The Right Coast

May 08, 2005
Die death tax, die, die, die
By Tom Smith

I hate the death tax. But for the death tax I might be a gentleman rancher in Idaho. At least, the big ranch(es) on my mother's side of the family ended up being sold to pay inheritance taxes. They probably would have failed anyway, but I still hate the death tax. Yes, I know, that particular problem has been fixed for farms and ranches, after however many hundred or thousand farms and ranches were forced to be sold to pay taxes. Now, if you spend enough on lawyers, you can probably figure out a way to pass your business on to your kids. It's like money spent on locks and security guards. If you don't spend the money, somebody will steal you blind.

But forget me. Support of the death tax is just creeping egalitarianism. It's just the clinging remainders of the view that if you didn't earn something yourself, somehow, the government should take it and give it someone who deserves it even less. This is a very silly view. What justifies a transfer of wealth is that someone wants me to have it, and so do I. A gift given and accepted is every bit as much a free transaction as a contract. You could say that the state should be able to tax every transaction, which they are happy to do, but there's no special justification for it. Other than that it can, so it does.

One could say taxing bequests is somehow more efficient than taxing earned income, and maybe it is. But in this tough, old world, the real battle is about somehow getting the state to take less from us. Taxes are too high. Too much gets taken to be redistributed to achieve political ends. If getting rid of the death tax locks one drawer in the pantry that the morbidly obese government can't get its hands on, then lock it, I say. And if it slams shut on its pudgy little fingers, so much the better.

Here's the story of the death tax. John makes some money in his business and wants to leave it to his kids so they can have an easier life than he had, which he remembers largely as working his butt off all the time. Ah, but do his children really deserve it? Did they earn it? Oh, well, maybe not. So, let's take half of that money, then the government can use it to build a Museum on the History of Wool and pave a road to a donor's house and pay social security to some guy who doesn't need it. Let's take that money from the people whom the guy who earned it wanted to give it to, and it give it to people who really don't deserve it. Oh yes, and the guy who earned it already paid a third to a half of what he earned to the government anyway. It's not double taxation, it's another sort of thing that allows the government to take more of what the guy who earned it earned. It only looks like double taxation, in the sense that it is economically indistinguishable from double taxation. If you are willing to pay three hundred bucks an hour, you can get your tax lawyer to explain it to you.

I worked across Pennsylvania Avenue from the IRS for a few years, and I would walk past it on the way to the Mall. I would see that epigram of Holmes, I think, up above the pillar: Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society. And I would wonder, so where's the civilized society? And, society seems to be getting less civilized, yet taxes are going up. What gives? So I say get rid of the death tax, and probably a lot of other taxes besides. My guess is, things would get more civilized, not less.