage; and in the last place, they oppress the merchant, who is often obliged to pay them himself without any retribution from the consumer. When the demand is equal to the quantity of goods at market, the consumer generally pays the duty; but when the markets happen to be overstocked, a great proportion falls upon the merchant, and sometimes not only exhausts his profits, but breaks in upon his capital. I am apt to think that a division of the duty, between the seller and the buyer, more often happens than is commonly imagined. It is not always possible to raise the price of a commodity in exact proportion to every additional imposition laid upon it. The merchant, especially in a country of small commercial capital, is often under a necessity of keeping prices down in order to a more expeditious sale.

The maxim that the consumer is the payer, is so much oftener true than the reverse of the proposition, that it is far more equitable that the duties on imports should go into a common stock, than that they should redound to the exclusive benefit of the importing States. But it is not so generally true as to render it equitable, that those duties should form the only national fund. When they are paid by the merchant they operate as an additional tax upon the importing State, whose citizens pay their proportion of them in the character of consumers. In this view they are productive of inequality among the States; which inequality would be increased with the increased extent of the duties. The confinement of the national revenues to this species of imposts would be attended with inequality, from a different cause, between the manufacturing and the non-manufacturing States. The States which can go farthest towards the supply of their own wants, by their own manufactures, will not, according to their numbers or wealth, consume so great a proportion of imported articles as those States which are not in the same favorable situation. They would not, therefore, in this mode alone contribute to the public treasury in a ratio to their abilities. To make them do this it is necessary that recourse be had to excises, the proper objects of which are particular kinds of manufactures. New York is more deeply interested in these considerations than such of her citizens as contend for limiting the power of the Union to external taxation may be aware of. New York is an importing State, and is not likely speedily to be, to any great extent, a manufacturing State. She would, of course, suffer in a double light from restraining the jurisdiction of the Union to commercial imposts.

So far as these observations tend to inculcate a danger of the import duties being extended to an injurious extreme it may be observed, conformably to a remark made in another part of these papers, that the interest of the revenue itself would be a sufficient guard against such an extreme. I readily admit that this would be the case, as long as other resources were open; but if the avenues to them were closed, HOPE, stimulated by necessity, would beget experiments, fortified by rigorous precautions and additional penalties, which, for a time, would have the intended effect, till there had been leisure to contrive expedients to elude these new precautions. The first success would be apt to inspire false opinions, which it might require a long course of subsequent experience to correct. Necessity, especially in politics, often occasions false hopes, false reasonings, and a system of measures correspondingly erroneous. But even if this supposed excess should not be a consequence of the limitation of the federal power of taxation, the inequalities spoken of would still ensue, though not in the same degree, from the other causes that have been noticed. Let us now return to the examination of objections.

One which, if we may judge from the frequency of its repetition, seems most to be relied on, is, that the House of Representatives is not sufficiently numerous for the reception of all the different classes of citizens, in order to combine the interests and feelings of every part of the community, and to produce a due sympathy between the representative body and its constituents. This argument presents itself under a very specious and seducing form; and is well calculated to lay hold of the prejudices of those to whom it is addressed. But when we come to dissect it with attention, it will appear to be made up of nothing but fair-sounding words. The object it seems to aim at is, in the first place, impracticable, and in the sense in which it is contended for, is unnecessary. I reserve for another place the discussion of the question which relates to the sufficiency of the representative body in respect to numbers, and shall content myself with examining here the particular use which has been made of a contrary supposition, in reference to the immediate subject of our inquiries.

The idea of an actual representation of all classes of the people, by persons of each class, is altogether visionary. Unless it were expressly provided in the Constitution, that each different occupation should send one or more members, the thing would never take place in practice. Mechanics and manufacturers will always be inclined, with few exceptions, to give their votes to merchants, in preference to persons of their own professions or trades. Those discerning citizens are well aware that the mechanic and manufacturing arts furnish the materials of mercantile enterprise and industry. Many of them, indeed, are immediately connected with the operations of commerce. They know that the merchant is their natural patron and friend; and they are aware, that however great the confidence they may justly feel in their own good sense, their interests can be more effectually promoted by the merchant than by themselves. They are sensible that their habits in life have not been such as to give them those acquired endowments, without which, in a deliberative assembly, the greatest natural abilities are for the most part useless; and that the influence and weight, and superior acquirements of the merchants render them more equal to a contest with any spirit which might happen to infuse itself into the public councils, unfriendly to the manufacturing and trading interests. These considerations, and many others that might be mentioned prove, and experience confirms it, that artisans and manufacturers will commonly be disposed to bestow their votes upon merchants and those whom they recommend. We must therefore consider merchants as the natural representatives of all these classes of the community.

With regard to the learned professions, little need be observed; they truly form no distinct interest in society, and according to their situation and talents, will be indiscriminately the objects of the confidence and choice of each other, and of other parts of the community.

Nothing remains but the landed interest; and this, in a political view, and particularly in relation to taxes, I take to be perfectly united, from the wealthiest landlord down to the poorest tenant. No tax can be laid on land which will not affect the proprietor of millions of acres as well as the proprietor of a single acre. Every landholder will therefore have a common interest to keep the taxes on land as low as possible; and common interest may always be reckoned upon as the surest bond of sympathy. But if we even could suppose a distinction of interest between the opulent landholder and the middling farmer, what reason is there to conclude, that the first would stand a better chance of being deputed to the national legislature than the last? If we take fact as our guide, and look into our own senate and assembly, we shall find that moderate proprietors of land prevail in both; nor is this less the case in the senate, which consists of a smaller number, than in the assembly, which is composed of a greater number. Where the qualifications of the electors are the same, whether they have to choose a small or a large number, their votes will fall upon those in whom they have most confidence; whether these happen to be men of large fortunes, or of moderate property, or of no property at all.

It is said to be necessary, that all classes of citizens should have some of their own number in the representative body, in order that their feelings and interests may be the better understood and attended to. But we have seen that this will never happen under any arrangement that leaves the votes of the people free. Where this is the case, the representative body, with too few exceptions to have any influence on the spirit of the government, will be composed of landholders, merchants, and men of the learned professions. But where is the danger that the interests and feelings of the different classes of citizens will not be understood or attended to by these three descriptions of men? Will not the landholder know and feel whatever will promote or insure the interest of landed property? And will he not, from his own interest in that species of property, be sufficiently prone to resist every attempt to prejudice or encumber it? Will not the merchant understand and be disposed to cultivate, as far as may be proper, the interests of the mechanic and manufacturing arts, to which his commerce is so nearly allied? Will not the man of the learned profession, who will feel a neutrality to the rivalships between the different branches of industry, be likely to prove an impartial arbiter between them, ready to promote either, so far as it shall appear to him conducive to the general interests of the society?

If we take into the account the momentary humors or dispositions which may happen to prevail in particular parts of the society, and to which a wise administration will never be inattentive, is the man whose situation leads to extensive inquiry and information less likely to be a competent judge of their nature, extent, and foundation than one whose observation does not travel beyond the circle of his neighbors and acquaintances? Is it not natural that a man who is a candidate for the favor of the people, and who is dependent on the suffrages of his fellow-citizens for the continuance of his public honors, should take care to inform himself of their dispositions and inclinations, and should be willing to allow them their proper degree of influence upon his conduct? This dependence, and the necessity of being bound himself, and his posterity, by the laws to which he gives his assent, are the true, and they are the strong chords of sympathy between the representative and the constituent.

There is no part of the administration of government that requires extensive information and a thorough knowledge of the principles of political economy, so much as the business of taxation. The man who understands those principles best will be least likely to resort to oppressive expedients, or sacrifice any particular class of citizens to the procurement of revenue. It might be demonstrated that the most productive system of finance will always be the least burdensome. There can be no doubt that in order to a judicious exercise of the power of taxation, it is necessary that the person in whose hands it should be acquainted with the general genius, habits, and modes of thinking of the people at large, and with the resources of the country. And this is all that can be reasonably meant by a knowledge of the interests and feelings of the people. In any other sense the proposition has either no meaning, or an absurd one. And in that sense let every considerate citizen judge for himself where the requisite qualification is most likely to be found.

PUBLIUS.

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

Hello from Virginia, three miles from Mt. Vernon!  The Gillespies are so glad to have Janine and Juliette staying with us for a few days during their East Coast Constituting America Tour!  They began in New York last week, travelled to Boston, and yesterday we visited Philadelphia (with a side trip to the Jersey shore)!

Today began with Janine and Juliette taping a radio interview with Laura Ingraham!  Stay tuned to this site for news as to when it will air!

We then walked the halls of Congress, and visited several Members, including Congresswomen Michele Bachmann and Marsha Blackburn, and Congressman Scott Garrett, the Chair of the Congressional Constitution Caucus.   We saw many groups of young people touring the Capitol Complex, and we took the opportunity to talk to as many of them as possible, and invited them to enter our We The People 9.17 Contest!  We got a great reaction from them, and many indicated they would enter! Remember, entries are due July 4th!!!!

We were excited to learn about the Congressional Constitution Caucus.  We should encourage our elected Representatives to join this caucus, and assist Congressman Garrett in his mission of educating members of Congress about the original intent of the Founding Fathers.

Tonight, the Gillespie house is buzzing with Constitutional Activity!   Janine is preparing for an interview with Fox News, Juliette and my daughter Mollie are editing the Behind the Scenes Video of our trip yesterday to Philadelphia, and Janine and I are writing our Federalist Paper No. 35 essay together, since we are in the same place.

Thank you to Joseph Postell for an excellent analysis of Federalist No. 35:  a continuation of Publius’s discussion of taxes, and reflections on the nature of representative government.  How fitting we are blogging on this subject, on a day we walked the halls of Congress!

Publius begins his essay by stating several maxims regarding taxes, including:

“All extremes are pernicious in various ways.”

“Exorbitant duties on imported articles would beget a general spirit of smuggling; which is always prejudicial to the fair trader, and eventually to the revenue itself.”

“When the demand is equal to the quantity of goods at market, the consumer generally pays the duty; but when the markets happen to be overstocked, a great proportion falls upon the merchant, and sometimes not only exhausts his profits, but breaks in upon his capital.”

“The maxim that the consumer is the payer, is so much oftener true than the reverse of the proposition.”

“Necessity, especially in politics, often occasions false hopes, false reasonings, and a system of measures correspondingly erroneous.”

And, most importantly: “It might be demonstrated that the most productive system of finance will always be the least burdensome.”

The theme of these quotes is that the consumer, the merchant, and ultimately the economy suffers when taxes become oppressive.  When raising taxes to address “necessities,” false reasonings do not render the hoped for results.   For example, the stimulus bill was supposed to lower the unemployment rate to 8 percent or below, but despite all the money spent, unemployment has not reached that target.  Would a less “oppressive” means, such as cutting taxes, have yielded better results?

In Federalist 35, Publius also responds to various criticisms the anti-federalists made regarding the makeup of Congress.  The ratification opponents argued that only a Congress reflective of the public at large, with the same percentage of merchants, landowners, manufacturers, etc  as exist in the general population of the country, could truly represent the interests of the people.  Publius explains that this will never happen if people are free to vote for whoever they choose.  He goes on to point out that the nature of a representative government is to look past the faction that the Representative may personally hail from, and work toward the greater good.  Because members of Congress are dependent upon the votes of their constituents, Publius states that Congressmen will take care to inform  themselves of the opinions of all their constituents, seeking out the best policies for all, and not just individual factions.

Publius ends with a description of qualities that he feels those who make decisions on tax policy for the country should have:

“There can be no doubt that in order to a judicious exercise of the power of taxation, it is necessary that the person in whose hands it should be acquainted with the general genius, habits, and modes of thinking of the people at large, and with the resources of the country. And this is all that can be reasonably meant by a knowledge of the interests and feelings of the people. In any other sense the proposition has either no meaning, or an absurd one.”

And calls on each citizen to judge for himself who best meets that criteria:

“And in that sense let every considerate citizen judge for himself where the requisite qualification is most likely to be found.”

As “considerate citizens,” our next turn to “judge” will be November 2, 2010.  May we all exercise our judgment, and our precious right to vote!

God Bless,

Janine & Cathy

 

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

In the midst of discussing questions of tax power and policy, Federalist 35 ventures into a fascinating argument about the nature of representation in a democratic republic – a very relevant question today.

The argument about representation is a response to an Anti-Federalist claim that the House of Representatives will be too small to contain citizens from all classes and occupations, and that this will prevent “a due sympathy between the representative body and its constituents.”

When we first read this, we can’t help but identify with the Anti-Federalists.  In 21st Century America there could hardly be less sympathy between our representative body and its constituents!

But upon further investigation, Hamilton argues, we will see that the Anti-Federalists’ argument is “made up of nothing but fair sounding words.”  Most significantly, he rejects the call for “an actual representation of all classes of the people by persons of each class.”

There are two related problems with the Anti-Federalists’ argument, according to Hamilton.  The first is that it misunderstands the nature of representation.  The Anti-Federalists presumed that representation should produce a legislature that is a “mirror” of the public at large.  It should look like a microcosm of the people themselves if they could assemble directly for the purpose of making laws.  Representation, in this view, is merely a practical mechanism which should reflect direct democracy as much as possible.  It should not refine public opinion.

The second but related problem with the Anti-Federalists’ argument, Hamilton claims, is that representatives are not mere guardians of a particular interest.  They are supposed to pursue the common good of the whole society.  To argue that a legislative body should contain a composite of classes and occupations equal to the society at large is to imply that a cobbler’s interest can only be pursued by a cobbler, that an attorney’s interest can only be pursued by an attorney, and so on.

Such a claim is an affront to the Founders’ principle of equality, because it assumes that it is impossible for representatives to transcend the particular interests of society and pursue the good which is common to all.  It implies that our interests are so different that they cannot be reconciled, and that the only alternative we have is a constant struggle of class against class, economic interest against economic interest.

In essence, the basic question is this: are we merely the sum of a variety of interests, or is there something higher than our parts?  Should our legislature simply be composed of a variety of classes and occupations, each looking out for itself, or should representatives be chosen who can transcend these particular interests and combine them for the good of the whole?

Hamilton and the Founders were not so naïve as to think that various economic interests will always be harmonious.  But they argued that representation would subordinate the pursuit of these particular interests to the pursuit of the general good.  The way to do this is not to give every interest a seat at the table, but to keep representatives accountable to all of their constituents.

Hamilton argues, “Is it not natural that a man who is a candidate for the favor of his people and who is dependent on the suffrages of his fellow-citizens…should take care to inform himself of their dispositions and inclinations and should be willing to allow them the proper degree of influence upon his conduct?”  Electoral accountability is the way to ensure that representatives pursue the public good, because it forces representatives to be informed of all of the interests of their constituents.

“This dependence” on the votes of the people, Hamilton concludes “and the necessity of being bound himself and his posterity by the laws to which he gives his assent…are the only strong chords of sympathy between the representatives and the government.”

In today’s politics, it often seems like representatives more often seek to satisfy particular interest groups than pursue the common good of the whole.  Some have argued that the Founders wanted it to be this way.  But in Federalist 35 Hamilton reminds us that a representative republic allows us to be governed by those who place the public good over the clash of particular interests.

Most importantly, we can only pursue the common good by abandoning the idea of separating ourselves into classes.  Dividing ourselves into separate classes overlooks the natural human equality that is the basis of our rights, and it overlooks the common interests and affections that bind us together as Americans.

Joseph Postell is the Assistant Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation.  He recently received his Ph.D. from the University of Dallas.