By Nadia Weiner, Director, Adam Smith Club, Sydney, Australia

Although Adam Smith is often quoted, the so-called “Father of Economics” has rarely been read, either by his detractors or his admirers. Consequently he is often misunderstood.

Smith, who made such a strong stand against the protectionist mercantile system of trade of his day, devoted over one third of his masterpiece An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, to discussing the subject of government revenue and the methods by which it may be best collected, including new taxes. This is not generally known.

When examining the different forms of taxation, Smith adheres to four maxims which a good tax should conform to:

  • “The subject of every State ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the State.”
  • “The tax each individual is bound to pay ought to be certain, and not arbitrary. The time of payment, the manner of payment, and the quantity to be paid, ought all to be clear and plain to the contributor, and to every other person.”
  • “Every tax ought to be levied at the time, or in the manner in which it is most likely to be convenient for the contributor to pay it.”
  • “Every tax ought to be so contrived as both to take out and to keep out of the pockets of the people as little as possible, over and above what it brings into the public treasury of the State.”

Bearing all these things in mind, there are two types of taxation which obtain Smith’s recommendations: a tax on luxury consumables and a tax on ground-rents (the annual value of holding a piece of land).

On the subject of luxury consumables, he is adamant about the definition of ‘luxury’ and of ‘necessary.’ By his definition, a ‘necessary’ may vary from place to place and from time to time. At the time of his writing, linen shirts, leather shoes and a minimum of food and shelter were definitely to be regarded as essential to a minimum decent standard of living. Taxes on salt, soap, etc., he harshly criticised as inequitably taking from the poorest elements of society. Taxes on luxuries, which were to include tobacco, he considered excellent in that no one is obliged to contribute to the tax: “Taxes upon luxuries have no tendency to raise the price of any other commodities except that of the commodities taxed… Taxes upon luxuries are finally paid by the consumers of the commodities taxed, without any retribution.”

More deserving of praise is the tax on ground-rents: “Both ground-rents and the ordinary rent of land are a species of revenue which the owner, in many cases, enjoys without any care or attention of his own. The annual produce of the land and labour of the society, the real wealth and revenue of the great body of the people, might be the same after such a tax as before. Ground-rents, and the ordinary rent of land are, therefore, perhaps the species of revenue which can best bear to have a peculiar tax imposed upon them.”

Excise, customs, taxes on profits, were, according to Smith, either expensive to collect, as in the case of excise, or disincentives to produce, as in the tax on profits. He reserves harsh words for taxes which occasion the invasion of privacy, and on the subject of excise he says: “To subject every private family to the odious visits and examination of the tax-gatherers… would be altogether inconsistent with liberty.”

The harshest condemnation of all, however, was for taxes upon labour: “In all cases, a direct tax upon the wages of labour must, in the long run, occasion both a greater reduction in the rent of land, and a greater rise in the price of manufactured goods, than would have followed from a proper assessment of a sum equal to the produce of the tax, [levied] partly upon the rent of land, and partly upon consumable commodities.”

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