William Hazlitt: Effects of war and taxes
From On the Effects of War and Taxes (1817)
We have been twenty years at war, and have laid out five hundred millions in war taxes; and what have we gained by it? Where are the proceeds? If it has not been thrown away in what produces no return, if it has not been sunk in the war, as much as if it bad been sunk in the sea, if the government as good factors for the general weal have laid out all this enormous sum in useful works, in productive labour, let them give us back the principal and the interest, (which is just double) and keep the profits to themselves – instead of which, they have made away with the principal, and come to us to pay them the interest in taxes. They have nothing to shew for either, but spiked cannon, rotten ships, gunpowder blown into the air, heaps of dead men’s sculls, the turned heads and coats of Poets Laureate, with the glories of Trafalgar and Waterloo, which however will pay no scores. Let them set them up at auction, and see what they will fetch. Not a sous! We have killed so many French, it is true. But we had better have spent powder and shot in shooting at crows. Though we have laid the ghost of the French Revolution, we cannot “go to supper” upon the carcase. If the present distress aud difficulty arise merely from our no longer having a bug-bear to contend with, or because, (as Mr. Southey says) the war is no longer a customer to the markets, to the amount of fifty millions a year, why not declare war upon the Man in the Moon to-morrow, and never leave off till we have sent him to keep Bonaparte company at St. Helena? Why, it is but ordering so many cannon and cutlasses, no matter for what purpose – and equipping, and fantastically accoutring so many loyal corps of minions of the moon, Diana’s foresters, and “the manufactures of Birmingham and Sheffield would revive to-morrow.” If we had howitzers before of a prodigious size, let us have bombs of a calibre that Lord Castlereagh never dreamt of; and instead of iron balls, golden ones. Why not? The expense would be the greater. If we made the eardi ring before, let us now make the welkin roar. The absurdity would be as costly, and more bloodless. A voyage to the moon would take at least as much time, as many lives and millions to acoomplish, as the. march to Paris. But then our merchants would not meanwhile get a monopoly of the trade of Europe, to stimulate their laggard patriotism, nor would the sovereigns of Europe be able to plant the standard of Legitimacy on the horns of the moon! – But though we have nothing to shew for the money we have madly squandered in war, we have some thing to pay for it (rather more than we can afford) to contractors, monopolists, and sinecurists, to the great fundholders and borough-mongers, to those who have helped to carry on, and to those who have been paid for applauding this sport-royal, as the most patriotic and profitable employment of the wealth and resources of a country. These persons, the tax-receivers, have got a mortgage on the property, health, strength, and skill of the rest of the community, who pay the taxes, which bows their industry to the ground and deprives them of the necessary means of subsistence. The principal of the debt which the nation has contracted has been laid out in unproductive labour, in inflicting the mischiefs and miseries of war; and the interest is for the most part equally laid out in unproductive labour, in fomenting the pride and luxury of those who have made their fortunes by the war and taxes.
Need we ask any farther, how war and taxes, sinecures and monopolies, by degrees, weaken, impoverish, and ruin a State ? Or whether they can go on increasing for ever? There is an excess of inequality and oppression, of luxury and want, which no state can survive; as there is a point at which the palsied frame can no longer support itself, and at which the withered tree falls to the ground.
If a sovereign exhausts the wealth and strength of a country in war, he’ll end in being a king of slaves and beggars.
Mr. Southey, in his late pamphlet, has very emphatically described the different effects of money laid out in war and peace. “What bounds,” he exclaims, “could imagination set to the welfare and glory of this island, if a tenth part, or even a twentieth of what the war expenditure has been, were annually applied in improving and creating harbours in bringing roads to the best possible repair, in colonizing upon our waste lands, in reclaiming fens, and conquering tracts from the sea, in encouraging the liberal arts, endowing schools and churches,” etc. This is a singular slip of the pen in so noisy and triumphant a war-monger as the Poet Laureate. The pinnacle of prosperity and glory to which he would by these means raise the country, does not seem quite so certain. The other extreme of distress and degradation, to which the war-system has reduced it, is deep and deplorable indeed.