CUSTOMS DUTIES, the portion of the revenue of the United Kingdom derived from a tax on imports. The origin of the term is connected with the long conflict between the crown and parliament as to the right of taxation. To meet the claims made by the house of commons of the exclusive right to vote all supplies, it used to be maintained that there were certain duties en exportation and on importation to which the crown had acquired a right by custom, and after the power of parliament over this branch of taxation had been fully established, it retained its old name. This tax, after the excise came in force, was always applicable distinctively to goods changing place. There were customs not only upon things leaving and things coming to the British dominions, but also upon commodities transferred from one part to another. In Scotland, the duty on commodities imported into any town from a foreign country was called the great custom; and the duty charged by a burglial corporation on commodities coining from the country districts within its walls was called the small or petty customs. At present, the term C. D. applies solely to the tax levied on commodities imported from abroad.
The tax on imports was of old a simple percentage, familiarly known to the readers of English history as " tonnage and poundage," from the method in which it was adjusted to heavy and light goods. Subsequently, however, the notion prevailed that the C. D. might not only be a source of revenue. but an instrument for furthering the various thories about protecting this trade and discouraging that, which prevailed from time to time. When it was held as an established principle, with regard to any trade, that the customs should he adjusted in such a manner as either to aid or to impede it, the regulations regarding that trade alone would have complexity enough for a whole code of customs laws, the object of which was mere revenue. The more complex the arrangements, the more open were they to the machinations of the smuggler or defrauder, and consequently regulation had to be added to regulation, till the whole became a chaos. Iu some instances, the duties were such as to act as a prohibition to importation; in others, merely as a heavy increase on the price. In either case, there would be relaxations in favorof the produce of our own colonies, and perhaps of some favored country with which we had a treaty of reciprocity. Then, to encourage our own trade and manufactures, it was considered politic to allow goods to be imported for exportation abroad, or to be imported for the purpose of being worked up into a manufacture, and there would be a difference between the extent of encouragement granted to that manufacture, if it were for home consumption or for exportation. The method in which such relaxation was accomplished was at first by charging the duty on the importation, and afterwards repaying it by what was called a "drawback;" and this was subsequently accomplished in an easier method for the importer, by allowing him to " bond "the goods in the government warehouses until the duty was paid, or the conditions which dispensed with it fulfilled. See WAREIIOUSTNO SYSTEM.
In the year 1825, the laws of the British customs were consolidated into eleven acts of parliament—the fruit of the exertions of the late Mr. Deacon Hume. It will give a conception of the confused and cumbersome condition into which the system had merged, to note that the number of acts repealed on the occasion of the consolida tion was 443, and it was afterwards discovered that several had been omitted. There was still a long list of C. D., many of them intended for purposes beyond the mere collection of revenue but the free-trade I4gislation of 110 cleared away a great mass of this burden on the commerce of the country, and almost every year has contributed to the abbreviation of the list of duties or tariff (q.v.). One by one, articles of solid food have been exempted; and nearly the whole customs revenue is now derived from tea, coffee, dried fruits, spirits, wine, and tobacco. Thus simplified and reduced, the C. D. supply an enormous amount of revenue. The British revenue for the year end .. 31st Mar., 1878, was 81,598,435, and to this amount the customs contributed 1!,2'0, 196, 624. The defects which, according to the doctrines now prevalent in this country, are to be avoided in a code of customs, are-1. The prohibition or discouragement of the importation of useful commodities; 2. Encouragement to the smuggler; and B. Loss of revenue by raising the duty to a height which discourages importation. Under the first head, see ANTI-CORN-LAW LEAGUE, CORN LAWS, and The second is connected with the view that on stimulants the duty cannot be too high, even though it should greatly impede their importation—the duty on tobacco is, in some instances, as high as 900per cent on the value of the article. But then, if the smuggling trade be encouraged, the stimulant is not only obtained without any contribution to the revenue, but the people become demoralized, and trained to crime. Under the third head, a memorable example is furnished by the sugar-duties of France, which were so high that the native agriculturists could make sugar from beet-root a little cheaper than the duty-paid foreign sugar. Hence the article was dear, but had it not been for the height of the duty, it would not have been worth while- to make it at home, and at the same time there arose little or no revenue from it.
The collection and general management of the C. D. is under one great central department of the government in London. The office of receiver-general was, in 1871, united with that of the comptroller-general, and there is a fourfold division into the paymaster's, examiner's, accountant's, and auditor's branches.