On dying for one's country

Posted: Jul 25, 2000 12:00 AM
The most appealing aspect of the argument over the estate tax is that some of the legislators who oppose it are actually saying that they think it wrong. Wrong as in not good. The fashion is to approve or disapprove of a tax based on arguments entirely empirical. There are those also, respecting the estate tax, but the moral question is primary.

One begins -- and lingers there for a while -- on the rate, or the levy. When the estate tax kicks in, it swoops down asking for 55 percent on the vulnerable dollar. That is Bolshevik-style taxation. Taxation is generally at the level of 5 percent or 7 percent. Sales taxes are at that level, and even value-added taxes, which go higher, tend to rise to a maximum of 20 percent. To jump suddenly to 55 percent, the activating factor being the decease of the proprietor, makes of that tax a levy on a class of people, the wealthy. What it is, is a capital levy.

How would Solomon, if called upon to do so, and if besotted enough to accept the challenge, defend the tax? Well, he might say, the millionaire who dies ought to leave the bulk of his money to Uncle Sam.


Because, you jerk, Uncle Sam has been very good to him. He has protected his property. He has been disposed to send the Marines to gun down any foreign country that seeks to come in and take away the property. At home, the police are there to guard the property. Therefore, it is reasonable that Uncle Sam should insist that he take the lion's share of the wealthy man's estate.

That reasoning founders on quite fundamental premises, which are that the dead millionaire who wants to reward Uncle Sam beyond what he has already paid in taxes during his lifetime is at liberty to do so for himself. Oliver Wendell Holmes said he didn't mind paying taxes; that was what civilization cost. Fine and dandy. But the man who elects not to leave the bulk of his estate to the government has convincingly to be told that the sacrifice is necessary in order to preserve the country.

But of course we all know that tax returns from estates are exiguous, just over 1 percent of annual revenues collected. We are bumping into the question of the moral right to target taxation based on wealth, and here is where the contest should be debated. Is it correct to impose a confiscatory level of tax, designed to punish only the wealthy (or ex-wealthy) dead?

The argument that there can't be persuasive reason to rewrite a law that affects so few people ought not to be accepted without scrutiny. It is true that only one of a hundred Americans dies having to pay 55 percent of his estate over to the government, and probably true that only one out of a hundred Americans exercises the right to free speech, which doesn't make free speech less august a right.

Liberalism is about protecting the minority, whether from racial or economic discrimination. If it is right to deprive someone of 55 percent of his capital, why should the state have to wait until death to lay claim to it? If it is money that truly belongs to the government, why does government have to wait until the old codger finally turns in, before helping itself to what really belongs to the government, or should belong to it?

On the empirical point, we have to use common sense. We are told that something on the order of $400 billion per year are expended on lawyers, accountants and others whose design it is, however slightly, to maneuver around existing taxation in order to lessen the burden. If that is so, can't we generalize that the man (or woman) worth $10 million will mightily exert himself to reduce his exposure? And if so, what will be the impact of those exertions on the community? Is economic behavior encouraged which is alien to the public interest?

To the argument that, after all, high estate taxes have been on the books for so many years, and why should we suddenly think them iniquitous, the proper observation is: What about the Social Security penalty? For decades a dollar of Social Security was deducted for every $2 earned by 65-year-olds. Then, one day, somebody got up and said: This is wrong. And the


Senate and House voted repeal of the invidious measure. Why don't they simply say, with the same moral assurance, that it's simply wrong to impose tax at confiscatory rates on the wealthy? What did they do to deserve jacobinical treatment?

A good question, to which there is no persuasive answer.