TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE ARTIFICIAL GLOOM OF THE BUDGETS.
MR. LOWE must take care that he does not overdo those 1 anticipations of evil which it is well for a prudent financier to indulge when he calculates the revenue of each coming year. It is an excellent thing for a householder not to be too sanguine, not to let his hopes overshoot the reality in estimating his gains, and no one will deny that Mr. Lowe has never sinned in the direction of too bright anticipations. He has never forgotten the possibility of a great reverse. He has carefully discounted the adverse influences which might affect his calculations, and so prepared for himself and the House of Commons annual surprises of an agreeable nature when comparing his actual receipts with his anticipations. In 1870, it was found that the receipts of revenue had been more than two millions sterling in excess of his calculation of 1869; in 1871, the revenue receipts were rather more than two millions and a quarter in excess of his anticipations of 1870; in 1872, his receipts were all but two millions and a quarter in excess of his anticipations of 1871; and in 1873, it seems that his receipts were (within £17,000) a good five millions in excess of his anticipations of 1872. In other words, take his four separate Budgets collectively, and he has anticipated a revenue less than that which he has actually received by eleven millions and a half sterling. And no doubt it has been chiefly through such excesses of the actual over the anticipated revenue that we have been enabled to pay off the rather inconsiderable amount of Debt which we have paid off. Moreover, the Times is so delighted with the convenient results of Mr. Lowe's illusory gloom, and the comfortable surpluses it manages to give us, that it actually advocates Mr. Lowe's esti- mating a positive decrease on the revenue-returns of 1872-73, in providing for the financial exigencies of 1873-74, and suggests that he might take an anticipated decline of a million sterling in the revenue as a prudent basis of calculation for next year. Now when we remember that this was the precise policy pursued by Mr. Lowe in 1871, when he estimated a decrease in almost every branch of the revenue, on the ground that the year 1870-71 had been unusually prosperous, and that the result proved in 1872 to be all but two millions and a quarter above the calculation, and that that year was the year of the revolt of the Commune and of the shock to com- merce which immediately succeeded the great Franco-German war, it is plain enough that if Mr. Lowe follows the same course again, and instead of giving the revenue credit for its normal expansion, attributes to it an equal tendency to contract, he will hardly be able to disguise at all events from himself that he is "making believe very much," and only affecting gloom he does not feel, in order that he may entrap him- self and the House of Commons into providing a surplus for the reduction of Debt, under the disguise of an insurance fund against an improbable and perhaps purely fanciful danger. It is true that the Times justifies this by pointing out that "in the September quarter the Excise showed an increase of £758,000 on the corresponding quarter of the former year ; in the December quarter, an increase of £605,000; in the March quarter, an increase of £461,000 only. The September quarter of the Post Office showed an increase of £88,000, the December quarter an increase of £22,000, the March quarter a decrease of £40,000 ;"—whence it deduces the " significant " inference that the present tendency of the revenue is downwards. But the argument is nought. Take the Customs and Telegraphs, instead of the Excise and the Post Office, and you
would have just the contrary inference. You would then remark on the " significant " fact that whereas in the September quarter the Customs showed only an increase of £87,000 over the corresponding quarter of the former year, in the December quarter it showed an increase of £125,000, and in the March quarter an increase of no less than £282,000; and that whereas in the September quarter the Telegraph re- venue showed a positive falling-off of £5,000 on the correspond- ing quarter of the former year, in the December quarter it showed an increase of £100,000, and in the March quarter an increase of £110,000. Surely these " significant " facts may be set off against those, and it is fair to suppose that very little argument can be drawn at all from the mere comparisons of the yield of special sources of revenue in "corresponding quarters ;" while the steady expansion of the revenue from year to year is a normal fact, subject to exceptions so rare and special that there is no sort of pretence for the make-belief that we shall, under any ordinary circumstances, receive a smaller
revenue next year than that which we have received this, nor, indeed, a revenue of only equal amount. The practical and rea- sonable estimate is that, if the taxes remain the same, the revenue of the year now beginning will certainly be considerably greater than that of the year just expired. The Times's carefully affected gloom is not warranted by the facts of the case • nor- has Mr. Lowe's dramatic gloonsever been so warranted. I four years' Budgets he has under-estimated his, revenue at the' average rate of very nearly three millions sterling per year,. and though the result may have been beneficial, inasmuch as it has enabled him to cancel Debt, yet is it not in every way more manly and more worthy of British straightforwardness. to look the facts straight in the face, and provide a definite sum every year for the reduction of Debt, instead of playing this childish game of affecting to believe ourselves less likely .to be prosperous than we are, in order, with less effort to ourselves and by the help of a kind of strategic. operation against our own weaknesses, to gain the means of repaying what we had borrowed ? It seems to us perfectly evident that this finesse will defeat itself. Like the boy who cried " Wolf ! " till no one believed him, the Chan- cellor of the Exchequer will cry out that the rate of increase in our revenue is diminishing, or even that the sum-total itself is likely to diminish, till no one will believe him, and he will fail to believe himself. We may fairly allow for mischances, but if we allow for no set-off in the shape or chances in our favour, the estimates formed on such a principle will lose credit, and the danger is that we shall be too much inclined to go into the other extreme, and out of contempt for- this systematic overcolouring of the dark side of the question, take a far more sanguine view than reason and experience can- justify. Like the man who blacked himself all over to play Othello, Mr. Lowe may be in real danger of giving so sable a. colour to his Budget, that his excess of zeal shall only excite a laugh, instead of disposing to a tragic tone of mind. It is time we recurred to the manly course of making the most accurate estimate in our power,—though, of course, keeping the balance on the rigtit side,—and ceasing to trick oup- selves into the means of diminishing the burden on our posterity. We have always been the strenuous advocate of the policy of paying Debt in prosperous times, and so diminishing the cares and perhaps preventing the calamities of generations which may not inherit all our resources, but- cannot choose but inherit all the obligations we like to trans- mit to them. But strongly as we advocate that course, we- do not think that Parliament should be treated like a chilli who is told to shut its eyes while a treat is being prepared for it, and then is expected to be delightfully surprised at beholding an entertainment all the minutest preparations for which it has heard.
We trust, then, that Mr. Lowe will return to the simpler pre- cedents of former Budgets, and so prepare his Estimates for next year as to provide for a surplus that shall not be likely to exceed the surplus he estimates by more than a quarter orhalf a million, at most. It is of the first consequence that Parliament should feel that the accounts presented are real accounts, and not. mere scenic disguises for results secretly expected from the very first to turn out differently. If once the notion prevails that Chancellors of the Exchequer produce strategical accounts intended to obtain by a side wind results which Parliament is- not likely to favour when openly declared, there will be great danger of very disorganising attacks on the Ministerial finance. Politic under-estimates will be met by open incredulity ; the House will be told, as the senior Member for Brighton (Mr.. White) has more than once told the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, that the esoteric expectations of the Treasury are very different from the exoteric professions of expecta- tion ; and the feeling of Parliamentary deference for the sense of Ministerial responsibility will be gravely and dangerously weakened. Let Mr. Lowe appeal to us as heartily as he likes to do something more serious towards the diminution of the Debt. In prosperous times like the present, let us transform perpetual into terminable annuities as. often as the market will bear the process. We will sustain him cordially if he persists in the heroic policy attributed to, him of paying the Alabama indemnity out of the re- venues of 1873-4, and keeping the surplus of the past year intact for the reduction of Debt. But let us not he asked again deliberately to hoodwink ourselves as to the probable yield of the revenue during another year. The policy of self-deception can never answer in the long run. It is a policy which seriously threatens Ministerial authority and undermines all wholesome Parliamentary discipline.