Education of a Christian Prince. Chapter 4: Revenue and Taxation
5 min read
5 min read
If we scour the history of the Ancients we shall find that many revolts were occasioned by excessive taxation. Consequently the good prince will have to take care that the feelings of the populace are roused as little as possible on this account. He should rule without cost to the people if he can, for the position of prince is too noble to be commercialized with propriety. And the good prince has in his possession whatever his affectionate subjects Possess.
There were many pagans who took nothing back home except glory from the good service they gave to the state. There were one or two, such as Fabius Maximus and Antoninus Pius, who rejected the glory also. How much more ought a Christian prince to be content with the knowledge that he has done what is right, especially since he is in the service of one who does not fail to reward right actions richly?
There are some prince’s agents whose only concern is to squeeze as much as possible out of the populace on one fresh pretext after another in the belief that they are properly serving the interests of their princes, as if the latter were the enemies of their people. But let anyone who chooses to pay attention to such men realize that he is a long way from the title of ‘prince.’ Rather should his efforts and deliberations be directed to this end, that as little as possible should be exacted from the people. The most welcome way of increasing revenue would be for the prince to abolish superfluous expenditure, to disband redundant offices, to avoid wars and foreign tours (which are very like wars), to check the acquisitiveness of officialdom, and to pay more attention to the just administration of his territory than to its Expansion.
Otherwise, if he assesses taxation according to his greed or ambitions, what control or limit will there be in the end? For avarice is boundless, continually goading and putting pressure on what it has set afoot until, as the old proverb has it, the last straw breaks the camel’s back and revolution eventually flares up when the people’s patience is exhausted – a situation which has put an end to empires which were at one time highly prosperous.
So if necessity requires some taxation of the people, then it is the good prince’s job to do it in such a way that the least possible hardship falls on the poor. For it is perhaps politic to summon the rich to austerity, but to reduce poor people to hunger and servitude is both very cruel and very risky.
When he is thinking of increasing his retinue, when he is anxious to make a brilliant marriage for his grand-daughter or sister, or to raise all his sons to his own status, or to make his nobles wealthy, or to display his substance to other countries while on foreign tours, then the conscientious ruler must continually remind himself how cruel it is that on these accounts so many thousands of men with their wives and children should be starving to death at home, getting into debt, and being driven to complete desperation. For those people who extort from the poor what they basely squander on women and gambling would not count in my judgment even as men, let alone as princes. Yet they do exist (or so rumour has it) and believe that they have the right to behave even in this way.
Indeed the prince should weigh up this further consideration, that it is impossible for a measure ever to be abolished, once it has been introduced to meet some temporary situation, if it seems to be to the financial advantage of the prince or the nobility. When the need for a tax has passed, not only should the people’s burden be lifted but as far as possible their expenditure during that previous period should be reimbursed in compensation. Accordingly, someone who is well disposed to his people will beware of establishing an insidious precedent; for if he takes pleasure in the misfortunes of his people or neglects their interests, then he does not amount to a prince whatever his title may be.
Care must be taken meanwhile that discrepancies in wealth are not excessive: not that I would want anyone to be forcibly deprived of his goods, but some system should be operated to prevent the wealth of the many from being allocated to the few. Plato, for one, wants his citizens to be neither too rich nor on the other hand particularly poor, since the poor man is unable to make a social contribution while the rich man is unwilling to do so by using his own talents. How is it that princes quite often do not even get rich from taxes of this sort? Anyone who wants to understand this may reflect on how much less our ancestors received from their subjects, and yet how much more generous they were and how much more profusely they were supplied with all things; the reason is that the best part of the revenue now slips through the fingers of these gatherers and receivers, mentioned above, and only a tiny part reaches the prince himself.
The good prince will therefore impose as little tax as possible on those things whose use is shared also by the poorest ranks of the people, such as corn, bread, beer, wine, clothes, and all the other things without which human life cannot be carried on. But these things at present carry a very heavy burden, and in more than one way: first by the very heavy taxes which the revenue agents extort (and which the people call ‘assizes’), then by import duties, which even have their own agents to themselves, and lastly by the monopolies. In order that a very little income may get back to the prince from these sources, the poorer people are milked dry by this expenditure.
Much the best way, therefore, of increasing the value of the prince’s income, as has been said, is to reduce his outgoing costs, and even in his case the proverb holds good that thrift is a great source of revenue. But if it is unavoidable that some levy be made, and the people’s interests demand such action, then let the burden fall on those foreign and imported goods which are not so much necessities of life as luxurious and pleasurable refinements and whose use is confined to the rich, such as cotton, silk, dyed cloth, pepper, spices, ointments, jewels, and anything else of this kind. For in this way the inconvenience will be felt only by those who have the good fortune to be able to bear it; and the expense will not render them destitute but will perhaps make them less extravagant, so that what they lose in money is made good to them in a moral benefit.
In the coinage of money the good prince will display the trustworthiness he owes both to God and to the people, and will not allow himself to do things for which he punishes other people most harshly. The people are commonly robbed in four ways over this business, as we saw for some considerable time after the death of Charles, when a kind of protracted anarchy more dangerous than tyranny afflicted your kingdom: first, when the material for the coinage is contaminated by some sort of alloy; secondly, when it is underweight; next, when it is reduced by clipping round the edge; lastly, when it is constantly being devalued and revalued whenever it is seen to be to the advantage of the royal treasury.