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essays

1848

The Tax Collector

In this parable, Bastiat conceives a conversation between a wine maker and a tax collector. The wine maker comes to realize the folly of government spending.

JAMES GOODFELLOW, a Vineyardist.
CLODPATE, a Tax Collector.

CLODPATE: You have laid in twenty tuns of wine?

JAMES GOODFELLOW: Yes, by dint of much toil and sweat.

C.: Be so kind as to give me six of the best.

J.G.: Six tuns out of twenty! Good heavens! You’re trying to ruin me. And, if you please, what do you intend to do with them?

C.: The first will be given to the creditors of the state. When one has debts, the very least one can do is to pay the interest on them.

J.G.: And what has become of the principal?

C.: That would take too long to tell. A part of it was once invested in cartridges, which produced the most beautiful smoke in the world. Another part went to pay those who became crippled in foreign lands that they had laid waste. Then, when these expenditures of ours led to an invasion of our land by our good friends, the enemy, they were unwilling to leave without taking away some money, which we had to borrow.

J.G.: And what benefit do I derive from it today?

C.: The satisfaction of saying:

How proud I am to be a Frenchman
When I behold the triumphal column!

J.G.: And the humiliation of leaving to my heirs an estate burdened with a rent that they will have to pay for all time to come. Still, one really must pay one’s debts, however foolishly the money may have been spent. So much for one tun. But what about the other five?

C.: One is required to pay for government services, the civil list, the judges who see to it that you get back the bit of land your neighbor tries to appropriate for himself, the policemen who drive away robbers while you are asleep, the road mender who maintains the highway leading to the city, the parish priest who baptizes your children, the teacher who educates them, and your humble servant, who does not work for nothing either.

J.G.: That’s fair enough. Service for service. I have nothing to say against that. I’d just as soon make my own arrangements directly with my parish priest and my schoolmaster; but I do not insist on it. So much for the second tun. That’s still a long way from six.

C.: Do you feel that two tuns are too much for your contribution toward the expenses of the army and the navy?

J.G.: Alas, that’s very little, considering what they have cost me already; for they have taken from me two sons, whom I loved dearly.

C.: It is absolutely essential to maintain the balance of power in Europe.

J.G.: Good heavens! The balance of power would be quite as well maintained if the armed forces of every country were reduced by one-half or three-fourths. We should then be able to keep our children and the fruits of our labor. It would take no more than mutual understanding.

C.: Yes; but that is precisely what is lacking.

J.G.: That is what astonishes me. After all, everybody suffers from it.

C.: You have only yourself to blame, James Goodfellow.

J.G.: You are joking, Mr. Tax Collector. Do I have any voice in the matter?

C.: Whom did you support for deputy?

J.G.: A gallant army general who will soon be a marshal if God spares him.

C.: And what does this gallant general live on?

J.G.: My tuns, I presume.

C.: And what would happen to him if he voted for a reduction in the army and in your share of the tax?

J.G.: Instead of being made a marshal, he would be obliged to retire.

C.: So you understand now why you have only yourself….

J.G.: Let’s go on to the fifth tun, if you please.

C.: That one goes off to Algeria.

J.G.: To Algeria? And yet we are assured that all Moslems are averse to wine-drinking, the savages! I have often wondered whether they know nothing of Médoc because they are infidels, or whether, as is more likely, they are infidels because they know nothing of Médoc. Besides, what services do they perform for me in exchange for this nectar that has cost me so much labor?

C.: None; but, then, it is not intended for Moslems, but for some good Christians who spend all their time in Barbary.

J.G.: Heaven help me! This is too much. I flatly refuse to give you my tun.

C.: It is too late for that. Your legislative representative has agreed that your share of the tax shall be one tun or four full puncheons.

J.G.: That is but too true. What confounded weakness on my part! It seemed foolish to me, too, to choose him to represent me, for what can there be in common between an army general and a poor vineyardist?

C.: You see very well that you do have something in common, were it only the wine that you are laying in and that he is voting himself in your name.

J.G.: You may well laugh at me, Mr. Tax Collector; I deserve it. But be reasonable. Leave me at least the sixth tun. The interest on the national debt has been paid, the civil list provided for, the government services assured, and the war in Africa extended into perpetuity. What more do you want?

C.: You won’t get anywhere haggling with me. You should have told the general your desires. Now he has disposed of your vintage.

J.G.: Damned Bonapartist relic! But what do you expect to do with this poor tun, the best of my stock? Come, just taste this wine. How mellow it is, how rich, how full-bodied, how smooth, how choice!

C.: Excellent! Delicious! It will be just to the taste of M. D…. , the textile manufacturer.

J.G.: Of M. D…., the manufacturer? What do you mean?

C.: That he’ll make good use of it.

J.G.: In what way? What are you talking about? Devil take me if I understand you!

C.: Don’t you know that M. D…. has started a splendid establishment which, though highly useful to the country, still incurs a considerable financial loss every year?

J.G.: My heart bleeds for him. But what can I do about it?

C.: The Chamber has come to the conclusion that if things go on like this, M. D….will either have to operate more efficiently or close his mill.

J.G.: But what do the ill-advised and unprofitable business ventures of M. D….have to do with my tun of wine?

C.: The Chamber thought that if it turned over to M. D…. a little wine from your cellar, a few hectoliters of wheat from your neighbors, and one or two sous cut from the workers’ wages, his losses might be converted into profits.

J.G.: The recipe is as infallible as it is ingenious. But confound it! It is terribly unfair. What! Is M. D…. to recoup his losses by taking my wine from me?

C.: Not exactly the wine, but its price. This is what we call an incentive subsidy, or bounty. But you look so amazed! Do you not see what a great service you are rendering to your fatherland?

J.G.: You mean to M. D….?

C.: To the fatherland. M. D….assures us that, thanks to this arrangement, his business is flourishing; and this, he says, is how the country is enriched. That is what he has been saying recently in the Chamber, of which he is a member.

J.G.: It’s an outright fraud! What! Some incompetent goes into a foolish enterprise and dissipates his capital; and if he can extort enough wine or wheat from me to make good his losses and even to leave him a profit besides, this is regarded as a gain for the whole country!

C.: Since your representative has come to that conclusion, you have no choice but to hand over to me the six tuns of wine and sell the fourteen tuns that I leave you for as good a price as you can get.

J.G.: That is my business.

C.: The thing is, you see, that it would be most regrettable if you did not get a high price for them.

J.G.: I shall see to that.

C.: For there are many things that this price must take care of.

J.G.: I know, sir. I am aware of that.