Page images
PDF
EPUB

ple, than to lay the same duty on all works before they are published? In a very few cases, such duty may fall principally on the buyers, and be only a reasonable deduction from the profits of the author and publisher; but in a vast number more, it swallows them up entirely; and in very many cases, there are no profits for the duty to absorb, so that it is paid wholly out of the capital of the unfortunate author or publisher. Were the judges of the courts of law to decide cases by a throw of the dice, there would be quite as much of reason and justice in their decisions, as there has been in the proceedings of our finance ministers as to taxes on literature.

Were an attempt made to treat the dealers in blacking, coffee, tea, or sugar, as authors and publishers are treated, the whole country would be in flames, and the meditated injustice would not take place. But no such attempt will ever be made. If a merchant import a cargo of sugar, corn, or flax, he may lodge it in a public warehouse, and need not pay a sixpence of duty, except upon such portions as he sells to the retailers. Now, what is there so very noxious about authors and publishers, that they should be denied a privilege that is freely conceded to every one else, and be compelled to pay the full duty on books before their publication, when it is certain that a very large proportion of them will remain on their hands? Is it not a disgrace to a civilized nation like England, that the sugar which the owner of an estate in Jamaica brings to market, should be treated with a degree of indulgence denied to the works of Gibbon and of Smith? If books must be taxed, let publishers be put under the surveillance of the Excise-let them be obliged to keep an account of the books they sell, and let them be taxed accordingly; but do not let the loss arising from an unsuccessful literary speculation-and more than half such speculations are unsuccessful-be aggravated to a ruinous degree by the pressure of a system of taxation which is not allowed to affect either gin or dice, and than which there is nothing, even in Algiers, more signally unjust, partial, and oppressive.

The proposed reduction of the advertisement duty will do something to lessen the exorbitancy of the existing taxes on literature; but it does nothing whatever to obviate the injustice of the mode in which they are imposed; and the deduction which it makes from their amount is but inconsiderable. It acknowledges, without correcting, one of the evils attached to the present system. Instead of being reduced, the advertisement duty ought to be unconditionally repealed. It merely amounts, as we have previously stated, to about L.170,000 a-year; and there cannot be the shadow of a doubt, that the

blank occasioned by its repeal would at no distant period be fully filled up by the consequent greater productiveness of the duty on paper. A duty on advertisements is one that can have no place in any system of taxation, that has the smallest pretensions to be founded on fair principles. The sale of an estate worth L.100,000 may be as briefly announced as the publication of a sixpenny pamphlet, or the bankruptcy of a dealer in prawns; and because such is the case, the same duty is laid on them all. Were equal duties imposed on small beer and champagne, the injustice would be similar, though far less in degree. It is really astonishing how such a tax should be tolerated. A third part of the advertisement duty, is, we believe, derived from announcements of books. Indeed, it has utterly destroyed pamphlets, in so far at least as they were a source of profit.

We may remark, by the way, that in the late scheme for altering the advertisement duty, it was proposed to lay a certain duty on advertisements, containing a given number of words, and a higher duty on all that exceeded this limit. We confess we have not been able to discover any good grounds for this distinction. The newspapers will not insert an unusually long advertisement without receiving a proportionally large fee; and it does seem to be preposterous to lay a peculiarly heavy duty upon a notice in a newspaper, merely because it cannot be compressed into a few lines. The proposed alteration would afford employment to some scores of persons in counting the words. in advertisements. But whether this be any advantage, we leave to others to determine; though, if it be not one, it will be difficult to discover any one else.

We believe that no parliament, reformed or unreformed, will now continue the practice of levying taxes on books, previously to their publication and sale. It is not possible, for the reasons already stated, that such taxes can be otherwise than unjust. But though they were imposed according to the number and price of the copies actually sold, they are such as ought not to be resorted to except in cases of necessity. By raising the price of books, and in so far preventing the diffusion of knowledge among the poorer and least instructed classes, they cannot fail, however equally imposed, of being in the highest degree injurious. It is natural that they should be a favourite source of revenue in countries, the governments of which are founded on force or fraud, or both, and who have consequently an interest in obstructing the diffusion of that knowledge which would infallibly sap the foundations of their power. But their adoption by a government honestly anxious to consolidate and main

tain the just rights and liberties of all classes, is a solecism and an absurdity. Such a government has much to fear from ignorance, but nothing from instruction. And it is labouring most effectually for its own security, when it is taking every practicable method for diffusing a taste for books and reading among all classes of its subjects.

The previous remarks refer principally to the taxes imposed on literature for public purposes. But besides these, all authors and publishers are compelled to deliver up gratis eleven copies of all new works, and of all new and improved editions of old works published by them, to so many public libraries. This is exceedingly burdensome upon the more expensive class of publications, of which only very small impressions can be printed. Eleven copies of them would often form a very fair remuneration for the author; and the obligation to give away such a number has repeatedly caused the abandonment of such publications; while, in all cases, it contributes powerfully to lessen the number, and deteriorate the quality of the maps, plates, and other embellishments in the books that are published. A tax of this sort would not be tolerable even were it imposed for a public purpose; such, however, is not its object. Though called public, the libraries which receive the eleven copies are, with the single exception of the British Museum, private establishments, belonging to particular corporations or institutions, and accessible only to their members. Why, when an author produces a work, should he be compelled to bestow copies of it on the lawyers of Dublin and Edinburgh, and the Universities? On what principle can these bodies pretend to demand from him a portion of his property? And how, we beg to know, are the interests of science and learning advanced by loading the shelves of the University libraries with all publications of all sorts that issue from the press? Perhaps it might be expedient, in order to insure the preservation of every work, that copies of it should be deposited, one in London, one in Edinburgh, and one in Dublin. Even this would be calling upon the unfortunate race of authors to make a considerable sacrifice for the public advantage. But to call upon them to sacrifice ten copies, exclusive of that given to the British Museum, for the benefit of so many private institutions, is a proceeding utterly at variance with every principle of justice. We believe, too, that the Universities would willingly relinquish this ungracious and oppressive privilege for a moderate compensation. A small annuity paid to each of them, would enable them to buy copies of all the new publications that are of the least use to them, or that, in fact, they ought to possess.

The law of other countries is, in this respect, far more equitable than ours. In America, and in Prussia, Saxony, and Bavaria, only one copy of every work is required from the author; in France and Austria two copies are required; and in the Netherlands, three. The governments of the most despotical states treat authors better than they have hitherto been treated by the legislature of England.

The duties on newspapers amount, at present, to fourpence on each, under a discount of twenty per cent; and hence it is that it is not possible, without a violation of the stamp laws, to sell newspapers under sevenpence or sevenpence-halfpenny. But though oppressive, this duty cannot be said to be unjust. Newspaper publishers know pretty well before hand how many copies of their journal will be required, and it is their own fault if they print more; whereas, we have already seen, that no such previous knowledge can ever be obtained in the case of new books. No excuse can, however, be made for the exorbitancy of the duty; and we were glad to observe that it was Lord Althorpe's intention to propose that it should be reduced to twopence, without any discount. We do not think that such a duty could be fairly objected to as applicable to the present order of papers. But all fixed duties on newspapers are radically objectionable, because they effectually hinder the free and open circulation of the cheaper sort,-throwing their supply into the hands of the least reputable portion of the community, who circulate them surreptitiously, and make them vehicles for diffusing doctrines of the most mischievous tendency. What we would, therefore, beg to propose is, that the duty on newspapers should be an ad valorem one, amounting to twenty-five per cent, perhaps, or to one penny on a newspaper sold at fourpence, to one halfpenny on one sold for twopence, and so proportionally. The advantages resulting from such a plan would, we think, be many and great. The unjust stigma that now attaches to low-priced papers would be removed; and men of talent and principle would find it equally advantageous to write in them, as in those sold at a higher price. Were such an alteration made, we venture to predict that the present twopenny papers, than which nothing can be conceived more utterly worthless, would very soon be superseded by others of a totally different character; so that in this way the change would be in the highest degree beneficial. It would also, we apprehend, introduce into newspaper compiling, that division of labour, or rather of subjects, which is found in every thing else. Instead of having all sorts of matters crammed into the same journal, every different topic of considerable interest would be separately treated in a low

priced journal, appropriated to it only, and conducted by persons fully conversant with its principles and details. Under the present omnivorous system, individuals who care nothing for the theatre, and never read a paragraph about it, are notwithstanding unable to procure a paper in which it does not occupy a prominent place; and those who cannot, like some honourable members, distinguish "God save the King" from "Blue Bonnets," have daily served up to them long dissertations on concerts, operas, oratorios, and so forth. The proposed system would give the power of selecting. Those who preferred an olla podrida to any thing else, would no doubt be sure of finding an abundant supply; while those who wished for a more select regimen, who preferred one or two separate dishes to a multitude huddled together, would be able, which at present they are not, to gratify their taste. Neither can there be the least doubt that an ad valorem duty of this sort would be far more productive than the present duty; inasmuch as though it would be less on each paper, the number of papers would be prodigiously augmented. It also would have the advantage of being easy of collection; for being a certain portion of the price, no question could arise with respect to it.

It has been proposed by some to repeal the duty on newspapers altogether, and to substitute in its stead a postage on those that must be carried by post. But to this we should be disposed to object in the strongest manner. If a distinction were to be made, it ought assuredly to be in favour of country places, and not in favour of towns. Besides, every one who knows any thing of the feelings of the great mass of the people, is well aware that they would infinitely rather pay fourpence for a paper to the publisher, than threepence to him and one penny to the postoffice. It is to no purpose to tell us that this is an unreasonable prejudice. It exists, will continue to exist, and ought to be respected.

Were the duties on books and advertisements repealed, and those on newspapers imposed in the way now suggested, there would be nothing to object to in the taxes on literature. By making these changes, government would lose very little, if any revenue, at the same time that it would put an end to a system pregnant with injustice and oppression, and provide for the diffusion of sound information among the lowest ranks and orders of the people.

[blocks in formation]
« PreviousContinue »