All I Survey/Essay XVI

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Essay XV All I Survey
Essay XVI
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XVII

Essay XVI: On a New Tax

IN these times when everybody is talking about taxation, many must have indulged in the dream that there might be a tax on talking. I hasten (nay, rush in a rage of self-immolation) to add that the same may be said of a tax on writing. We have endeavoured to preserve the old liberal ideal of free speech and free printing, at least in its legal form, if sometimes as a legal fiction. I fear that the truth is not so much that repression is entirely removed, as that repression is not responsible repression. Like so many other things, it has begun to act outside the limits of law, and tyranny as well as liberty has broken loose. Repression is irresponsible, and therefore repression itself is irrepressible. Private powers acting as public powers, monopolies, boycotts, big shops, publishing syndicates, and similar things do, in fact, inflict restriction which we should not allow the State or the Church to inflict. But even the most earnest eleutheromaniac may allow himself a day-dream of abstract possibilities. And, if we agree that the State must not attack expression with the old weapon of punishment, we might toy with the fancy of attacking it with the new method of monetary rating. Nobody now wishes men to be tortured for talking nonsense, but they might be taxed for talking nonsense. Indeed, in these days, when so many schools give Lessons in Citizenship, most people seem to be so vague about such things that they would hardly know the difference. A citizen can hardly distinguish between a tax and a fine, except that the fine is generally much lighter.

Of course, there is a sort of paradox in taxation, anyhow. In such a tax, there is often the notion of checking something, and yet the hope that it will not be checked. A lover of birds might wish to have a tax on cats, with the idea that there would be fewer cats. But the statesman imposing the tax would presumably hope that the streets would be thronged with thousands and thousands of cats, each bringing its little subscription to the embarrassed Exchequer. Now, it seems illogical to wish to moderate the influx of cats and not to wish to moderate the influence of tigers. Yet it is very unlikely that the State will ever put a tax on tigers; because, alas! these beautiful creatures are rare in our English lanes and still rarer by our English firesides. Any lover of nature who has seen the first tiger appearing somewhat prematurely in early spring will almost certainly (if he survives) write a letter to the newspapers about it, as an event even more exceptional than the cuckoo. There is not enough money in tigers to make it worth while to tax them; so that in cases of that sort we cannot act upon the principle of the check or public protection alone.

But, for the sake of argument, we will leave out in this light speculation all the purely economic considerations arising from the width of the taxable area. It would obviously be impossible, as well as iniquitous, to tax the sort of remarks that are made as a part of the ordinary round of social life. To impose even a light tax on every repetition of the expression "It's a fine day," or "It's a strange world," or "Nothing doing in the City," or "Pint of bitter, Miss," or any of those great pivotal utterances on which all human life revolves, would be outside the sphere of practical politics. The sort of talk to be taxed must be something sufficiently wide-spread to be worth taxing, but something sufficiently superfluous to suffer even a prohibitive tax without the world being much the worse.

In fact, the tax on talk may well follow the rough distinction already recognized about necessities and luxuries. The pint of bitter, the word about the weather, are necessities. For the poor, beer is a necessity, as tobacco is very nearly a necessity; it is only for people sufficiently rich and fashionable to be faddists that either is really a luxury. In the same way, a certain sort of primeval and eternal gossip is a necessity. But there are all sorts of things that are not necessities. The mention of mere names seen in the newspapers; the oppressive presence of science, combined with the absence of knowledge; the habit we all have of talking about what we do not understand; all these might be smartly interrupted by the tax-collector coming round as the tram conductor comes round for fares.

For instance, suppose everybody was instantly fined a small sum for mentioning the name of Einstein. The money would be refunded if he could afterwards demonstrate, to a committee of mathematicians and astronomers, that he knew anything about Einstein. What a salutary check it would be on the public speaker, criticizing the Budget or the latest economic panacea, who would be just in the very act of saying: "Makes the brain reel. Reminds one of--" and would sharply catch himself up, with a holy fear of losing half a crown, and hastily substitute _Alice in Wonderland._ On the other hand, it would be equally valuable in arresting the headlong pen of the journalist announcing Brighter Brotherhood or reverently praising The Revolt of Youth: "The new year opens before us new faiths, new ideals, and the young will no longer be content with the dead shibboleths of creed and dogma. New light has been thrown on all the daily problems of life by the great scientific genius of our time; the name of--": and then he will stop suddenly and be most horribly stumped, for Einstein is the only man of science he has heard of, and Einstein costs two-and-six.

It is a luxury, in the strict sense of a superfluity, to mention Einstein. He is not a part of any ordinary human argument, because any ordinary human being does not know where his argument leads or what it can really be used to prove. It may be, for all I know, a perfectly good argument for those who really follow it; but those who drag in the name without the argument cannot know what an argument means. We should not be interfering with the freedom of debate by eliminating it, for the men who only deal in such unknown quantities are not debating. They are simply showing off. The distinguished name is stuck into the sentence as the diamond tie-pin is stuck into the tie, for the sake of swagger or snobbishness. And diamond tie-pins are quite legitimate objects for a tax on luxuries. Of course, the argument does not only apply to science; there are any number of cases of the same sort of pedantry in literature. There are certain quotations from poetry which are always dragged in as if they were texts of Scripture, professedly to prove something that obviously proves itself, but really to prove that the writer is well acquainted with the Hundred Best Authors.

The tax would have a refreshing and reviving effect upon literature, because it would drive writers to think of a few new examples. The man who writes to show that Science was always persecuted in the past will be driven to the dreadful necessity of writing about somebody else besides Galileo. And who knows what a new life of brighter and brisker research into the elements of history the change may not mean for him! The man who is writing to show that poets always die young, or are killed by the critics, if he is absolutely forbidden (at the rate of five shillings) to say that the _Quarterly_ was tartarly and ask, "What are Keats?" might discover all sorts of neglected poets; or, better still, discover that there were some poets who were not neglected. Those who can never separate Spain from the Spanish Inquisition, or America from the similar institution of Prohibition, or Russia from the German Jew called Karl Marx, might, at the price of a temporary tax on these topics, find out a good many other truths about these nations. They might find, for example, what Spain did in America; what America is doing in Russia; and whether all Russian peasants have really turned into German Jews.