William Hazlitt: War is in itself is a thriving, sensible traffic only to cannibals
The Speeches of Western and Broughan (1816)
This is a sore subject; and it is here handled with much tenderness and delicacy. It puts one in mind of the traveller’s nose, and the nuns of Strasburgh, in the tale of Slaukenbergius. “I will touch it, said one; I dare not touch it, said another; I wish I had touched it, said a third; let me touch it, said a fourth.” While the gentlewomen were debating the point, the traveller with the great nose rode on. It would be no ungracious task to treat of the distresses of the country, if all were distressed alike; but that is not the case; nor is it possible to trace the necessities of one part of the community to their source, or to hint at a remedy, without glancing invidiously at the superfluities of others. “Why, there’s the rub, that makes calamity of so long life.” The speeches before us are to the subject what a veil is to a lady’s face, or a blind to a window. Almost all that has been said or written upon it is a palpable delusion – an attempt to speak out and say nothing; to oppose something that might be done, and propose something that cannot be done; to direct attention to the subject, and divert it from it; to do something and nothing; and to come to this potent conclusion, that while nothing is done, nothing can be done. “But have you then any remedy to propose instead?” What sort of a remedy do you mean? “Oh, one equally safe and efficacious, that shall set every thing to rights, and leave every thing just as it is, that does not touch either the tythes or the national debt, nor places and pensions, nor property of any kind, except the poor’s fund; that you may take from them to make them independent of the rich, as you leave Lord Camden in possession of thirty thousand a year to make him independent of the poor.” – Why, then, what if the Lord Chancellor and the Chancellor of the Exchequer were to play a game at push-pin on the top of St. Paul’s; or if Mr Brougham and Mr Horner were to play at cat’s-cradle on the top of the Monument; or if the little garden between the Speaker’s house and the river-side were to be sown with pearls and cockle-shells? Or if – Pshaw! Patience, and shuffle the cards.
The great problem of our great problem-finders appears to be, to take nothing from the rich, and give it to the poor. That will never do. We find them and their schemes of diversion well described in Rabelais, book v. chap. xxii.
“How Queen Whims’ officers were employed; and how the said Lady retained us among her Abstractors.”
“I then saw a great number of the queen’s officers, who made blackamoors white as fast as hops, just rubbing their bellies with the bottom of a pannier.
“Others, with three couples of foxes in one yoke, ploughed a sandy shore, and did not lose their seed.
“Others washed burnt tiles, and made them lose their colour.
“Others extracted water out of pumice-stones, braying them a good while in a mortar, and changed their substance.
“Others sheared asses, and thus got long fleece wool.
“Others gathered off of thorns grapes, and figs off of thistles.
“Others stroked he-goats by the dugs, and saved their milk; and much they got by it.
“Others washed asses’ heads without losing their soap.
“Others taught cows to dance, and did not lose their fiddling.
“Others pitched nets to catch the wind, and took cock-lobsters in them.
“Others out of nothing made great things, and made great things return to nothing.
“Others made a virtue of necessity, and the best of a bad market, which seemed to me a very good piece of work.
“I saw two Gibroins by themselves keeping watch on the top of a tower, and we were told they guarded the moon from the wolves.”
The war has cost the country five or six hundred millions of money. This has not been a nominal expence, a playing at ducks and drakes with the King’s picture on the water, or a manufacturing of bank-notes, and then lighting our pipes with them, but real bona fide waste of the means, wealth, labour, produce or resources of the country, in the carrying on of the war. About one hundred of these five or six hundred millions have been sent directly out of the country in loans to our Allies, from the year 1793 to the year 1815, inclusive, during which period there is not a single year in which we did not (from our desire of peace with the legitimate government of that country) subsidise one or all of the powers of Europe to carry on war against the rebels, regicides, republicans and usurpers of France. Now the interest on this money alone would be five millions yearly, which would be nearly enough to pay the amount of the poor-rates of the whole country, which is seven millions of our yearly taxes, or might at least be applied to mitigate the mild severity of Mr Malthus’s sweeping clauses on that defenceless part of the subject. Here is a hundred millions then gone clean out of the country: there are four of five hundred millions more which have been sunk in the expenses of the war, and which might as well have been sunk in the sea; or what has been saved out of the wreck by those who have been most active in running the vessel aground, is in the hands of persons who are in no hurry that the public should go snacks with them in their excessive good fortune. In all three cases, and under each several head of loans, waste, or monopoly, John Bull pays the piper, or the interest of the whole money in taxes. He is just so many hundred millions the worse for the war, (whoever may be the better for it) not merely in paper, which would be nothing, nor in golden guineas, which would be something; but in what is better and more substantial than either, in goods and chattels, in the produce of the soil, and the work of his hands – in the difference between what the industry of man, left to itself, produces in time for peace for the benefit of man, and what the same industry, under the direction of government, produces in time of war for the destruction of others, without any benefit to himself, real, imaginary, or pretended; we mean in a physical and economical point of view, which is here the question – a question, which seems to last when the religion, politics, and morality of the affair are over. We have said that the expenses of the war might as well have been sunk in the sea; and so they might, for they have been sunk in unproductive labour, that is, in maintaining large establishments, and employing great numbers of men in doing nothing or mischief; for example, in making ships to destroy other ships, guns and gun-powder to blow out men’s brains, pikes and swords to run them through the body, drums and fifes to drown the noise of cannon and the whizzing of bullets, in making caps and coats to deck the bodies of those who live by killing others; in buying up pork and beef, butter and cheese to enable them to do this with more effect: in barracks, in transport-ships, in baggage and baggage-waggons, on horses, bridles and saddles in suttlers and followers of the camp, in chaplains of the regiment, in common trulls, and the mistresses of generals and commanders in chief; in contractors, in army and navy agents, their partners, clerks, relations, dependents, wives, families, servants in and out of livery, their town and country houses, coaches, curricles, parks, gardens, grottos, hot-houses, green-houses, pictures, statues, libraries; in treasury scribes, in secretaries and under-secretaries of state, of the foreign, colonial, and war departments, with their swarms of underlings, all of whom are maintained out the labour and sweat of the country, and for all of whom, and for all that they do (put together) the country is not one pin the better, or at least, one penny more in pocket, than if they were at the bottom of the Channel. The present may have been the most just and necessary war, in a political, moral and religious point of view, that ever was engaged in; but it has also been the most expensive; and what is worse, the expense remains just the same, though it may have been the most unjust and unnecessary in the world. We have paid for it and we must pay for it equally in either case, and wholly out of our own pockets. The price of restoring the Pope, the Inquisition, the Bourbons and the doctrine of Divine Right, is half of our nine hundred millions of debt. That is the amount of the government bill of costs, presented to John Bull for payment, not of the principle but the interest; that is what he has got by the war; the load of taxes at his back, with which he comes out of his glorious five and twenty-years’ struggle, like Christian’s load of sins, which whether it will not fall off from his back like Christian’s, into the Slough of Despond, will be seen before long. The difference between the expense of war or a peace establishment is just the difference between a state of productive and unproductive labour. Now this whole question, which from its complexity puzzles many people, and has given rise to a great deal of partly wilful and partly shallow sophistry, may be explained in two words. – Suppose I give a man five shillings a day for going out in a boat and catching fish for me. This is paying for productive labour: that is, I give him so much for what he does, or a claim upon so much of the public stock: but in taking so much from the stock, by laying out his five shillings, he adds so much to it by his labour, or the disposal of his time it catching fish. But if I, having the money to do what I please with, give him five shillings a day for shooting at crows, he is paid equally for his trouble, and accordingly takes so much from the public stock, while he adds nothing to it but so much carrion. So if the government pay him so much a-day for shooting at Frenchmen and Republicans, this is a tax, a loss, a burthen to the country, without any thing got by it; for we cannot, after all, eat Frenchmen and Republicans when we have killed them. War is in itself is a thriving, sensible traffic only to cannibals! Again – if I give a man five shillings for making a pair of shoes, this is paying for productive labour, viz. for labour that is useful, and that must be performed by some one; but if I give the same man five shillings for standing on his head or behind my chair while I am picking my teeth, or for running up a hill and down again for a wager – this is unproductive labour, nothing comes of it, and though the man who thus idly employed live by it, others starve, upon whose pittance and whose labour he lives through me. Such is the nature and effect of war; all the energies of which tend to waste, and to throw an additional and heavy burthen upon the country, in proportion to the extent and length of time that it is carried on. It creates so many useless members of the community: every man paid by the war out of the taxes paid by the people, is, in fact, a dead body fastened to a living one, that by its weight drags it to the earth. A five and twenty years’ war, and nine hundred millions in debt, are really a couple of millstones round the neck of a country, that must naturally press her down a little in the scale of prosperity. That seems to be no riddle. We defy any sophist to answer this statement of the necessary tendency of war in its general principle to ruin and impoverish a country. We are not to wonder, when it does so; but when other causes operate to counteract or retard this tendency. What is extraordinary in our own case is, that the pernicious effects of war have been delayed so long, not that they have come upon us at last. – That money laid out in war is thrown away is self-evident from this single circumstance, that government never refund. The reason is, because they never do any thing with their money that produces money again. They are the worst bankers in the world. The exchequer is a true Sinking Fund. If you lend money to a farmer, a manufacturer, a merchant, he employs it in getting something done for which others will pay, because it is useful; as in raising corn, in weaving cotton, in bringing home sugar or tobacco. But money sunk in a war brings in no returns – except of killed and wounded. What will any one give the government for the rotten bones that lie buried at Walcheren, or the dry ones at Waterloo? Not a six-pence. They cannot make a collection of wooden legs or dangling sleeves from the hospitals at Greenwich or Chelsea to set up a raffle or a lottery. They cannot bring the fruits of war to auction, or put up the tottering throne of the Bourbons to the best bidder. They can neither bring back a drop of the blood that has been shed, nor recover a shilling of the treasure that has been wasted. If the expenses of the war are not a burden to the people, which must sink it according to their weight, why do not government take the whole of this thriving concern into their own hands, and pay the national debt out of the Droits of Admiralty? In short, the way to ascertain this point is, by the old method of reductio ad absurdam: Suppose we had to pay the expense of such another peace-establishment and such another war. Who does not see that they would eat up the whole resources of the country, as the present peace-establishment and the actual debt do just one half?
“Come, let us leave off children’s play, and go to push-pin.”
The war has wasted the resources of the country in foolery, which the country has now to pay for in a load of taxes on its remaining resources, its actual produce and labour. The tax-gatherer is a government-machine that takes sixty-five millions a-year from the bankrupt pockets of the nation, to give to those who have brought it into that situation; who take so much from the necessaries of life belonging to the poor, to add to the superfluities of the rich; who adds so much to the hard labour of the working part of the community, to “relieve the killing languor and over-laboured lassitude of those who have nothing to do;” who, in short, out of the grinding poverty and ceaseless toil of those who pay the taxes, enables those who receive them to live in luxury and idleness.
Mr Burke, whom we have just quoted, has said that “if the poor were to cut the throats of the rich, they would not have a meal the more for it.” First, (for truth is the first thing in our thoughts, and not to give offence the second) this is a falsehood; a greater one than the answer of a Bond-street lounger, who coming out of a confectioner’s shop, where he has had a couple of basins of turtle-soup, an ice, some jellies, and a quantity of pastry, as he saunters out picking his teeth and putting the change into his pockets, says to a beggar at the door, “I have nothing for you.” We confess, we have always felt it an awkward circumstance to be accosted in this manner, when we have been caught in the act of indulging a sweet tooth, and it costs us an additional penny. The rich and poor may at present be compared to the two classes of frequenters of pastry-cooks’ shops, those on the outside and those on the in. We would seriously advise the later, who see the gaunt faces staring at them through the glass door, to recollect, that though custard is nicer than bread, bread is the greatest necessary of the two. – We had forgot Mr Burke’s sophism, to which we reply in the second place, that the cutting of throats is a figure of speech, like the dagger which he produced in the House of Commons, not necessary to the speculative decision of the question. The most civil, peaceable, and complaisant way of putting it is this – whether if the rich were to give all that they are worth to the poor, the latter would be none the richer for it? If so, the rich would be none the poorer, and so far could be no losers on Mr Burke’s own hypotheses, which supposes, with that magnanimity of contempt for plain matter of fact which distinguished the author’s theories, that the rich have nothing, and the poor have every thing? Had not Mr Burke a pension of 4000£. a year? Was this nothing? But even this is not the question neither. It is not, whether if the rich were to part with all they have to the poor (which is a mere absurdity) but whether if the rich do not take all they have left from the poor (which we humbly hope is a proposition that has common sense in it) the latter may not be the better off with something to live upon than with nothing? Whether, if the whole load of taxes could be taken off from them, it would not be a relief to them? Whether, if half the load of taxes were taken off from them, it would not be a relief to them? Whether, if any part of the load of taxes that can be taken off from them were taken off, it would not be in the same proportion be relief to them? We will venture to say, that no one will deny these propositions who does not receive so much a year for falsehood and impudence. The resistance which is made to the general or abstract principle is not intended to prevent the extreme sweeping application of that principle to the plundering or (as Mr Burke will have it) to the cutting of the throats of the rich, but it is a manoeuvre, by getting rid of the general principle altogether, viz. that the extravagance and luxury of the rich, war, taxes, &c. have a tendency to increase the distresses of the poor, or measures of retrenchment and reform to lighten those distresses – to give carte-blanche to the government to squander the wealth, the blood, the happiness of the nation at pleasure; to grant jobs, places, pensions, sinecures, reversions without end, to grind down, to starve and impoverish the country with systematic impunity. It is a legerdemain trick played off by hireling politicians, to enable their patrons and employers to pick our pockets and laugh in our faces at the same time.
It has been said by such person that taxes are not a burthen to the country; that the wealth collected in taxes returns through those who receive to those who pay them, only divided more equally and beneficially among all parties, just (they say) as the vapours and moisture of the earth collected in the clouds return to enrich the soil in soft and fertilizing showers. We shall set ourselves to shew that this is not true.
Suppose a society of ten persons, without taxes to pay, and who live on their own labour on the produce of the ground, and the exchange of one commodity among themselves for another. Some of these persons will be naturally employed in tilling the ground, others in tending cattle, others in making instruments of husbandry, others in waving cloth, others in making shoes, others in building houses, others in making roads, others in buying and selling, other in fetching and carrying what the others want. All will be employed in something that they want themselves, or that others want. In such a state of society, nothing will be given for nothing. If a man has a bushel of wheat, and only wants half of it, he will give the other half to some one, for making him a coat or a pair of shoes. As every one will be paid for what he does out of the earnings of the labour of others, no one will waste his time or his strength in doing any thing that is not wanted by some one else, that is not as useful and necessary to his subsistence and comfort, and more so, than the commodity which he gives in exchange for it. There will be no unproductive labour. What each person gets will be either in proportion to what he has done for himself, or what he has added to the comforts of others. Exchange there will be no robbery. The wealth of all will be the results of the exertions of each individual, and will circulate equally and beneficially, because those who produce that wealth will share it among themselves. This is an untaxed state of society, where wealth changes hands indeed, but finds its level, notwithstanding. – Now suppose two other individuals to be fastened upon this society of ten persons – a government-man and a fund-holder. They change the face of it in an instant. The equilibrium, the balance is upset. The amount of the wealth of the society before was a thousand pound a-year, suppose. The two new-comers take a writ out of their pockets, by which they quietly lay hands on five hundred of it as their fair portion. Where are the ten persons now? Mr Burke, Mr Coleridge, Mr Vanstitart, The Courier, say – Just where they were before! We say, No such thing. For three reasons: 1. It cannot be denied that the interlopers, the government-man and his friend, the fund-holder, who has lent him money to sport with on all occasions, are substantial bona fide persons, like other men., who live by eating, drinking &c. and who, if they only shared equally with the other ten what they had got amongst them, (for they added nothing to the common stock) must be a sufficient burthen upon the rest, that is, must diminish the comforts or increase the labour of each person one-fifth. To hear the other side talk, one would suppose that those who raise and are paid out of the taxes never touch a farthing of them, that they have no occasion for them, that they neither eat nor drink, nor buy clothing, or build houses with them; that they live upon air, or that harmless food, bank notes (a thing not to speak of), and that all the money they are so anxious to collect is distributed by them again for the sole benefit of others, or passes back through the Exchequer, as if it were a conduit-pipe or empty tunnel, in the hands of the original proprietors, without diminution or diversion. Now this is not so. 2. Not only do our government-man and his friend live like other people upon their means, but they live better than other people for they have better means, that is, these two take half of what the other ten get. They would be fools if they gave it back to them; no, depend upon it, they lay out their five hundred a-year upon themselves, for their own sole use, benefit, pleasure, mirth and pastime. For each of these gentleman has just five times as much to spend as any of those that he lives upon at free cost, and he has nothing to do but to think how he shall spend it. He eats and drinks as much as he can, and always of the best and most costly. It is pretended that the difference in the consumption of the produce of the soil is little or nothing, for a poor man’s belly will hold as much as a rich man’s. But not if the one is full, and the other empty. The man who lives upon the taxes, feasts upon venison and turtle, and crams himself to the throat with fish, flesh, and fowl; the man who pays the taxes, upon a crust of mouldy bread, and fat rusty bacon: the man who receives the taxes drinks rich and sparkling wines, hock and canary; the man who pays them, sour small beer. If the poor man gets drunk and leads an idle life, his family starve: the rich man drinks his three bottles a day and does nothing, while his family live on the fat of the land. If the poor man dies of hard labour and poor living, his family comes to the parish; if the rich man dies of hard living and want of exercise, he leaves his family to be provided for by the state. But, 3. All that the government-man and the fund-holder do not spend upon their bellies, in reveling and gormandising, they lay out upon their backs, their houses, their carriages, &c in inordinate demands upon the labour of the former ten persons, who are now employed, not in working for one another, but in pampering the pride, ostentation, vanity, folly, or vices of our two gentleman comers. After glutting their physical appetites, they take care to apply all the rest to the gratification of their factitious, arbitrary, and fantastic wants, which are unlimited, and which the universe could not supply. “They toil not, neither do they spin, and yet even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these:” – while the poor are clothed in rags, and the dogs lick up their sores. The money that is taken from you and me, or the more industrious members of the community, and that we should have laid on in having snug, comfortable houses built for us all, or two bed-rooms for our families instead of one, is employed, now that it has got into the tax-gatherer’s hands, in hiring the same persons to build two enormous houses for the government-man and the fund-holder, who live in palaces while we live in hovels. What are we, the people, the original ten men, the better for that? The taxes enable those who receive them to pay our masons, carpenters, &c. for working for them. If we had not been forced to pay the money in taxes, the same persons would have been employed by us for our common benefit. Suppose the government-man takes it into his head to build a colossus, a rotunda, a pyramid, or any thing else equally absurd and gigantic, it would, we say, be a nuisance in proportion to its size. It would be ten times as great a nuisance if it was ten times bigger. If it covered a whole county, it would ruin the landed interest. If it was spread over the whole country, the country must starve. When the government-man and the fund holder, have got their great houses built, they must next have them furnished with proportionable magnificence, and by the same means; with Persian and Turkey carpets, with Egyptian sofas, down beds, silk curtains, china vases, services of plate, tables chairs, stoves, glasses, mirrors, chandeliers, paper hangings, pictures, busts, ornaments, kickshaws without number, while you and I live on a mud floor, with bare walls, stuck with a penny ballad, with a joint-stool to sit upon, a tea-pot without a tea-spout to drink out of, a truckle-bed or some straw and a blanket to lie upon! Yet Mr. Burke says, that if we were suddenly converted into state-pensioners with thirty-thousand a-year, we could not furnish our houses a bit the better for it. This is like Lord Peter, in the Tale of a Tub. Then the government-man and his friend must have their train of coaches, horses, dogs, footmen dressed in blue, green, yellow, and red, lazy rascals, making work for the taylor, the hatter, the shoe-maker, the button-maker, the hair-dresser, the gold and silver laceman, to powder, dress and trick them out, that they may lounge behind their mistresess’ coaches, walk before their sedan chairs, help on their master’s stockings, block up his doors, and perform a variety of little nameless offices much to the ease and satisfaction of the great, but not of the smallest benefit to any one else. With respect to the article of dogs and horses, a word in Mr Malthus’s ear. They come under the head of consumption, and a swinging item they are. They eat up the food of the children of the poor. The pleasure and coach-horses kept in this kingdom consume as much of the produce of the soil as would maintain all the paupers in it. Let a tax be laid upon them directly, to defray the expense of the poor-rates, and to suspend the operation of Mr Malthus’s geometrical and arithmetical ratios. We see no physical necessity why that ingenious divine should put a stop to the propagation of the species that he may keep two sleek geldings in his stable. We have lately read Swift’s account of the Houyuhyms and Yahoos. There is some truth in it; but still it has not reconciled us to Mr Malthus’s proposal of starving the children of the poor to feed the horses of the rich. But no more of that! We have said enough at present to shew how taxes fly away with the money of a nation; how they go into the hands of the government-man and the fund holder, and do not return into the pockets of the people, who pay them. For the future, Mr. Burke’s assertion, that the taxes are like the vapours that ascend into the clouds and return to earth in fertilizing showers, may pass for an agreeable metaphor, but for nothing more. A pretty joke truly, this of people’s receiving their taxes back again in payment for what the rich want of them. It is as if I should buy a pound of beef in a butcher’s shop, and take the money out of his own till to pay him! It is as if a bill is presented to me for payment, and I ask the notary for the money to take it up with! It is as if a Noble Earl was to win 50,000 pounds. of a Noble Duke over-night, and offer to return it to him the next morning, for one of his estates! It is as if Mr Burke had been robbed of a bond for 4000 pounds. and the fortunate possessor had offered to restore it, on receiving in lieu his house and gardens at Beaconsfield! Having thus pointed out the nature of the distress, we need not inquire far for the remedy.