The Tax Gatherer Essay Examples

Part II, Essay VIII



THERE is a prevailing maxim,a among some reasoners, that every new tax creates a new ability in the subject to bear it, and that each encrease of public burdens encreases proportionably the industry of the people. This maxim is of such a nature as is most likely to be abused; and is so much the more dangerous, as its truth cannot be altogether denied: but it must be owned, when kept within certain bounds, to have some foundation in reason and experience.


When a tax is laid upon commodities, which are consumed by the common people, the necessary consequence may seem to be, either that the poor must retrench something from their way of living, or raise their wages, so as to make the burden of the tax fall entirely upon the rich. But there is a third consequence, which often follows upon taxes, namely, that the poor encrease their industry, perform more work, and live as well as before, without demanding more for their labour. Where taxes are moderate, are laid on gradually, and affect not the necessaries of life, this consequence naturally follows; and it is certain, that such difficulties often serve to excite the industry of a people, and render them more opulent and laborious, than others, who enjoy the greatest advantages. For we may observe, as a parallel instance, that the most commercial nations have not always possessed the greatest extent of fertile land; but, on the contrary, that they have laboured under many natural disadvantages. TYRE, ATHENS, CARTHAGE, RHODES, GENOA, VENICE, HOLLAND, are strong examples to this purpose. And in all history, we find only three instances of large and fertile countries, which have possessed much trade; the NETHERLANDS, ENGLAND, and FRANCE. The two former seem to have been allured by the advantages of their maritime situation, and the necessity they lay under of frequenting foreign ports, in order to procure what their own climate refused them. And as to FRANCE, trade has come late into that kingdom, and seems to have been the effect of reflection and observation in an ingenious and enterprizing people, who remarked the riches acquired by such of the neighbouring nations as cultivated navigation and commerce.


The places mentioned by CICERO, as possessed of the greatest commerce in his time, are ALEXANDRIA, COLCHUS, TYRE, SIDON, ANDROS, CYPRUS, PAMPHYLIA, LYCIA, RHODES, CHIOS, BYZANTIUM, LESBOS, SMYRNA, MILETUM, COOS. All these, except ALEXANDRIA, were either small islands, or narrow territories. And that city owed its trade entirely to the happiness of its situation.


Since therefore some natural necessities or disadvantages may be thought favourable to industry, why may not artificial burdens have the same effect? Sir WILLIAM TEMPLE, we may observe, ascribes the industry of the DUTCH entirely to necessity, proceeding from their natural disadvantages; and illustrates his doctrine by a striking comparison with IRELAND; "where," says he, "by the largeness and plenty of the soil, and scarcity of people, all things necessary to life are so cheap, that an industrious man, by two days labour, may gain enough to feed him the rest of the week. Which I take to be a very plain ground of the laziness attributed to the people. For men naturally prefer ease before labour, and will not take pains if they can live idle; though when, by necessity, they have been inured to it, they cannot leave it, being grown a custom necessary to their health, and to their very entertainment. Nor perhaps is the change harder, from constant ease to labour, than from constant labour to ease." After which the author proceeds to confirm his doctrine, by enumerating, as above, the places where trade has most flourished, in ancient and modern times; and which are commonly observed to be such narrow confined territories, as beget a necessity for industry.b


The best taxes are such as are levied upon consumptions, especially those of luxury; because such taxes are least felt by the people. They seem, in some measure, voluntary; since a man may chuse how far he will use the commodity which is taxed: They are paid gradually and insensibly:c They naturally produce sobriety and frugality, if judiciously imposed: And being confounded with the natural price of the commodity, they are scarcely perceived by the consumers. Their only disadvantage is, that they are expensive in the levying.


Taxes upon possessions are levied without expence; but have every other disadvantage. Most states, however, are obliged to have recourse to them, in order to supply the deficiencies of the other.


But the most pernicious of all taxes are the arbitrary. They are commonly converted, by their management, into punishments on industry; and also, by their unavoidable inequality, are more grievous, than by the real burden which they impose. It is surprising, therefore, to see them have place among any civilized people.


In general, all poll-taxes, even when not arbitrary, which they commonly are, may be esteemed dangerous: Because it is so easy for the sovereign to add a little more, and a little more, to the sum demanded, that these taxes are apt to become altogether oppressive and intolerable. On the other hand, a duty upon commodities checks itself; and a prince will soon find, that an encrease of the impost is no encrease of his revenue. It is not easy, therefore, for a people to be altogether ruined by such taxes.


Historians inform us, that one of the chief causes of the destruction of the ROMAN state, was the alteration, which CONSTANTINE introduced into the finances, by substituting an universal poll-tax, in lieu of almost all the tithes, customs, and excises, which formerly composed the revenue of the empire. The people, in all the provinces, were so grinded and oppressed by the publicans, that they were glad to take refuge under the conquering arms of the barbarians; whose dominion, as they had fewer necessities and less art, was found preferable to the refined tyranny of the ROMANS.


dIt is an opinion, zealously promoted by some political writers, that, since all taxes, as they pretend, fall ultimately upon land, it were better to lay them originally there, and abolish every duty upon consumptions. But it is denied, that all taxes fall ultimately upon land. If a duty be laid upon any commodity, consumed by an artisan, he has two obvious expedients for paying it; he may retrench somewhat of his expence, or he may encrease his labour. Both these resources are more easy and natural, than that of heightening his wages. We see, that, in years of scarcity, the weaver either consumes less or labours more, or employs both these expedients of frugality and industry, by which he is enabled to reach the end of the year. It is but just, that he should subject himself to the same hardships, if they deserve the name, for the sake of the publick, which gives him protection. By what contrivance can he raise the price of his labour? The manufacturer who employs him, will not give him more: Neither can he, because the merchant, who exports the cloth, cannot raise its price, being limited by the price which it yields in foreign markets. Every man, to be sure, is desirous of pushing off from himself the burden of any tax, which is imposed, and of laying it upon others: But as every man has the same inclination, and is upon the defensive; no set of men can be supposed to prevail altogether in this contest. And why the landed gentleman should be the victim of the whole, and should not be able to defend himself, as well as others are, I cannot readily imagine. All tradesmen, indeed, would willingly prey upon him, and divide him among them, if they could: But this inclination they always have, though no taxes were levied; and the same methods, by which he guards against the imposition of tradesmen before taxes, will serve him afterwards, and make them share the burden with him. eThey must be very heavy taxes, indeed, and very injudiciously levied, which the artizan will not, of himself, be enabled to pay, by superior industry and frugality, without raising the price of his labour.


I shall conclude this subject with observing, that we have, with regard to taxes, an instance of what frequently happens in political institutions, that the consequences of things are diametrically opposite to what we should expect on the first appearance. It is regarded as a fundamental maxim of the TURKISH government, that the Grand Signior, though absolute master of the lives and fortunes of each individual, has no authority to impose a new tax; and every OTTOMAN prince, who has made such an attempt, either has been obliged to retract, or has found the fatal effects of his perseverance. One would imagine, that this prejudice or established opinion were the firmest barrier in the world against oppression; yet it is certain, that its effect is quite contrary. The emperor, having no regular method of encreasing his revenue, must allow all the bashaws and governors to oppress and abuse the subjects: And these he squeezes after their return from their government. Whereas, if he could impose a new tax, like our EUROPEAN princes, his interest would so far be united with that of his people, that he would immediately feel the bad effects of these disorderly levies of money, and would find, that a pound, raised by a general imposition, would have less pernicious effects, than a shilling taken in so unequal and arbitrary a manner.

Notes for this chapter


[The "maxim" that Hume considers here was commonly held by the mercantilist writers and by others between 1660 and 1750. See Edwin R. A. Seligman, The Shifting and Incidence of Taxation, 5th ed., rev. (New York, Columbia University Press, 1927), pp. 25-30, 46-62. Hume finds it to be partly correct, in that workers can be expected to absorb moderate taxes on commodities by increasing their industry rather than by retrenching consumption or by increasing wages. Since people are often more industrious and opulent where there are "natural disadvantages" of soil and climate to overcome, we may expect that "artificial burdens," such as judicious taxes, will likewise be favorable to industry. Yet Hume qualifies the argument by refusing to apply it to taxes on "the necessaries of life" and by warning that a people can be ruined by exorbitant or inappropriate taxes (see paragraph 2 in note b of the variant readings for this essay). Later in the essay, Hume opposes the view that all taxes are ultimately shifted to land. John Locke had taken this view, and he may be the "celebrated writer" that Hume refers to in earlier versions of this essay (see the passage in note d of the variant readings). Locke's theory of the shifting of all taxes to land was revived in the eighteenth century by the school of French economists known as the "Physiocrats" (see Seligman, pp. 125-142). Hume debated the issue with one of the leading Physiocrats, Anne-Robert Jacques Turgot, in correspondence during 1766 and 1767. For the significance of Hume's views on taxation, see Rotwein, David Hume: Writings on Economics, pp. lxxxi-lxxxiii.]


Epist. ad ATT. lib. ix. ep. II. [Letters to Atticus 9.9 in the Loeb edition.]


Account of the NETHERLANDS, chap. 6.


[Hume has in mind excise taxes on consumable commodities produced domestically and customs duties on commodities that are imported.]


[See Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, bk. 5, chap. 2, pt. 2: "The tax which each individual is bound to pay ought to be certain, and not arbitrary. The time of payment, the manner of payment, the quantity to be paid, ought all to be clear and plain to the contributor, and to every other person. Where it is otherwise, every person subject to the tax is put more or less in the power of the tax-gatherer, who can either aggravate the tax upon any obnoxious contributor, or extort, by the terror of such aggravation, some present or perquisite to himself. The uncertainty of taxation encourages the insolence and favours the corruption of an order of men who are naturally unpopular, even where they are neither insolent nor corrupt. The certainty of what each individual ought to pay is, in taxation, a matter of so great importance, that a very considerable degree of inequality, it appears, I believe, from the experience of all nations, is not near so great an evil as a very small degree of uncertainty."]


[A poll tax (or capitation or head tax) was a tax levied upon each citizen of a community, regardless of the amount of his income or property.]


[Constantine ("the Great") was emperor from A.D. 306 to 337. Initially he shared power, but after 324 he was the sole ruler of a united empire. In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chap. 17, Edward Gibbon gives an account of Constantine's taxation policy and its consequences, drawing on the historians to whom Hume alludes.]

Part II, Essay IX

End of Notes

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In my last post I defined teaching, very broadly, as behavior that is conducted by one individual (the teacher) for the purpose of helping another individual (the pupil) to learn something. I presented examples showing that, by this definition, teaching can be found even among non-human animals. Now I wish to examine teaching as it occurs, or occurred, in hunter-gatherer bands.

As I noted in an earlier post, all humans were hunter-gatherers until a mere 10,000 years ago, when agriculture first appeared in some parts of the planet. In other words, for about 99% of our million or so years on earth (more or less, depending on just how you want to define "human beings") we were all hunter-gatherers. Our basic human instincts, including our instincts to learn and to teach, were shaped to meet the needs of our hunter-gatherer way of life. We know a good deal about that way of life through studies of those groups of people, in various isolated parts of the world, who managed to survive as hunter-gatherers into the last half of the 20th century and were studied by anthropologists. Wherever they were found, these people lived in small bands, of roughly 20 to 50 people per band, who moved from campsite to campsite to follow the available game and edible vegetation. They had rich cultures, and children had to learn a lot to become effective adults.[1]

As I explained in that earlier post, hunter-gatherers had faith that their children would, on their own initiatives, learn what they needed to know, and so they did not worry about their children's education or attempt to control it. Moreover, hunter-gatherers held strongly to the values of personal autonomy and equality. They believed that it is wrong for anyone to try to control another person's life, either in the short run or the long run, even if that other person is a child. Hunter-gatherers believed that it is presumptuous for anyone to think that they know what is best for another person. So, they did not "teach" in the sense of trying to get their children to do things that the children were not already motivated to do. But they did teach by my broad definition of teaching. They deliberately behaved in ways that were designed to help their children learn what the children wanted to learn. Here are the major categories of ways by which adult hunter-gatherers' helped their children learn.[2]

Providing children with ample time to play and explore and thereby to learn

Hunter-gatherer children were the freest human children ever to have walked the earth. Hunter-gathers believed that children learn through their own, self-directed, self-initiated play and exploration, so they allowed their children unlimited time for such activities. In a survey of hunter-gatherer researchers that I helped to conduct some years ago, all said that the children in the group that they had studied were free to explore on their own, without adult guidance, essentially from dawn to dusk every day.[3] They were allowed such freedom beginning at about age 4 (the age at which, according to hunter-gathers, children "have sense" and do not need to be watched regularly by adults) on into their mid to late teenage years, when they began to take on adult responsibilities. By providing children with food and other subsistence needs, and by not burdening them with many chores, hunter-gatherer adults allowed their children ample time to educate themselves.

Providing children with the culture's tools so they could practice using them

In order to learn to use the tools of the culture, children must have access to those tools and be allowed to play with them. Hunter-gatherers recognized that, and they allowed their children nearly unlimited opportunities to play with the tools of the culture, even dangerous ones such as knives and axes. (There were some limits, however; the poison-tipped darts or arrows that adults used for hunting were kept well out of small children's reach.) The adults also made scaled-down versions of tools--such as small bows and arrows, digging sticks, and baskets--specifically for young children, even toddlers, to play with. Providing children with playthings is one means of teaching that is common to our culture and hunter-gatherer cultures. However, hunter-gatherers were more likely than we are to allow their children to play with the real versions of the culture's tools, not pretend ones. Even the scaled-down tools were real; the small bows, arrows, axes, and digging sticks functioned just like the bigger versions.

Allowing children to observe and participate in adult activities, and tolerating children's interruptions

Hunter-gatherer adults recognized that children learn by watching, listening, and participating, and so they did not exclude children from adult activities. By all accounts, they were enormously tolerant of children's interruptions, and they allowed children into their workspaces even when that meant that the work would go slower. On their own initiatives, children often joined their mothers on gathering trips, where they learned by watching and sometimes helping. By the time they were young teenagers, boys who were eager to do so were allowed to join men on big-game hunting expeditions, so they could watch and learn. By the time they were in their middle teens, they were actively contributing to, rather than detracting from, the success of such trips. Within a few years after that, they were full-fledged hunters.

In camp, children often crowded around adults, and young ones climbed onto adults' laps, to watch or "help" them cook, or make hunting weapons and other tools, or play musical instruments, or make beaded decorations; and the adults rarely shooed them away. As illustration of the adults' tolerance of children's interruptions of their activities, here is a typical scene described by anthropologist Patricia Draper:

"One afternoon I watched for 2 hours while a [Ju'/hoan] father hammered and shaped the metal for several arrow points. During the period his son and grandson (both under 4 years old) jostled him, sat on his legs, and attempted to pull the arrowheads from under the hammer. When the boys' fingers came close to the point of impact, he merely waited until the small hands were a little farther away before he resumed hammering. Although the man remonstrated with the boys, he did not become cross or chase the boys off; and they did not heed his warnings to quit interfering. Eventually, perhaps 50 minutes later, the boys moved off a few steps to join some teenagers lying in the shade."[4]

Showing how, and presenting information, to children who wished to know

When children asked adults to show them how to do something or to help them do it, the adults obliged. As one group of hunter-gatherer researchers put it, "Sharing and giving are core forager values, so what an individual knows is open and available to everyone; if a child wants to learn something, others are obliged to share the knowledge or skill."[5] In the course of natural daily life, an adult might show a child the best way to swing an axe, or might point out the difference between the footprints of two different, closely related mammals--but only if the child wanted such help. In an interview study, hunter-gather women (of the Aka culture) described how, when they were young, their mothers had placed varieties of mushrooms or wild yams in front of them and explained the differences between those that were edible and those that were not.[6]

Another source for learning were the stories told--by men about their hunting trips, by women about their gathering trips, by both men and women about their visits to other bands, and, especially, by the older members of the band about significant events in the past. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, who was one of the first to study the Ju/'hoan hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari Desert, noted that women in their sixties and seventies were especially great storytellers. The stories were not directed specifically to children, but the children listened and absorbed the meaning.[7] My guess is that the fact that the stories were directed to everyone, not specifically to children, made them all the more interesting and memorable to the children.

Exercising children's natural desires to share and give

Research in our culture has shown that infants, as young as 12 months old, delight in giving things to other people. In a series of little-known experiments conducted in the United States, nearly every one of more than 100 infants, aged 12 to 18 months, spontaneously gave toys to an adult during brief sessions in a laboratory room.[8] In our culture, such joyful and voluntary giving by infants is not much commented upon, but in at least some hunter-gatherer cultures it was celebrated, much like infants' earliest words are celebrated in our culture. In various ways, hunter-gatherer adults cultivated the giving instincts of infants and young children. For example, toddlers were invited to participate in the band's food sharing, by carrying food from one hut to another, which they did with great delight.

Among the Ju/'hoansi, grandmothers took special responsibility to initiate infants into the culture of sharing by playing games of give and take with them and by encouraging games in which infants would pass beads and other valued objects to others in the band.[9] This is the one example of systematic, deliberate adult influence on children's play that I have found in the hunter-gatherer research literature. No human trait was more crucial to the hunter-gatherer way of life than the willingness to give or share. Their survival depended on it (and so, really, does ours, if you stop to think about it).

Providing a trustful social environment within which to learn

The most important and general way by which hunter-gatherer adults helped their children learn was by providing an always supportive, always trustful environment. To educate themselves, children need to feel emotionally secure and confident. By trusting children to know what is best for themselves and by making that trust apparent, adult hunter-gatherers provided the conditions that all children need, if they are to feel confident about taking control of their own lives and learning. Because all adult members of the band cared about and provided for the emotional and physical needs of all of the children, and because it was a cultural taboo ever to deliberately hurt a child, the children grew up feeling that others were trustworthy, which is a prerequisite for becoming trustworthy oneself. In such an environment, children's instincts for self-education flourish. That is as true today as it ever was.

The secure child, raised in a setting where others are loving, trusting, and nonjudgmental, and where the tools and examples needed for education are available but not forced upon anyone, vigorously and joyfully undertakes the natural childhood task of self-education. Unfortunately, in our schools, we replace security with anxiety as the foundation for learning, and we keep children so busy doing what they are told to do that self-education becomes essentially impossible. In schools we "teach" in ways that subvert children's natural instincts to learn and that replace trust and security with distrust and anxiety.

And now, I invite you to add your comments and questions. I read all comments and try to respond to all serious questions. I prefer it if you put your thoughts and questions here rather than in a private email to me. By putting them here, you share with other readers and not just with me.

For more on hunter-gatherer education, see these posts: Children Educate Themselves III: The Wisdom of Hunter-Gatherers; and The Natural Environment for Children’s Self-Education: How The Sudbury Valley School is Like a Hunter-Gatherer Band.

[1] For a general discussions of hunter-gatherer education, see the above-lisrted posts and see Peter Gray, The evolutionary biology of education: How our hunter-gatherer educative instincts could form the basis for education today, in Evolution, Education, and Outreach, 4, 428-440. 2011.
[2] For an excellent discussion of teaching and learning in one hunter-gather culture (the Aka), see Barry S. Hewlett, Hillary N. Fouts, Adam Boyette, & Bonnie L. Hewlett (2011). Social learning among Congo Basin hunter-gatherers. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 366, 1168-1178. I have made considerable use of this article in this essay.
[3] Peter Gray. Play as the foundation for hunter-gatherer social existence. American Journal of Play, 1, 476-522. 2009.
[4] Patricia Draper (1976), Social and economic constraints on child life among the !Kung. In R. B. Lee & I. DeVore (Eds.), Kalahari hunter-gatherers: studies of the !Kung San and their neighbors, pp. 199-217. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press., p 205-206.
[5] Hewlett et al. (2011)-see Note 2.
[6] Hewlett et al. (2011)-see Note 2..
[7] Thomas, Elizabeth M. (2006). The old way. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
[8] Hay, D. F., & Murray, P. (1982). Giving and requesting: Social facilitation of infants' offers to adults. Infant Behavior and Development, 5, 301-310. Also, Rheingold, H. L., Hay, D. F., & West, M. J. (1976). Sharing in the second year of life. Child Development, 47, 1148-1158.
[9] Bakeman, R., Adamson, L. B., Konner, M., & Barr, R. (1990). !Kung infancy: The social context of object exploration. Child Development, 61, 794-809. Also, Wiessner, P. (1982). Risk, reciprocity and social influences on !Kung San economics. In E. Leacock & R. Lee (Eds.), Politics and history in band societies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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