The Fiscal Controversy

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

The Fiscal Controversy is a letter written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in The Farnham, Haslemere and Hindhead Herald on 30 december 1905.

The Fiscal Controversy

Sir, — I see that Mr. Methuen still persuades himself that the angels are on the side of the Free Importers. Why not, if it makes him happy? But it is a little unkind to our forefathers and to all the continental nations. In our solitary virtue we are like the recalcitrant juryman who declared that he had never met eleven such obstinate men before.

At present according to our highly moral regulations, diamonds, velvet, silk and motor cars come free into the country, while tea and sugar are heavily taxed. I suppose there is some virtuous principle at stake in this, and that it proves our standard to be higher than that of our neighbours, but on the face of it it seems a little strange.

Mr. Methuen says that the change will make manufacturers richer. If he can show any possible process by which manufacturers can be enriched without a corresponding advantage coming to their workmen, he will have rendered a service to political economy. Manufacturers can only flourish by turning out more stuff, this means more demand for labour, and that in turn regulates the price which the worker gets.

To show that the German worker, after 25 years of commercial life, is not quite up to the British standard, which is the fruit of centuries, is beside the question. The only fair comparison is between the German under a tariff and the German under free trade. He has tried both, and there can be no possible comparison. Both the nation and the individual have prospered best under a tariff.

Our own rates of wages, quoted in the Blue Book, are unfortunately as illusive as those of the man who proudly boasted that he got 7s. 6d. a day, but admitted, on enquiry, that he only got one day's work a week. In the woollen trade, which is that with which I am best acquainted, about a quarter each year may be deducted for half-time, and most trades suffer in a similar manner. The total export, and the number of hands employed, have sunk steadily for 20 years, in this, the oldest of British industries.

The man who makes anything, be he a manufacturer, an artisan, or a farmer, by virtue of the fact that he adds to our stock of wealth, has, in my opinion, more right to consideration than the consumer, who may be a mere parasite and drone. The country cannot do without the former, and very often could dispense with the latter. But I do not think there is any real conflict of interests, for if you look after the trunk, all the branches and leaves will look after themselves.

The very moral results of our present system are that we have, on the authority of the Radical leader, twelve million people on the edge of hunger, and far the largest rate of emigration of any industrial country. What is the state of morality or civilisation among these submerged masses? They are the fruits of sixty years' competition with the sweated labour of Europe, and of the destruction of trade after trade which have been ruined by causes which our stupid pedantry has prevented us from arresting. The skilled worker, be he silk weaver, tin plate worker, glass bottle blower, or whatever trade you like, sinks down, his occupation gone, and joins the sediment down below. In Germany, no trade could ever be ruined, because the tariff wall will always ensure a home market of 60 million people.

One word before I finish as to that plausible supposition that for all the articles brought in and depriving our people of their work, something goes out in return. Nothing of the kind. If it were true, our exports and imports would balance instead of the latter being nearly double. Half our imports represent payment of interest on capital, and for services as carrier on the sea. We can take this in any form. It will come in the easiest. If we make manufactured articles difficult (by taxing them), it will come in food and raw material, which is what we want. At present the poor man's work is sacrificed to the interest of the capitalist, and will be so long as we admit free what we can ourselves make. There was never a more democratic movement than that of Tariff Reform.

Mr. Methuen says that the price of everything will be increased. I do not admit that ten per cent. on manufactures would increase the price by anything. I hope that internal competition would keep the price where it is. But suppose, for argument's sake, that everything did increase ten per cent., that ten per cent. is kept in the national money-box, and goes to alleviate taxation, so you get it all back again. In America there is no income tax and little direct taxation of any kind — as a result of their tariff.

I shall be away until after the election, so it is not out of want of courtesy if I do not answer any further letters on this subject.

Yours faithfully,