The Tax Collector

Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850), French economist, statesman, and author, was quite as perturbed by the demands of the nineteenth century tax collector as are many citizens today.

SCENE:       A wine cellar in France

CHARACTERS:       Jacques Bonhomme, Vine-grower

M. Lasouche, Tax Collector

L. You have secured twenty tuns of wine?

J. Yes, with much care and sweat.

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

—Six tuns out of twenty! Good heavens! You want to ruin me. If you please, what do you propose to do with them?

—The first will be given to the creditors of the State. When one has debts, the least one can do is to pay the interest.

—Where did the principal go?

—It would take too long to tell. A part of it was once upon a time put in cartridges, which made the finest smoke in the world; with another part men were hired who were maimed on foreign ground, after having ravaged it. Then, when these expenses brought the enemy upon us, he would not leave without taking money with him, which we had to borrow.

—What good do I get from it now?

—The satisfaction of saying:

How proud am I of being a Frenchman
      When I behold the triumphal column!

—And the humiliation of leaving to my heirs an estate burdened with a perpetual rent. Still one must pay what he owes, no matter how foolish a use may have been made of the money. That accounts for one tun, but the five others?

—One is required to pay for public services, the civil list, the judges who decree the restitution of the bit of land your neighbor wants to appropriate, the policemen who drive away robbers while you sleep, the men who repair the road leading to the city, the priest who baptizes your children, the teacher who educates them, and myself, your servant, who does not work for nothing.

—Certainly, service for service. There is nothing to say against that. I had rather make a bargain directly with my priest and my schoolmaster, but I do not insist on this. So much for the second tun. This leaves four, however.

—Do you believe that two would be too much for your share of the army and navy expenses?

—Alas, it is little compared with what they have cost me already. They have taken from me two sons whom I tenderly loved.

—The balance of power in Europe must be maintained.

—Well, good heavens! the balance of power would be the same if these forces were everywhere reduced a half or three-quarters. We should save our children and our money. It needs only to be understood.

—Yes, but it is not understood.

—That is what amazes me. For every one suffers from it.

—You wished it so, Jacques Bonhomme.

—You are jesting, my dear Mr. Collector; have I a vote in the legislative halls?

—Whom did you support for Deputy?

—An excellent General, who will be a Marshal presently, if God spares his life.

—On what does this excellent General live?

—My tuns, I presume.

—And what would happen were he to vote for a reduction of the army and your military establishment?

—Instead of being made a Marshal, he would be retired.

—Do you understand now that you yourself have

—Let us pass to the fifth tun, I beg of you.

—That goes to Algeria.

—To Algeria! And they tell me that Mussulmans are not wine-drinkers, the barbarians! I have often asked myself whether they are ignorant of claret because they are infidels, or, which is more likely, whether they are infidels because they are ignorant of claret. Besides, what services will they give me in exchange for this ambrosia, which has cost me so much labor?

—None at all; it is not intended for Mussulmans, but for good Christians who spend their days in Barbary.

—What can they do there which will be of service to me?

—Undertake and undergo raids; kill and be killed; get dysenteries and come home to be doctored; dig harbors, make roads, build villages, and people them with Maltese, Italians, Spaniards, and Swiss, who live on your tun, and many others which I shall come in the future to ask of you.

—Mercy! This is too much, and I flatly refuse you my tun. They would send a vine-grower who did such foolish acts to the madhouse. Make roads in the Atlas Mountains, when I cannot get out of my own house! Dig ports in Barbary when the Garonne fills up with sand every day! Take from me my children whom I love, in order to torment Arabs! Make me pay for the houses, grain, and horses, given to the Greeks and Maltese, when there are so many poor around us!

—The poor! Exactly; they free the country of this superfluity.

—Oh, yes, by sending after them to Algeria the money which would enable them to live here.

—But then you lay the basis of a great empire, you carry civilization into Africa, and you crown your country with immortal glory.

—You are a poet, my dear Collector; but I am a vine-grower, and I refuse.

—Think that in a few thousand years you will get back your advances a hundredfold. All those who have charge of the enterprise say so.

—At first they asked me for one cask of wine to meet expenses, then two, then three, and now I am taxed a tun. I persist in my refusal.

—It is too late. Your representative has agreed that you shall give a tun.

—That is but too true. Cursed weakness! It seems to me that I was unwise in making him my agent; for what is there in common between the General of an army and the poor owner of a vineyard?

—You see well that there is something in common between you, were it only the wine you make, and which, in your name, he votes to himself.

—Laugh at me; I deserve it, Mr. Collector. But be reasonable, and leave me the sixth tun at least. The interest of the debt is paid, the civil list provided for, the public service assured, and the war in Africa perpetuated. What more do you want?

—The bargain is not made with me. You must tell your desires to the General. He has disposed of your vintage.

—But what do you propose to do with this poor tun, the flower of my stock? Come, taste this wine. What a mellow, full-bodied, velvety quality!

—Excellent, delicious! It will suit D—, the cloth manufacturer, admirably.

—D—, the manufacturer! What do you mean?

—That he will make a good bargain out of it.

—How? What is that? I do not understand you.

—Do you not know that D— has started a magnificent establishment very useful to the country, but which loses much money every year?

—I regret it with all my heart. But what can I do about it?

—The Legislature saw that if things went on thus, D—would have the alternative of performing better or closing his factory.

—But what connection is there between D—’s bad speculations and my tun?

—The Chamber thought that if it gave D—a little wine from your cellar, a few bushels of grain taken from your neighbors, and a few pennies cut from the wages of the workingmen, his losses would change into profits.

—This recipe is as infallible as it is ingenious. But it is shockingly unjust. What! Is D—to cover his losses by taking my wine?

—Not exactly the wine, but the proceeds of it. That is what we call a bounty for encouragement. But you look amazed! Do you not see what a great service you render to the country?

—You mean to say to D—?

—To the country. D—       asserts that, thanks to this arrangement, his business prospers, and thus it is, says he, that the country grows rich. That is what he recently said in the Chamber of Which he is a member.

—It is outrageous! What! A lout goes into a foolish enterprise, he wastes his capital, and if he extorts from me wine or grain enough to make good his losses, and even to make him a profit, it is called a general gain!

—Your representative having come to that conclusion, you have no choice but to give me the six tuns of wine, and sell the fourteen that I leave you for as much as possible.

—That is my business.

—For, you see, it would be very annoying if you did not get a good price for them.

—I will consider it.

—For there are many things which the money you receive must procure.

—I know it, sir. I know it.

—In the first place, if you buy iron to renew your spades and plowshares, a law declares that you must pay the iron-master twice what it is worth.

—Ah, yes; does not the same thing happen in the Black Forest?

—Then, if you need oil, meat, cloth, coal, wool, and sugar, each one by the law will cost you twice what it is worth.

—But this is horrible, frightful, abominable.

—What is the use of these hard words? You yourself, through your authorized agent-Leave me alone with my authorized agent. I made a very strange disposition of my vote, it is true. But they shall deceive me no more, and I will be represented by some good and honest countryman.

—Bah, you will re-elect the worthy General.

—I? I re-elect the General to give away my wine to Africans and manufacturers?

—You will re-elect him, I say.

—That is a little too much. I will not re-elect him, if I do not want to.

—But you will want to, and you will re-elect him.

—Let him come here and try. He will see whom he will have to settle with.

—We shall see. Good-bye. I take away your six tuns, and will proceed to divide them as the General has directed. []

Le Precepteur” first appeared in 1845 in Sophismes Economiques, First Series.