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way more directly than in the resources which are employed for the several purposes of (i) reducing the national debt, (ii) adding to that debt, (iii) devising modes of collecting revenue for the payment of interest on the debt, or for extinguishing the capital.
So far as the treatment of the debt itself is concerned, the policy is either of a chronic and continuous kind, or of an accidental and intermittent kind. The former belongs to times of peace, prosperity, and public contentment generally; the latter to critical and transient emergencies, due to war or the apprehension of war, or to famines or like calamities at home or in the dependencies. It is now a pretty well recognised doctrine that, while on the one hand it is inexpedient to make extravagant and expensive efforts to make any signal reduction of the debt, which was contracted on far easier terms than any money could now be borrowed for liquidating it, yet on the other hand, by the joint methods of applying surplus income and creating terminable annuities, a gradual process of reduction should always be going on. In the case of a special emergency, for which funds in excess of the average annual revenue are needed, and needed at once, a question is always propounded as to whether it is more just and expedient to raise the money by extra taxation,—or, as it is called, within the year,—or to create a fresh loan which involves an addition to the public debt, the burden of which is shared by posterity. There is a dangerous proclivity on the part of Governments,— especially manifested in the circumstances of the intervention of England in the settlement of the affairs of the Turkish provinces in 1876-78, and generally noticeable in the conduct of military expeditions on the
The National Debt and Taxation. 135
outlying frontiers of remote dependencies,—to shroud from the country the fact of the expenditure incurred, by adding to debt in the place of increasing taxation. The inquiry how far the cost of a political movement is properly to be shared by posterity, on the ground of the permanent advantages supposed to be reaped by it, is not a very profitable one, inasmuch as any movement on behalf of national defence, national duty, or national enrichment, must be presumably beneficial to the Stale as an immortal organisation, if it can be justified at all. The better doctrine now recognised, in spite of temporary governmental divergencies and eccentricities, is that each generation knows its own capacity for meeting an emergency, but does not know whether a discontinuance of national prosperity, or the appearance of fresh phenomena wholly unimagined at present, may not place future generations in a very different position with respect to bearing the burden of debt. Thus it seems to be getting admitted as a constitutional maxim, that the presumptive duty of a Government is to meet all current necessities by an increase of taxation, or by short loans the repayment of which is to be distributed over a very limited number of years. Any exception to this can only be justified by reasons of the most special and convincing sort.
With respect to the principles now recognised as applicable to the raising of revenue, the discussion is in most of its aspects an economical rather than a constitutional one. The chief mark, however, of the present era is that purely economical considerations have been allowed a weight, and have been extended over an area, wholly unknown in former times. The passing of the Act for the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846,—the Budget of 1860, which included the provisions for the Commercial Treaty with France, and thereby inaugurated a policy, since largely developed, of international commercial freedom,—and the gradual abolition of innumerable minute taxes, at once vexatious, expensive, and as often as not economically vicious,—are all signs that Parliament has learnt to regard taxation as a purely economical and not as an indirectly political instrument, and that it no longer aims at achieving sinister ends for the advantage of special classes instead of diffusing the loss and the gain as impartially as possible among all. The main controversy which is still an outstanding one relates to the superior merit of direct or of indirect taxation, or of a system compounded of both; and, in the case of indirect taxation, to the special vices and virtues of the income-tax. But in the discussion of these great questions no fixed antipathy or prejudice is allowed to block the way. Parliament has vindicated its constitutional ability to collect money for the service of the State from any quarters, by any methods, and in accordance with any principles, it may from time to time approve.
In this review of the novel constitutional attitude of Parliament in respect to industry and social economy, the selection of topics has been perforce somewhat arbitrary, and much legislation of the highest degree of importance as bearing on the social and economical development of the people has not been adverted to. To such legislation belong the topics of national education, the reform of the judicature, the introduction of county courts, the abolition of imprisonment for debt, the reform of the bankruptcy and insolvency system, the regulations affecting merchant shipping in the interests
of traders, sailors, and the public, and, last of all, the attempts, more or less successful and systematic, to codify the Common and the Statute Law. An allusion to such topics as these is sufficient here, in view of the expansive treatment given to the subjects which have been selected as characteristic instances. So far as the Constitution is concerned, the principles which have determined Parliamentary action have been practically uniform. The obligation of recognising established economical theories, of reconciling the claims of the poor and dependent with the interests of the influential capitalist, and of abstaining from such interference as is prompted only by a regard for the advantage of special classes of society, seems to have been fully recognised in the course of this legislation. Where it has not been recognised at the time, later amending statutes have admitted the defect, and shown the true intention of Parliament to be in conformity with the principles of the Constitution as now apprehended.
4. There are some persons who, with an historical taste, and not without a romantic sensibility to the picturesque and antique, are disposed to find the centre of gravity of the British Constitution rather in the Parish, the County, and the Borough,1 than in Parliament. These persons not only cleave affectionately to all that is still alive in institutions which at one time were the main agencies of Government, so far as it directly affected the life and happiness of the people, but are not without regret at the passing away of the most fossilised portions of those institutions, and at the gradual absorption of all local machinery for government in the common and
1 See Mr. Toulmin Smith's The Parish, and Gneist's SelfGovernment in England.
uniform organ of Parliament. In spite, however, of the fears, regrets, or hopes of this or that section of the community, there is no doubt that the last fifty years have been witnessing an almost startling transmutation of what are often regarded, especially on the Continent, as the most characteristic features of English political existence. The change is not denoted in any sweeping attempt to substitute a centralised for a localised system of government; and any description of the process which has been at work based on the familiar theoretical opposition of central to local government would be misleading and superficial. It is true that there is scarcely a single instrument of local government which has not been of late touched and recast by Parliament; and no doubt a casual observer, mentally preoccupied with analogies and theories to be found anywhere, would at once descry in most of the changes effected a determined and hazardous passage towards centralisation of the most pronounced type.1 But there are two sorts of
1 Mr. John Austin's article on Centralisation, in the Edinburgh Rerieiv for January 1847, may be consulted for the purpose of clearing the mind from the obscurities and confusion with which current popular treatises and newspaper articles are replete on this subject. Mr. Austin, more suo, analyses with surpassing acuteness the rival views and theories prevalent in this country and on the Continent, and weighs in golden scales the exact amount of use and abuse to which centralised institutions are open. He exposes the fallacy which underlies the very term Self-Government, evaluates the worth of paid and unpaid functionaries generally, and adverts to the consequences of a multiplicat ion of functionaries. His suggestions as to improved machinery for relieving the House of Commons from some of its self-imposed burdens, especially in respect of the preparation for private bills and the detailed task of criticising the language of all bills in Committee after the second reading, are worthy of all attention. Mr. Austin is especially at pains to distinguish between centralisation and over-government, on whiob.