Monday, June 30, 2003

It's as if it were their own money

Freedom News Service

When the House of Representatives voted recently to eliminate the federal estate tax (something the Senate probably will not support), liberal Democrats reportedly objected that "it was immoral to add to the nation’s record-setting debt to benefit those at the economic pinnacle" (The New York Times, 6/19/03).
Such objections reveal just what those offering them think about the wealth of this nation – that it belongs to the government which then decides who is to benefit from it, and who is not. As if eliminating a tax amounted to giving something to people, providing them with a benefit, instead of stopping taking things from them that belongs to them in the first place.
Relatives to whom a business or some other source of wealth had been left by now deceased persons are forced to pay estate taxes. The wealth had been left to these relatives, but in order for the relatives to receive what they were given they must first pay a huge sum to the government. This is extortion, plain and simple – "You’ll get what someone else freely gave you provided you first pay us not to send you to jail or fine you." That is how the mob behaves – "You get to run your business provided you pay us not to burn it down."
Liberal Democrats think, however, that the wealth never belonged to those who left it to their relatives but belonged to the government that permitted it to be held and used by the bequeathors. So, the issues for liberal Democrats is, should the government continue to permit the wealth to be held and used by the relatives provided they pay some kind of fee or rent.
That is exactly the thinking behind what monarchs did when they sold everyone on the idea that a country belonged to them and those working there were their serfs, with the products these "serfs" created belonging to the monarch as well. So, a quarter of millennia after the American founders dispatched monarchy, the system is back again, along with its economy of mercantilism. Liberal Democrats, as well as those to their left, really believe that government owns us and our work and we only get to keep some of this if the government deems that suitable to its purposes.
Unfortunately, while liberal Democrats are avid supporters of such mercantilism, Republicans aren’t quite opposed to it either. After all, when it comes to their own various pet projects, Republicans are not above treating our assets and incomes as their own disposable wealth. Just look at the perks Republicans attach to various bills they believe will pass, sending these to their constituents in the full spirit of wealth redistribution. Thus when they do not quite like the degree of extortion liberal Democrats favor, they have no moral arguments to offer against it. Thus we get Speaker Dennis Hastert intone with this kind of muddled thinking in response to the liberal democrats’ opposition to eliminating the estate tax: "This isn’t just for rich people, this is for everybody who shares in the American dream. ... We need to pass this piece of legislation, so we can keep this American heritage of families working, of families creating wealth, of families creating businesses."
Never mind about the rights of those relatives to receive what they were given free and clear by the deceased. Never mind the immorality of taking anything at all from them as booty. Never mind that what the government confiscates is loot and doesn’t belong to it. Why? Because saying such things would cut the Republicans off the booty, too.
So, instead we get the old line of defense of free trade and free enterprise and freedom in general, namely that such freedom is good for the country, not that everyone has a right to it. Because saying so would concede that it is these individuals who have the first right to say what happens to their wealth, not the politicians.
In other words, Republicans do not want to acknowledge any more than liberal Democrats that American citizens have a right to their assets and products. They only claim that it would be more efficient to leave them to hold and manage those assets and products on behalf of the country.
Ayn Rand, the most passionate defender of the free society in recent times, noted that when you compromise on the principle of liberty, you eventually have to cave in to the demands of those who do not believe in liberty. You have no principled defense of your position and so it continues being eroded, slowly but surely.
That is just what the Republicans are showing us when they give wimpy objections to the liberal Democrats who would just as soon confiscate everyone’s wealth if they could and manage the country according to their own personal vision, never mind the diverse yet often perfectly valid visions of the individuals who own that wealth in the first place.

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and author of "The Passion for Liberty" (Rowman & Littlefield). He advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at

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