the cider rebellion

OldEnglishCiderToday is the anniversary of Lord Bute’s 1763 ouster from office in England. In hindsight, we can see that the error that ended this stage of his career could have served as a warning to the British government of their impending loss of the American colonies.

In Conceived in Liberty, volume 3, chapter 4 (“The British Army and the Grand Design”), Murray Rothbard tells the history of tax revolts on both sides of the pond before Americans declared independence from Britain.

For four decades, the English Whigs (liberals, in the libertarian sense) had maintained a policy of “salutary neglect” of the colonies, and “America had been allowed to flourish with a good measure of independence.”

When the Tories (conservative, in the illiberal sense) returned to power, their “Grand Design” was to strengthen and expand the imperial military with increased taxation at home and abroad. Abroad it led to the American Revolution, but it didn’t go down too well at home, either.

Lord Bute not only introduced a domestic excise tax on cider to support his expanded military budget; he “extended the enforcement of the excise from retail shops to private English homes.”

As a rule, taxpayers are more resistant to taxes they have to pay directly out of pocket to the government. My understanding from my French in-laws, for example, is that most French citizens cheat on their income taxes, and the government knows it, but rather than cracking down on the popular resistance, the French state supports itself primarily with sales tax, paid invisibly through every purchase and administered by the French merchants.

Rothbard writes, “The tax on cider was able to pass in Parliament despite the opposing coalition. But its lasting significance for America was the depth of the popular and ideological opposition that it engendered in England.”

Bute was out of office, and the colonists gained a short-term lesson in resistance from our English cousins.

Unfortunately, the long-term lesson seems to be the one learned by Anglo-American governments ever since: passive and invisible taxes meet with the least active defiance.

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