Изображения страниц
PDF
EPUB

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 State as an immortal organisation, if it can be justified at all. The better doctrine now recognised, in spite of tempotary 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

Local Government.

137

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 espansive 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,' 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

See Mr. Toulmin Smith's The Parish, and Gneist's SelfGorernment 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. But there are two sorts of

i Mr. John Austin's article on Centralisation, in the Edinburgh Review for January 1847, may be consulted for the purpose of clear. ing 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 multiplication 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 dis. tinguish between centralisation and over-government, on which last-mentioned topic his remarks are of considerable weight, and may be compared with the well-known views of Mr. Herbert Spencer in his Social Statics and scattered political essays.

Two Sorts of Centralisation. 139 centralisation, one, that of structure or mechanism, the other that of spirit and intention. The centralisation of mechanism implies in itself nothing more than (1) the possession in the hands of a central authority of all the skeins, perhaps tangled and intricate, of the work which is being conducted by innumerable subordinate authorities throughout the country, (2) an incessant contact with all these authorities through the medium of reports and reciprocal communications, and (3) a faculty, whether exercised or not, of controlling or flexibly modifying, to the minutest point of refinement, the action of the authorities dependent upon it. A spirit of centralisation is manifested in the actual exercise of such a faculty for the purpose either of producing absolute uniformity, or of over-riding local opinion and choice in a measure which, in the view of those who dislike centralisation, exceeds what is imperatively required by the common interests of the country. The latter sort of centralisation may or may not be good, according to the matters with which it is concerned, or the times and places of its existence. The other sort of centralisation, that of easy and orderly mechanism, is always good everywhere, and implies nothing more than the utmost economy of expense, labour, and practical knowledge, with enlarged opportunities of homogeneous improvement. Probably the utmost perfection of political efficiency would be attained where mechanical centralisation was developed to the utmost possible extent, and where the centralisation which relates to the spirit and essence of government

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »