Estate taxes – or what are called inheritance taxes in the UK – have been an issue in the public sphere lately. Russell Roberts, who writes over at the Cafe Hayek blog – a fine one – has an article criticising such taxes in the New York Times, typically a bastion of Big Government “liberalism” (to use that word in its corrupted American sense). Check out the subsequent comment thread. Here are a couple of my favourites for sheer, butt-headed wrongness:
“There should be 100% confiscation of all wealth at death; except for a family owned business, not incorporated! Passing on wealth is a huge negative for society and probably and even larger negative for those who get the moola; they generally end up with pretty wasted lives! There is no value to passing on wealth except for the egos of the passees!! And there should be a liquidation of all existing foundations, trusts, and other tax avoidance schemes as well! I know so many trustees and administrators who have no economic value whatsoever; and most of these things just perpetuate the arrogance of the founders!”
“chaotican”, from New Mexico.
Here’s another, from someone called “jmfree3”:
Finally, there is the big government is intrusive arguement, which is most commonly made by cold-hearted conservatives (are there any empathetic conservatives or is it wrung out of you all in Young Republican meetings?). Wanting the most greedy people in America to be able to keep the fruits of their greed is not really defensible unless you believe, as most conservatives do, that people who cannot help themselves should be left to die in squalor before the government takes one penny from the more fortunate to help them. Fortunately, liberals care more for there fellow human beings and fight for those who cannot fight for themselves (which is how I know most Democrats in Congress are NOT liberals). After all, isn’t there something in the Bible about “as you treat the least of these”?
Okay, there are other comments from people which are more sensible, such as making the point that there are other examples, besides estate taxes, of taxing people twice. The double-taxation aspect of inheritance tax is not, in my view, the worst thing about it. Rather, it is a tax on the maker of a bequest; it effectively says, “We, the State, are going to ban you from giving all your legitimately owned money to whoever you want, and we demand that a large chunk of it should return to the State that nourishes you and protects you”. If you read the comment from “jmfree03”, that is pretty much what such people believe. They don’t, not in any rooted sense, believe in the idea of private property and respecting the wishes of the owners of said.
Now, of course, the NYT readership is not typical of US public opinion as a whole, if the recent mid-term Congressional elections are a guide. I would also wager that while there has always been a strong egalitarian strain in American life – more so than here – that it has tended to avoid a general denigration of someone just because they are born to rich parents. After all, everyone born in the USA these days is, on this basis, a very lucky person compared with say, someone born in the former Soviet empire, or large bits of Africa, for example.
I remember, many years ago before I started this blogging business, having a chat with Brian Micklethwait and we commented on the size and power of the left in parts of the US, especially in the big universities and other such places. A theory of Brian’s was that it is precisely because the US is so fabulously rich in its mostly capitalist way, that it can afford to support a large class of people inclined to attack it.
It is, of course, ironic that the left supports confiscation of inheritance, since a large element of the left in the US can be described as “trustafarians”; over here, as is sometimes noted, a lot of the Greens – such as Jonathan Porritt or Zac Goldsmith – are born to money and privilege. The Toynbees and the rest are fairly well minted.
Here is one such article here, back in October 2007, that addresses this whole idea that inheriting lots of money gives someone an “unfair” advantage in life over someone else, as if life were like a pre-defined race, such as the Tour de France. But that gets things entirely wrong. It is the fallacy of the zero-sum approach to life generally.
And here is another article by me on the same subject, responding to a letter in the Times (of London) newspaper.