Saturday, September 15, 2007

Death Taxes are Wrong

Tibor R. Machan

The debate about death taxes has resurfaced. Oddly even some Democratic Senators, such as Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, have decried the estate tax as unfair. As she declared, "I, for one, intend to fight for these family businesses, fight for these communities, and fight for these jobs in rural country-America." To which the left of center New Republic commented, “It was all very moving. Especially if you stand to inherit an enormous fortune.”

Well, I do not “stand to inherit an enormous fortune,” nor do my children. I am millions of dollars from being a millionaire, that’s for sure. But it seems to me morally obscene to want to raid the wealth of those who mean to leave theirs to their families. It matters not a wit, from an ethical standpoint, that some of those who will get the money may not deserve it. This argument—reminiscent of the late Harvard political philosopher John Rawls’s beef that no one really deserves anything much since it is all determined to happen, whatever they “achieve”—is entirely specious, a blatant non-sequitur.

A great many of us do not deserve a great deal that we happen to have—our health, talents, good parents (if we are lucky to have them), nice neighbors, a decent country in which we have been born, our good looks, and on and on. Yes, how we assemble these assets or resources is often where our virtues make their appearance in our lives. But as far as fairness is concerned, which bothers so many who push for retaining and even increasing the estate—or death—tax, nothing in life is fair. (As I have argued before, fairness is a minor, administrative virtue, applicable only where a prior promise requires one to pay attention to members of some group, like a professor who is required to fairly distribute his or her pedagogical attention to all of his or her students!)

What is really at issue and is not discussed much is our unalienable private property rights. If I honestly make my millions and want them to go to my family, who has authorized all those politicians and bureaucrats to take it way to use as they want to? You think democracy has done that? No way.

One cannot do with any degree of moral justification in concert what one may not to do individually. And no one is authorized to take from people what they have either earned or simply happened to have come by through good fortune. They alone have the authority to assign who may use or will inherit their wealth. Even if those to whom they leave their wealth are ne’er-do-wells, it is nobody’s business other than the folks’ who have decided to bequeath their wealth as they saw fit. It makes no difference if inheritance sometimes leads to sloth. That is a private moral matter, not something for politicians and bureaucrats to fret about, just as they have no authority to mess with us because we are, say, wasting our talents or refusing to be productive or marry the wrong mate. In a free country such vices or failures will come back to haunt people who are guilty of them and certainly do not confer any authority upon aspiring paternalistic politicians and bureaucrats.

When human communities are formed, slowly or quickly, their purpose isn’t to have some members direct the lives of the rest of the members. Their purpose is to make it possible for all the individuals in the community to act as freely as possible and to take full responsibility for their actions. Politics, properly understood, is supposed to be about protecting, securing individual rights, just as the American Founders stated. Politics is not about treating members of human communities as if they belonged to some kind of “organic body” (Karl Marx’s term), as some kind of conscripted group guided by a special class of people who deem themselves more wise and virtuous then the rest of us.

In a genuinely free country laws don’t function as tools for regimenting people, imposing on them visions to which they have not given their consent. The vision that includes wealthy people distributing their wealth to “society” is deeply flawed. Not the least of its flaws is that “society” is actually just some other people who pretend to stand in for us all. That famous “we” are really just certain tricky folks pretending to know that’s to our good.

So I once again invoke a famous, apt saying of Abraham Lincoln, namely, "No man is good enough to govern another man without that other's consent." That includes no raiding the what the wealthy leave to their families.

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