Taxation Is the Art of Plucking the Goose without Making It Squeal

Jean-Baptiste Colbert? Anne Robert Jacques Turgot? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Governments face resistance and resentment when they attempt to raise funds through taxation. Apparently, a French wit crafted the following vivid figurative expression. Here are two versions:

  • Taxation is the art of plucking the goose without making it squeal.
  • The art of taxation is procuring feathers from a goose with the least amount of hissing.

Would you please explore the provenance of this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared within a 1766 letter about governance sent from the French economist and statesman Anne Robert Jacques Turgot to the Scottish philosopher and economist David Hume. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

… vous savez aussi tout comme moi quel est le grand but de tous gouvernemens de la terre—Soumission et argent. On cherche, comme on dit, à plumer la poule sans la faire crier—or, ce sont les propriétaires qui crient, et l’on a toujours mieux aimé les attaquer indirectment, parce qu’alors ils ne s’aperçoivent du mal que quand la chose a passé en droit…

The letter above was published in 1849 many years after it was written within a collection called “Letters of Eminent Persons Addressed to David Hume”. A translation of the 1766 letter into English appeared in the 1914 book “Reflections on the Formation and the Distribution of Riches” by Turgot: 2

You know, also, as well as I do, what is the great aim of all the governments of the earth: obedience and money. The object is, as the saying goes, to pluck the hen without making it cry out; but it is the proprietors who cry out, and the government has always preferred to attack them indirectly, because then they do not perceive the harm until after the matter has become law…

As indicated in the translation, the figurative phrase about plucking was already circulating, but Turgot who lived between 1727 and 1781 popularized its application to governments seeking funds.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The phrase “pluck the fowl without making it cry out” meant embezzlement in the 1799 book titled “Biographiana” by William Seward. The volume consisted of a large number of biographical sketches one of which discussed a French government official named “St. Preuil” who was accused of peculation. He attempted to excuse his actions by displaying a letter of instruction that seemed to condone his thievery: 3

Brave and noble St. Preuil, live by your wits, pluck the fowl without making it cry out. Do that which many other persons in your situation have been used to do in their governments. Cut and carve for yourself. You may do entirely as you please.

In 1867 the statement of Turgot was recalled in a volume of “Chambers’s Encyclopaedia: A Dictionary of Universal Knowledge for the People” within the entry dedicated to the subject of “Taxation”: 4

How to make taxation productive, is a vast and complicated practical science. Turgot, one of the wisest of financiers, called it the art of plucking the goose without making it cry. The most ingenious devices to this end, however, have often, in practice, met with counteracting difficulties. It was supposed that indirect taxation—that is, a duty levied on articles before they reach the consumer, must, in a civilised and orderly country, be almost inexhaustible.

In 1876 a newspaper in Washington D.C. said this: 5

M. Turgot, the wisest of French financiers, likened taxation to the art of plucking the goose without making it cry.

In 1877 a newspaper in Nashville, Tennessee credited Turgot with a different phrasing of the expression: 6

If the idea had occurred to Turgot his aphorism concerning the art of taxation—”the art of plucking the goose without making it scream,” might never have been said.

In 1884 the “Cyclopaedia of Political Science, Political Economy, and of the Political History of the United States” credited a more elaborate version of the saying to French politician Jean-Baptiste Colbert who lived between 1619 and 1683: 7

. . . as Colbert, the celebrated finance minister of Louis XIV., is reported to have expressed it, in saying, “that the act of taxation consists in so plucking the goose [i.e., the people] as to procure the largest quantity of feathers with the least possible amount of squealing.”

In 1888 “The Popular Science Monthly” ascribed a variant with “squawking” to Colbert: 8

. . . the maxim attributed to Colbert, that the perfection of taxation consists in so plucking the goose—i.e., the people—as to procure the greatest amount of feathers with the least possible amount of squawking.

In conclusion, the expression about taxation was popularized by Anne Robert Jacques Turgot based on the 1766 letter and later citations; however, the plucking phrase was already in circulation before Turgot employed it. The linkage to Jean-Baptiste Colbert is currently not well-supported. Colbert died in 1683, and he received credit in 1884; this long delay reduces credibility. Perhaps the names of the two French economic thinkers were confused with one another. One may hope that future researchers will discover illuminating citations.

Image Notes: Image showing the seal of the United States Internal Revenue Service. Image showing part of the 1040 form used in the U.S. to pay personal income taxes.

(Great thanks to Tonia Cistulli, Edward Troup, and Fred Shapiro whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Shapiro pointed to citations in 1919 and 1888.)

Notes:

  1. 1849, Letters of Eminent Persons Addressed to David Hume, Date: September 7, 1766, Letter from: Turgot, Letter to: David Hume, Start Page 144, Quote Page 148, William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1914, Reflections on the Formation and the Distribution of Riches by Turgot, (Quotation is in appendix and not in main text), Section: Appendix: Excerpts from Turgot’s Correspondence, Letter from Turgot to Hume on September 7, 1766, Start Page 102, Quote Page 103, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1799, Biographiana by William Seward, Volume 1, Entry: St. Preuil, Start Page 231, Quote Page 232, Printed for J. Johnson at St, Paul’s Church-Yard, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1867, Chambers’s Encyclopaedia: A Dictionary of Universal Knowledge for the People, Volume 9, Entry: Tax, Taxation, Start Page 316, Quote Page 317, W and R. Chambers, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1876 October 31, The National Republican, Untitled article, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Washington, District of Columbia. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1877 April 28, The Daily American (The Tennessean), Licensed Drinking, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Nashville, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1884, Cyclopaedia of Political Science, Political Economy, and of the Political History of the United States by the Best American and European Writers, Edited by John J. Lalor, Volume 3: Oath to Zollverein, Entry: Principles of Taxation by David A. Wells, Start Page 870, Quote Page 871, Melbert B. Cary & Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1888 January, The Popular Science Monthly, Governmental Interference with Production and Distribution by Hon. David A. Wells, Start Page 289, Quote Page 293, D. Appleton and Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link