What are some good ways to evaluate the relative burden of government finance on different groups in the US, for various periods between 1790 and 1846? I'm especially interested in state and local governments and on things other than tariffs (but tariffs are cool too).

The "groups" I am mostly interested in are "class" (based on things like levels of income/wealth/education/labor status), indigenous group, industry sector, and region.

I'm not just looking for quantitative or final answers; qualitative answers and ways to approach the question would also be welcome.

related questions: here

things I have found that seem useful:

I chose 1846 as the breakpoint because of the Walker Tariff; feel free to critique that choice.

  • 1
    The short answer is not really, not in any kind of satisfying quantitative manner. The best place to start to get a clear picture of the available data is, again, in The Rise and Fall of Wealth Taxation. That source covers a lot of ground, but it includes chapters providing a quantitative overview of major trends and will help you understand, if nothing else, the limits of our knowledge.
    – FMc
    May 12, 2021 at 17:11

1 Answer 1


This is a marxist answer. All answers will be theoretically seated to a question like this, which asks complex questions about theoretically situated categories (purporting to represent real lived experience). Moreover this question has a moral element which requires a theoretical positioning to respond to. The theoretical positioning of marxism is that all morality is superstructural: ie, not final instance determinant, and therefore not worth building theoretical categories on. Marxism's answer to what a burthen is in capitalism is to talk in marxian value terms: i.e., dollars as a proportion of expendible dollars.

To compare worth over time requires a theoretical response. Some theoretical responses are "Price of Labour in Time priced as Beer relativities" ie: a commodity consumption bundle which is deemed morally normal ("normative"): such as "bread, beer, books" (note absence of rent) and then the commodity bundle is either transferred directly, or morally transformed by later researchers to "bread, beer, books, PS1 games downloaded on steam." This produces a time price series which I, and others, believe represent "what does labour cost to capital?" I believe this because consumption commodity bundles were used to reference set the Australian price series used to determine wages for 70 years, and the only revisions to the series were to reduce the amount of things workers got to enjoy.

Another time series is the %GDP/capita. This is the proportion of Gross Domestic Product (ie: proportion of things and services) per person. So in 1800 if we made $10 across the United States and there were 10 people and a cat cost $1 a cat would be 100% of GDP/capita or the total output of one persons' worth of product per year. If in 2000 we made $200 across the United States and there were 20 people and a cat cost $1 a cat would be 10% of GDP/capita or the total output of 1/10th of one persons' worth of product per year. %GDP/capita emphasises the increasing rate of capitalisation (ie: means of production) and the role of profit. %GDP/capita emphasises the commonality of all people, not their ownership of means of production.

You could use both of these measures to make a time series comparison of the relative costs compared to other economic make-ups of the United States. Because as all burthens are normative, ie moral, the only way to evaluate them is time comparatively, or look at people shooting other people over relative burdens.

To breakdown class there are a number of ways. I'd suggest drawing out all non-slave wage income earners as "proletarians (free)" due to their similar consumption bundle. Slave wage income earners ("unfree labour" as contemporary research puts it) are more difficult to impute. You'd need to split the burden across small holding masters and great holding (plantation / latifunda) masters. And impute based on the impact on the master's capital position. And that assumes that there would be an impact. Probably the best metric would be increase in internal sale rates after tarrif changes: ie: unaffordable wage costs result in liquidation of the unfree labourer.

For owners of things ("bourgeoisie") a number of sectoral breaks should be made. Haute/gross bourgeois and petits/kleine bourgeois should be seperated. Basically the criteria here is "modern scale of production," rather than "owner/operator" as in classic petits-bourgeois. Small holders and family farms are identical in relation to tarrifs due to their lack of capacity to influence politics or to change production. They're productively locked. Bankruptcy rates would be a good indicator.

Haute/gross bourgeois should be sectorally divided. Locked production such as cotton latifunda need to be viewed separately to New York finance capital or Boston shipping capital. This is because the markets they engage in will relate differently to tarrifs. In some instances (latifunda slavery) the capital is locked and non-transferrable which leads to more political and less market responses. New York finance capital can just ditch ancilliary investment in cotton and switch to corn or steer or tobacco.

So sectoral division of large capital to mirror market specific tarrifs, bankruptcy proxy on small capital, draw out two groups of proletarians based on their freedom of movement. Use two proxies to represent capital's interest over time (cheap labour) to labour's interest over time (how much of all of it do we get). Compare to modern capitalisation structures.

  • Measuringworth.com
  • Thanks! A few questions about that:
    – capet
    Sep 26, 2020 at 22:57
  • 1. You seem to be suggesting that looking at discrete events (like the introduction of new taxes) would be useful, and that I could try to evaluate outcomes (like bankruptcy rates and prices) before and after the event. Do I have that right? If so, do you have any ideas for specific well-documented events (or groups of events) and the associated outcomes?
    – capet
    Sep 26, 2020 at 22:57
  • 2. You recommend as an example that "small holders and family farms are identical"; I assume you mean that their sort of institutional position is identical, right? Not necessarily that they are affected in the same way by any tax?
    – capet
    Sep 26, 2020 at 22:57
  • 3. If I come up with a way to value different things, perhaps using a method similar to your beer relativities, one approach that I could then take is to see how much value was taxed/fined/whatevered away from different groups according to that metric, correct? Again if I understand correctly, this would be an oversimplification because it would ignore the dynamic effects of the taxes/whatevers. If you agree so far, then a. Do you know of any good time series describing what types of fines/taxes were collected during this period?
    – capet
    Sep 26, 2020 at 23:05
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    I will roll these comments in in a day or two as I’ve run out of block time today. Sep 26, 2020 at 23:42

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