Mr. Buffett, Mr. Gates -- No, thank you

Posted: Feb 20, 2001 12:00 AM
For the tax debate, we have to get really basic, really fast. The question at stake isn't simply: How do we finance government? The question is also: Do you have more money than is good for you? If you do, the government stands ready to help you address that problem. More than is good for you? How much would that be? And -- more to the point -- how come somebody else, besides you, gets to make that call? Thereby hangs the tale of the estate tax, and of that perverse campaign by the Boston-based nonprofit calling itself Responsible Wealth. In a newspaper ad campaign that began last weekend, a couple of hundred plutocrats instruct the other 276,059,000 of us that determining the upper limits of wealth is very much the government's business and duty. That's, among others, Warren Buffett talking, and George Soros, and William Gates Sr., father of the world's richest man; and the noted economic philosopher Cher. You don't have to envy the very rich -- many of us don't -- to wonder what gives them the standing to speak on these questions. It could be their intellectual, as well as physical, isolation. These people truly -- thank you, Scott Fitzgerald -- are not like you and me. There is an aloof and nutty character to their thinking, which is to the effect that government's duty is to stand between too-rich children and their dad's money. That's because too much money, privately held, 1) corrupts character, 2) undermines the charitable impulse and 3) short-pots the government on revenues. So hands off the estate tax, which can slice off a 55 percent hunk for government, the Soros-Gates combination admonishes. Come take our money. Such an invitation might sound irresistible, but for the intellectual tendencies it feeds. These are as gruesome as anything in the last 20 minutes of "Hannibal." Not just on economic grounds either -- though it bears noting that estate taxes count for only 1.4 percent of federal revenues, impinge on rational economic decision-making, divert big money into estate planning, double-tax the victims (once when the money is earned, again when it's distributed), and continually harm those (e.g., ranchers and small businessmen) the tax writers didn't intend to harm, but that's how it goes with inflation. The worst tendency of the estate tax -- one that Cher and Soros nourish with crumbs of rhetoric -- is the tendency to hate and blame the rich. So we're to love and praise the rich, Ayn Rand style? Not for a Wall Street minute. Holy Writ speaks ruefully of "the deceitfulness of riches.'' And who can forget (assuming he knows the New Testament) the rich, young ruler unwilling to sell his possessions and follow Jesus Christ? There is another question, nevertheless: What has any of this to do with government? Is it government's job to save souls or to keep foreign enemies at bay and deliver the mail? Arguments that the government should rescue rich men's children from ruination are pure moonshine. Popular moonshine, even so. Envy wouldn't be one of the seven deadly sins, and an often dominant human characteristic, were it not so deeply rooted in our common nature. We love/hate the rich. In a mood of envy and hatred, we can imagine them there to be plucked -- and government deciding how much to pluck and who gets the feathers. What a great prescription for the invigoration of a dormant but hardly dead affection for overweening, paternalistic government, bent not just on our protection but on our reformation. Because -- voila!-- Warren Buffett said to let that tax stand, and a fellow like that wouldn't say it if it would hurt the rich. Well, would he? Hanged if some of us can figure out why the nation's fourth richest man -- a stock-picker of extraordinary instincts -- would have so little instinct for good government and, yes, for human freedom. But there it is. Maybe hopeful future millionaires should start looking twice at the gentleman's tips.