Thomas Sowell

SOME people may have found it an inspiring example of social conscience when various super-rich people, such as the Rockefellers, came out publicly against repealing the taxes that the federal government levies against the property left by people who have died. But it is a lot less than inspiring when you look at it in terms of how much damage death taxes do to others and how little damage such taxes do to the super-rich.

When you have hundreds of millions of dollars -- or tens of billions of dollars, in the case of Bill Gates -- you are never going to be able to spend it all on your own lifestyle in your own lifetime. So this wonderful-sounding defense of estate taxes will cost the super-rich nothing in their own lives. Moreover, even if the government were to confiscate three-quarters of their wealth upon their death, their heirs would still never have to work a day in their lives, because the remainder would still be so huge.

It is a very different story for an ordinary farmer or storekeeper or someone who owns a little automobile repair shop. What happens to what he has worked for and saved over a lifetime can make a huge difference to his widow and his orphaned children. By what right should what he has already paid taxes on be taxed yet again at a time when his family has just lost its breadwinner?

Or do right and wrong no longer matter? Can we just say magic words like "social justice" and start confiscating? That has been tried in a number of countries -- and its consequences have ranged from counterproductive to catastrophic.

Forcing viable businesses out of business because the heirs cannot pay the estate taxes without selling off the assets is a loss to the country, as well as an unjust burden on the individuals concerned. Moreover, people have foresight and one of the reasons they work and sacrifice is to see that those who are dependent on them will be taken care of after they are gone. Destroying or undermining that incentive is sabotaging a virtue that is as important morally and politically as it is economically.

Those who want a society where everyone depends on government for their needs may be happy to see yet another blow struck against self-reliance. But no one else should be.

Talk about how various people have been "winners" in "the lottery of life" or have things that others don't have just because they "happen to have money" is part of the delegitimizing of property as a prelude to seizing it.


Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

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