Sunday, June 12, 2011

Bagehot Envies American Fiscal Rectitude

Walter Bagehot, marveling at the persistent habit of the United States government to run budget surpluses, laments that it's not likely to happen in his own  country:

No one who knows anything of the working of Parliamentary Government will for a moment imagine that any Parliament would have allowed any executive to keep a surplus of (United States) magnitude. In England, after the French war, the Government of that day, which had brought it to  happy end, which had the glory of Waterloo, which was in consequence  exceedingly strong, which had besides elements of strength from close boroughs and Treasury influence such as certainly no Government has ever had before--that Government proposed to keep a moderate surplus and to apply it to the reduction of debt, but even this the English Parliament would not endure.  The administration with all its power derived from both from good and evil had to yield; the income tax was abolished, with it went the surplus, and with the surplus all chance of any considerable reduction debt for he time.  In truth, taxation is so painful that in a sensitive which has strong organs of expression and action, the maintenance of a great surplus is excessively difficult.  The opposition will always say that it is unnecessary, is uncalled for, is injudicious; the cry will be echoed in every constituency; there will be a series of large meetings in the great cities; even in the smaller constituencies there will mostly be smaller meetings; every member of Parliament will be pressed by those who elect him; upon this point there will be no distinction between town and country, the country gentleman and the farmer disliking high taxes as much as any in the town. To maintain a great surplus by heavy taxes f debts has never yet in this country been possible, and to maintain a surplus of the American magnitude would be plainly impossible
 So Bagehot in The English Constitution 52 (Dolphin ed.).   He goes on to say that "in reality, America is too rich, daily industry there is too common, too skilful, and too productive, for her to care much for fiscal burdens." 

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