David Ricardo (1817)

On The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation

Chapter 23: On Bounties on Production

It may not be uninstructive to consider the effects of a bounty on the production of raw produce and other commodities, with a view to observe the application of the principles which I have been endeavouring to establish, with regard to the profits of stock, the division of the annual produce of the land and labour, and the relative prices of manufactures and raw produce. In the first place let us suppose that a tax was imposed on all commodities for the purpose of raising a fund to be employed by Government, in giving a bounty on the production of corn. As no part of such a tax would be expended by Government, and as all that was received from one class of the people, would be returned to another, the nation collectively would neither be richer nor poorer, from such a tax and bounty. It would be readily allowed, that the tax on commodities by which the fund was created, would raise the price of the commodities taxed; all the consumers of those commodities, therefore, would contribute towards that fund; in other words, their natural or necessary price being raised, so would, too, their market price. But for the same reason that the natural price of those commodities would be raised, the natural price of corn would be lowered; before the bounty was paid on production, the farmers obtained as great a price for their corn as was necessary to repay them their rent and their expenses, and afford them the general rate of profits; after the bounty, they would receive more than that rate, unless the price of corn fell by a sum at least equal to the bounty. The effect then of the tax and bounty, would be to raise the price of commodities in a degree equal to the tax levied on them, and to lower the price of corn by a sum equal to the bounty paid. It will be observed, too, that no permanent alteration could be made in the distribution of capital between agriculture and manufactures, because as there would be no alteration, either in the amount of capital or population, there would be precisely the same demand for bread and manufactures. The profits of the farmer would be no higher than the general level, after the fall in the price of corn; nor would the profits of the manufacturer be lower after the rise of manufactured goods; the bounty then would not occasion any more capital to be employed on the land in the production of corn, nor any less in the manufacture of goods. But how would the interest of the landlord be affected? On the same principles that a tax on raw produce would lower the corn rent of land, leaving the money rent unaltered, a bounty on production, which is directly the contrary of a tax, would raise corn rent, leaving the money rent unaltered.(57*) With the same money rent the landlord would have a greater price to pay for his manufactured goods, and a less price for his corn; he would probably therefore be neither richer nor poorer.

Now, whether such a measure would have any operation on the wages of labour, would depend on the question, whether the labourer, in purchasing commodities, would pay as much towards the tax as he would receive from the effects of the bounty, in the low price of his food. If these two quantities were equal, wages would continue unaltered; but if the commodities taxed were not those consumed by the labourer, his wages would fall, and his employer would be benefited by the difference. But this is no real advantage to his employer; it would indeed operate to increase the rate of his profits, as every fall of wages must do; but in proportion as the labourer contributed less to the fund from which the bounty was paid, and which, let it be remembered, must be raised, his employer must contribute more; in other words, he would contribute as much to the tax by his expenditure, as he would receive in the effects of the bounty and the higher rate of profits together. He obtains a higher rate of profits to requite him for his payment, not only of his own quota of the tax, but of his labourer's also; the remuneration which he receives for his labourer's quota, appears in diminished wages, or, which is the same thing, in increased profits; the remuneration for his own appears in the diminution in the price of the corn which he consumes, arising from the bounty.

Here it will be proper to remark the different effects produced on profits from an alteration in the real labour, or natural, value of corn, and an alteration in the relative value of corn, from taxation and from bounties. If corn is lowered in price by an alteration in its labour price, not only will the rate of the profits of stock be altered, but the condition of the capitalist will be improved. With greater profits, he will have no more to pay for the objects on which those profits are expended; which does not happen, as we have just seen, when the fall is occasioned artificially by a bounty. In the real fall in the value of corn, arising from less labour being required to produce one of the most important objects of man's consumption, labour is rendered more productive. With the same capital the same labour is employed, and an increase of productions is the result; not only then will the rate of profits be increased, but the condition of him who obtains them will be improved; not only will each capitalist have a greater money revenue, if he employs the same money capital, but also when that money is expended, it will procure him a greater sum of commodities; his enjoyments will be augmented. In the case of the bounty, to balance the advantage which he derives from the fall of one commodity, he has the disadvantage of paying a price more than proportionally high for another; he receives an increased rate of profits in order to enable him to pay this higher price; so that his real situation, though not deteriorated, is in no way improved: though he gets a higher rate of profits, he has no greater command of the produce of the land and labour of the country. When the fall in the value of corn is brought about by natural causes, it is not counteracted by the rise of other commodities; on the contrary, they fall from the raw material falling from which they are made: but when the fall in corn is occasioned by artificial means, it is always counteracted by a real rise in the value of some other commodity, so that if corn be bought cheaper, other commodities are bought dearer.

This then is a further proof, that no particular disadvantage arises from taxes on necessaries, on account of their raising wages and lowering the rate of profits. Profits are indeed lowered, but only to the amount of the labourer's portion of the tax, which must at all events be paid either by his employer or by the consumer of the produce of the labourer's work. Whether you deduct £50 per annum from the employer's revenue, or add £50 to the prices of the commodities which he consumes, can be of no other consequence to him or to the community, than as it may equally affect all other classes. If it be added to the prices of the commodity, a miser may avoid the tax by not consuming; if it be indirectly deducted from every man's revenue, he cannot avoid paying his fair proportion of the public burthens.

A bounty on the production of corn then, would produce no real effect on the annual produce of the land and labour of the country, although it would make corn relatively cheap, and manufactures relatively dear. But suppose now that a contrary measure should be adopted, that a tax should be raised on corn for the purpose of affording a fund for a bounty on the production of commodities.

In such case, it is evident that corn would be dear, and commodities cheap; labour would continue at the same price if the labourer were as much benefited by the cheapness of commodities as he was injured by the dearness of corn; but if he were not, wages would rise, and profits would fall, while money rent would continue the same as before; profits would fall, because, as we have just explained, that would be the mode in which the labourer's share of the tax would be paid by the employers of labour. By the increase of wages the labourer would be compensated for the tax which he would pay in the increased price of corn; by not expending any part of his wages on the manufactured commodities, he would receive no part of the bounty; the bounty would be all received by the employers, and the tax would be partly paid by the employed; a remuneration would be made to the labourers, in the shape of wages, for this increased burden laid upon them, and thus the rate of profits would be reduced. In this case too there would be a complicated measure producing no national result whatever.

In considering this question, we have purposely left out of our consideration the effect of such a measure on foreign trade; we have rather been supposing the case of an insulated country, having no commercial connexion with other countries. We have seen that as the demand of the country for corn and commodities would be the same, whatever direction the bounty might take, there would be no temptation to remove capital from one employment to another: but this would no longer be the case if there were foreign commerce, and that commerce were free. By altering the relative value of commodities and corn, by producing so powerful an effect on their natural prices, we should be applying a strong stimulus to the exportation of those commodities whose natural prices were lowered, and an equal stimulus to the importation of those commodities whose natural prices were raised, and thus such a financial measure might entirely alter the natural distribution of employments; to the advantage indeed of the foreign countries, but ruinously to that in which so absurd a policy was adopted.

Contents | Notes | Political Economy Archive