TAX-GATHERING IN HIGH PLACES.
IT is certainly a beneficent arrangement that just as Parlia- ment closes gooseberies come in. We do not so much allude to the pleasant fruit which the barrow-men are now offering in such profusion in every street, as to those wonder- ful stories with which able editors at this vacant season fill their columns, and which may as a class very fairly be named after that one famous story of the gigantic gooseberry which is . the type and origin of them all. Indeed the term may be used in a very much larger sense, and include every topic which the daily papers introduce to our notice at this period of the year at a length rather excessive for its real import- ance. In this sense poor Mr. Trevor, the Controller of the Legacy Duties, may be regarded as a gooseberry. No doubt he and his duties will be all the better for a little candid criticism, but one cannot help seeing that the concen- trated fire of comment to which he is just now exposed is due rather to the quietness of the time than to any peculiar immediate wickedness of his own. What would be interesting would be to know who selects grievances for our great daily contemporary, for he certainly per- forms that responsible duty very admirably. When the fiat has gone forth from an august quarter that a gooseberry is wanted, are the communications of " Vindex " and " Pater- familias" and "Cato," really examined and weighed one against the other, or does some high intelligence suggest the subject which needs criticism, and write that first incisive letter which is the sure provocative of fifty more, and a perfect peg for two or three brilliant "editorials ?" But these probably are things which no man will ever know. They are the mysteries of the Times—a secret of a particular management, and not the common property of journalism. But while we speculate curiously, not to say profanely, on the origin of this topic of the week, let us not forget to be grateful for it. The man or the newspaper who in August starts a really fine gooseberry—that is to say, a subject that is really worth discussing, and not worse suited to this month than to any other, is a public benefactor. When once the theme is announced everybody profits by it. There is no copyright as yet in such matters, and the Times cannot sue even its daily contem- poraries for pirating the design. So protesting that it is very hard on Mr. Trevor, and that we do not see why his long vacation should be spoiled more than any other man's, we shall console ourselves with the reflection that criticism will probably do him a great deal of good, and that he would not have been selected for it if he had not wanted it, though doubtless there are many other people who want it just as much. And having thus done all that is required by the most scrupulous regard for private feelings, we shall proceed freely to discuss what is really a question of genuine public interest. With respect to the particular complaints made against the System of levying the legacy duty, it is doubtful whether many of them would stand investigation. It is to be remembered that we have only heard one side, and that in the one case— that of Mr. Philips—in which we have heard both, Mr. Trevor has decidedly the best of the argument. Of the two duties demanded from Mr. Philips one became due in 1860 and the other in 1863, and as this is only the year of grace 1864 we do not see that he has much reason to complain of having old matters raked up against him. If there were the most stringent statute of limitations in the world, it could not possibly begin to run till the duty became payable, and it is by no means true that all legacy duty is payable at the date of the testator's death. Put a very simple case. A man leaves a legacy to his sister for life, and after her death to his own son. The duty on the son's reversion does not become payable till the sister's death, and she may live twenty or thirty years after her brother. How is the Crown to know when she dies ? People are so accustomed to be dunned by their creditors, that it has become a popular notion that it is a creditor's business to ask for his money; but that is by no means the theory of the law, which considers it to be the duty of the debtor to pay his debts without being asked for them. Clearly in the case put the testator's son ought to pay the duty when his aunt dies and he receives his money. Pro- bably he never gives the matter a thought,—but whose fault is that? The Crown knows nothing about the aunt's death, and therefore cannot ask for the duty; nor is it possible for the Crown to keep a look-out for the death of all the people in these kingdoms who have a life-interest in a legacy. And certainly so long as the recipient of the legacy lives there can be no hardship in his having to pay. The case of executors does, however, deserve some consideration. For let us suppose the reversioner of the legacy to die without paying the duty, we imagine that his executors would remain liable for it for ever, although they had distributed his assets. It is certainly a grievance if an executor who never knew and had no means of knowing that the duty was owing has to pay it out of his own pocket years after he has parted with the testator's property. We believe cases similar in their nature to this imaginary one are by no means uncommon, and certainly it would seem that where the duty cannot be exacted from those who have had the benefit of the legacy it ought not to be exacted at all. There might be some difficulty about framing a statute of limitations which would be just as between the Crown and its debtors, but it certainly is not insuperable. The old theory that the Sovereign is so occupied with public business that he cannot be expected to be prompt in demanding his rights had some reason in it in old times, when he collected his revenue,—rents and feudal dues,—and spent it as he pleased. But ever since the first Appropriation Bill it has been an absurd anachronism.. Horrible as it would be to infringe on the maxim that the Crown can do no wrong by attributing "lashes" to it,—a prckeeding which would probably make Sir William Black- stone turn in his grave,—we may perhaps attribute that mysterious Norman noun-substantive to Mr. Trevor without quite destroying the Constitution. The Crown has long since submitted to a Statute of Limitations in respect of lands, and though no doubt landowners have a prior claim on a British House of Commons, something ought sooner or later to be done for mere money debtors. But just as in the case of lands the Crown is allowed sixty years where ordinary people have but twenty, so we think it would probably be necessary to give it more than six, 'within which it might insist on pecu- niary claims. What, however, especially annoys people is the darkness in which the whole system of our taxation is enveloped. We have heard of a young gentleman just called to the bar who, baying entered his chambers at the middle of a quarter, found himself called on to pay inhabited house-duty for the whole of it, on the ground that the Crown could not condescend to divide the quarter. Having a good deal of time on his hands, and regarding it as a wholesome professional exercise, he determined on investigating the legality of this demand. We have reason to believe that he did not persevere. No one who has not meddled with the subject has the faintest conception of the hugger-mugger in which the whole thing is involved. You are referred back from statute to statute in an endless way, like the nursery story of the House that Jack built, and there are innumerable pit-falls in the shape of clauses intro- duced into statutes relating to subjects which have nothing to do with taxation. The Stamp Acts in force begin with the reign of William and Mary. There are summary powers- given to the Crown of which no man knows whether they apply to all taxes or only to some particular tax which has long been repealed. Solicitors and counsel know no more about it than common men. There was a tradition that a certain solicitor in Somerset House was the one living man who understood the Stamp laws, but we believe that he is
dead now. If anything can add to the disgust one feels at paying money it is the feeling that one is paying in the dark, and at Somerset House everybody pays in the dark. If any reformer wants to earn the lasting gratitude of his country let him consolidate the revenue laws.
But after all the main grievance of the public is the official temper. As Mr. Philips complains, Mr. Trevor answered him " in a very curt manner." The fact is an unexpected demand for money is always- disagreeable, and one's first idea is to parley with the demandant, and just talk the matter over a little. Then when the mind has got used to the thing we recognize the fact that we owe the money and pay it. Probably the official on first entering office is very courteous and compliant; but what happens once in a legatee's life happens to him every day and all day. He positively has not time to be explaining to everybody why he is liable, and besides it is not his business. Of the public a large proportion is stupid, and a still larger proportion, when it is asked for money, is angry and unreasonable. Then, again, some are insolent. The fact is we are rather an inso- lent people, and that is why we are so unpopular abroad. Under these circumstances is it any wonder if the official get misanthropic, and rolls himself up like a hedgehog whenever he is approached ? The insolence of office is of course proverbial, but certainly we never knew any official in England who gave himself half the airs that every policeman gives himself on the Continent. On the other hand, there is a good deal of real churlishness in our public offices, and while the persons who have business to transact remember that all Government employes are public servants, and identify them- selves with the public a little too much, the employes are apt to distinguish between the public and the individuals who compose the public a little too accurately. If the official be a big official, and really feels that he knows a deal more about the law of the subject than any one else, it is almost inevitable that he should become rather dictatorial and expect that every one is to take his word as gospel; and so the most valuable public servants may perhaps be really the most amenable to the charge of " curtness." We have no personal knowledge of Mr. Trevor, but one cannot help observing that the first of his defenders, who writes to the Times under the signature of " A Working Solicitor," in addition to the ordinary topics of palliation, suggests that " possibly " the Controller of Legacy Duties may be of "a rather ascetic temperament."
In this kind of complaints, which are as old as human nature, there is always a deal to be said on both sides. It is certain that people will try to save the expense of a soli- citor, and expect the public officials to explain to them why they are to pay, and human nature being what it is, it is eqhally certain that a good many of them will be unreasonably troublesome. This being so, it is inevitable that officials should grow crusty and refuse to become public instructors. As the officials have the power, no doubt a little critical chastisement every now and then does them good. But after all we must recollect that in the collection of the legacy duties it is the Exchequer which represents the public and not the legatees. Legatees are a small class whose interests are opposed to that of the public, and every legatee who evades the duty defrauds the residue of the taxpayers. The champion of the public is Mr. Trevor.