Estate Tax Nonsense

Sebastian Mallaby posits that, “It doesn’t matter if you are liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. There is no possible excuse for doing what Congress is poised to do this week: Abolish the estate tax.”

This is a rather odd position to take for something that has wide, bipartisan support among both the American people and their elected representatives [The House voted 272 to 162 for the phase-out in April 2005]and the opposition to which can not even muster a sufficiently sizable minority to mount a credible filibuster.

For most of the past century, the case for the estate tax was regarded as self-evident. People understood that government has to be paid for, and that it makes sense to raise part of the money from a tax on “fortunes swollen beyond all healthy limits,” as Theodore Roosevelt put it. The United States is supposed to be a country that values individuals for their inherent worth, not for their inherited worth. The estate tax, like a cigarette tax or a carbon tax, is a tool for reducing a socially damaging phenomenon — the emergence of a hereditary upper class — as well as a way of raising money.

Of course, the estate tax has not actually succeeded in this goal. Names like Bush, Kennedy, Rockefeller, DuPont, and others remind us of that. Indeed, of the top ten people on the most recent Forbes 400 list of richest Americans, five spots are taken by the Walton Family. The Cox and Mars families are getting by, too. One suspects that, a couple decades hence, so will the Gates, Buffett, Allen, Dell, and Ellison heirs.

If the abolitionists succeed, some other tax will eventually be raised to make up for the lost revenue. So which tax does Congress favor? The income tax, which discourages work? A consumption tax, which hits the poor hardest? The payroll tax, which is both anti-work and anti-poor? Really, which other tax out there is better?

An income tax only “discourages” work if it is so graduated as to be confiscatory. The days of 90 percent, or even 70 percent, tax rates on the upper reaches are thankfully over. And a consumption tax can certainly be targeted so that food, medicines, and other basic necessities are omitted with “luxury” items hit at a steeper rate. And the payroll tax–i.e., the Social Security tax–exists solely to provide for the poor; the very wealthy surely do not need the government pay them a retirement stipend.

People often remark on the perversity of popular support for estate-tax repeal. A majority wants to abolish the tax, even though only the richest 2 percent of households have ever had to pay it. Yet this shoot-your-own-foot weirdness is easily explained: Most people just don’t know that, under the law’s current provisions, a couple can bequeath $4 million without paying a penny to the government.

Perhaps Americans simply understand a basic principle: Earnings belong to the earner, not the state. Microsoft pays corporate taxes and Bill Gates and Paul Allen pay hefty income taxes on their shares, in addition to various sales taxes and fees. The idea that the state has the right to take another huge chunk of their money when they die, rather than allowing them to pass it on to their children, simply strikes most of us as outrageous.

UPDATE: Commenter jwb points to a related BlogAd in my right sidebar which, in all honesty, I’d forgotten was there or I’d have mentioned. He offers some critiques of the ad in question.

I pretty much accept all ads here. I’ve run spots from Democratic candidates, anti-Bush t-shirt sellers, and even George Soros. I’ve rejected maybe 2-3 ads over the last two years, and those were just issues of taste where the advertiser ultimately changed the ad design and was accepted.

Bruce “McQ” McQuain provides a libertarian defense of an estate tax repeal, including a quote from Ludwig von Mises. The upshot, though, is that Mallaby and his ilk are concerned about social re-engineering rather than raising revenue for government.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Economics and Business, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. cirby says:

    A while back, I was talking to one guy about the estate tax, and I was stunned to find that some folks really don’t think you own your own stuff, or that a family has any right to keep assets in the family.

    The one concept that just killed me: “When you die, it’s not yours any more, and the government owns it now. They’re doing you a favor to let you keep any of it in the first place.”

    What about family owned businesses? “The government let those businesses start up, the government should be able to decide when they stop running.”

    The guy I was talking to is a lawyer, by the way…

  2. The estate tax should NOT be repealed. The “percentage-size distribution of income” is not changeable, and life is not a game. There is no reason to reward the wealthiest beyond their lifespans. We will see the arising of an hereditary aristocracy, and the further destruction of our democracy.

    The estate tax falls on a vanishingly small percentage of the population, and this tiny group has been solely responsible for a marketing and lobbying campaign to bring this attempted repeal to the floor of the Congress.

    In this campaign, ordinary Americans have been led by their natural optimism about the future to believe that they, too, can all become rich enough to be subject to the estate tax. They have been led to believe that their own lack of ability is the only obstacle. And they have been led by their natural suspicion of government to believe that a tax of this sort must be unfair.

    None of these things could be further from the truth.

    The current shape of the “distribution of income,” (or the percentage of rich-to-poor,) has been nearly the same for at least a century, and perhaps longer. Why is this? The distribution fluctuates slightly, and there has been a little increase in inequality over the last 25 or so years. But on the whole, it has not budged for a century. Are we to presume that the natural abilities and luck of individuals in every generation account for the fact that the top 5% of the income-earners always end up with around 28% of the annual income, and that the top 5% of the asset-owners always end up with around 58% of the total assets? (There is perhaps a good deal of overlap by these two five-percents of income and assets.) No: It seems likely that ability and luck do NOT determine the shape of the percentage-size distribution of income and wealth — or rather we should say, that ability and luck determine WHO GETS the slots, not relatively HOW MANY slots there are.

    Let us suppose instead that this shape is endemic, or typical to our system. The percentage-size distribution of income and wealth is not a failure — it is a property of the perfect, allocatively efficient, market price system. Perhaps it is some sort of “fractal shape,” the result of millions of single-step decisions throughout the economy of the industrial age, coupled with the institution of private ownership. It is a “bio-social” pattern which is inescapable to our way of life.

    That is all well and good: it allows us freedom and creativity; it gives us economic growth. We like it. In addition, it gives us a cause for celebration, when a small person makes it big. It’s even fun–we all love a good party! But we should not make the mistake that everybody can get there. This is NOT a game. A game has several parts to its definition. Participation in a game is voluntary, and there is always a beginning and an end. Game winners are temporary. Games are played again, with possibility of a different winner from the same participants, the next time. THAT is the definition of a “game.”

    So, IF the distribution of income is NOT a market failure, and the whole of life is NOT a game — BUT we want to keep our system of free markets for its economic benefits — we are left with only a few conclusions.

    “Equality of opportunity” is not entirely honest, if economic outcomes will always be vastly unequal. Further, the claim that people have a absolute right to their snagging of the limited supply of great outcomes can not carry on absolutely. We wish for all people to provide well-being for their loved ones. Beyond that, they should be encouraged to leave their wealth to charity, or to build institutions magnificent and useful to everyone when they’re gone. But there is little reason to honor the ablest, luckiest recipients of our system beyond their charity and public works, and beyond the point of their effectiveness to the system that HELPED TO MAKE THEM.

    The House of Representatives has disgraced itself, and they should be voted out in the next election. The Senate should not follow their example.

  3. DC Loser says:

    We wouldn’t have a Carnegie, Ford or Gates endowment if it weren’t for the estate tax looming over their fortunes.

  4. I have a theory based on my own experiences.

    I was faced with a choice at the last presidential election. I could vote for either Bush, or Kerry. They had very similar core policies and plans on defense, which was my number one concern at the time. So I turned to their economic policies, which revolved around a particular tax cut that benefited people making more than $200,000 annually.

    I did not (and do not) make $200,000 annually, so you might think this meant I should vote for Kerry to stop that tax. But instead, I voted for Bush, because it was entirely feasible that I *would* be making $200,000 annually before the end of the presidential term. This made retaining that tax cut in my best interest.

    So I would propose that Americans may recognise that even though they can bequeath four million dollars without taxation, but the majority also recognise that it is entirely within the realm of possibility for them to earn and subsequently bequeath a great deal MORE than four million dollars, placing their best interest squarely in the “no estate tax” camp.

    The above may also be flipped around and pointed toward the fantasy many Americans have wherein they INHERIT several million dollars from a hitherto unknown distant relative, instead.

  5. M1EK says:

    It’s particularly funny that you used Bill Gates as an example, because his father is one of the people advocating against the repeal of the estate tax.

    Why? Gates, 78, says the wealthy should pay the tax because they owe a special debt. Their riches, he says, would not be possible without a strong society supporting capitalism.

    “Most of the things that have generated the enormous advances in our economy are things that started on some campus or in some laboratory,” Gates said in an exclusive interview last week. “And most of those are because the government financed it.”

  6. Gollum says:

    And the payroll tax�i.e., the Social Security tax�exists solely to provide for the poor; the very wealthy surely do not need the government pay them [sic] a retirement stipend. (Emphasis JJ’s.)

    Social Security does not exist solely to provide for the poor. The Social Security retirement benefit is not needs-based; in fact higher lifetime earners get an increased retirement benefit. It is true that the very wealthy do not need the government to pay them, but pay them we do. And when the very wealthy die, we pay their spouses too.

    I’m not a fan of the estate tax, but eliminating Social Security retirement benefits for pensioned boomers would be a far greater and more immediate benefit to me.

  7. ICallMasICM says:

    ‘There is no possible excuse for doing what Congress is poised to do this week: Abolish the estate tax.â??’

    How about this: Since they earned the money or inherited it and have already paid taxes on it -it’s theirs to do as they please with so please keep your grave robbing hands off of it.

  8. James Joyner says:

    M1EK: I’m aware of Gates Sr’s position. So what?

    Gollum: The impetus for Social Security was a safety net for the poor. They were the ones retiring without substantial savings or a company pension plan. To make it politically sellable, it had to be crafted as an entitlement program for investors rather than welfare.

  9. DC Loser says:

    Anything to keep Paris Hilton from her inherited wealth is a good thing!

  10. MrGone says:

    Just a couple of thoughts,

    The vast majority of the wealth has never been taxed. It consists of stocks, bonds, properties that have been held for many, many years. If the owner liquidated all assets the day before he died, he would pay enormous taxes on the gains. But with no estate tax, if he dies before he sells, then no tax? Yea, that’s how it works for me in my life. My father is the typical example of this at work, he got as a gift a mountain house in the 60’s. Book value 7k. It’s now worth over 800k and guess what? He won’t sell because of the tax liability.

    This will all but eliminate the charitable foundations.

    The founders of this country understood the concept of landed gentry and a permanent aristocracy. Repeal would allow unencumbered transfers of wealth between generations and exacerbate the already widening gap between those who have the rest of us. I believe Paris Hilton is the best example of why this is bad.

    What ever happened to the idea of personal responsibility? This transfer would completely reduce subsequent generations to nothing more and a permanent party class. It’s completely corrupting and while you might like it yourself, would you really do that to your children? I wouldn’t. I might leave them enough to help out but not so much that they didn’t have to make a life for themselves.

    I’m sorry that the Walton heirs would only get 3.5 billion each.

    Many of the world’s wealthiest are and remain for the tax.

    Reduction of ANY taxes without corresponding decreases in spending are nothing less than criminal and truly represent a redistribution of wealth, with interest.

    With all that we have going wrong today in this country and the world, haven’t we already spent enough time worrying about the overwhelming burdens of the wealthy?

  11. James Joyner says:

    MrGone: The estate tax was an invention of the Progressive Era, not the Founders. Indeed, most of them were of the landed gentry class you despise.

    I’m not sure you strenghten your argument citing your father’s being paralyzed with tax consequences. Why is that a good thing? And why does it matter that part of the paper wealth has acrued without taxation? It gets taxed when liquidated, right? That would be true of the inheritor, anyway.

    Do you really think most charities exist only because of the estate tax? Really? Many of the biggest existed before we had such a thing.

  12. ICallMasICM says:

    DCL loses on the Paris Hilton corrollary to Godwin’s Law – she hasn’t inherited anything as both her parents are alive. Try to at least form a coherent thought beyond your envious greed.

  13. NJ voter says:

    It’s about time we abolish all taxes alltogether, and fund the governemnt completely by borrowing.

    I’m kidding…really.

  14. MrGone says:

    James, I know the founders didn’t institute the tax, I was making a philosophical point.

    Re my father’s taxes, I was pointing out that much of his wealth, like most in his age bracket, is in unrealized capital gains and therefore has not been taxed. You are wrong about the taxes after death, capital gains are not taxed at death. I just went through this with my mother’s estate. From the federal estate tax standpoint, the value of the estate is that at the time of death. You are not taxed for capital gains, hence my point.

    Yes, I believe most of the largest charitable foundations are a direct result of the tax. Just look at the names, it’s an entire who’s who listing of the robber barons of the early 20th century and you know they wouldn’t have done that on their own.

  15. Steven Plunk says:

    The basic arguments seem to be who is more important , the individual or the state? Is the wealth of a nation the sum of each individuals accomplishments or is the nation creating wealth and allotting it to the individuals? We can go further by asking if a government creates the atmosphere for wealth creation or do individual create wealth despite the governmental interventions?

    Our country was founded upon the principals of the individual with a great fear of centralized governments. Early Americans knew government was a necessary evil but wanted checks against it’s power. Make no mistake that the individual should always be put before the state.

    The same people decrying the repeal of the estate tax are the ones complaining about programs such as the NSA phone database. Why would you worry so much about those rights being violated without considering the taking of private property a violation of basic civil rights? If private property is not safe then what is?

    Frederic Bastiat put it this way, “Look at the law, and see whether it does for one citizen at the expense of another what it would be a crime for the first to do to the other himself. If so, the law is criminal.”

    Since I can’t take from someone legally why would I use the law to do it? This law steals from the donor because of the covetous nature of man. Some of us see a person with wealth and feel that person doesn’t deserve it but we wait until death to pry it away. Without wanting to inject too much religion into the debate we should remember that the ten commandments mentioned coveting for a reason.

    The wealth is taxed at least once and maybe twice before an inheritance tax, that’s plenty, let people pass it on to who they will without penalty.

  16. I could have more sympathy for the “estate tax to level the playing field” if it wasn’t so painfully naive.

    The people the estate tax catches tend to be the middle class business owners. While the business may have a nominal value high enough to be taxed, the liquid value can be something else entirely.

    Those who you would really see as being “distorting” have enough money to avoid the tax. Even the $4 million limit cited assumes estate planning to take advantage of loopholes/provisions of the tax code. In short, you have to hire a lawyer to keep the money out of the governments hands. Paying money to lawyers does not the deficit reduce.

  17. DC Loser says:

    ICMAICM, obviously you need to get a sense of humor.

  18. DC Loser says:


    I’m sure you know how to use Google. This is the first link that popped up when you search for “Paris Hilton Inheritance.”
    Her inheritance from her grandparents was $27.5 millon. The inheritance was split between 8 children and 12 grandchildren from Conrad Hilton’s fortune. So there, you’re wrong. Next time do some research before posting nonsense.

  19. MrGone says:


    Please check your “facts.” If only 6500 people are expected to pay ANY estate taxes in 2006(0.27 percent) how does this effect middle class business owners? In 2004, only 300 farm estates were subject to any tax and of that, only 27 didn’t have enough liquid assets to pay the tax. In addition, there are special provisions in the code that allow for small business and farms to pay off over time so they can avoid sale of the business/farm.

    Look, I don’t like any taxes, but I’m sure as hell not worried about those poor millionaires. Especially if it means that I have to help make up the difference.

  20. jwb says:

    I noticed this blog, to which I have recently been giving a bit more credit, is now running a “Small Business Closed due to Death Tax” advert. Perhaps this blog accepts all adverts. But this ad is particularly misleading.

    The ad is funded by a front group for ultra-wealthy families like the Mars and Waltons. Obviously these groups stand to save billions if the estate tax is abolished. But they are also lying and misleading in pressing their case. Less than 0.5% of families will ever face the estate tax. Only 4% of small business have a net worth high enough to trigger the estate tax, and you must understand that the tax (as currently written) applies only to amounts in excess of $3.5 million. So a business worth $4m, if given as an inheritance, would face a tax of $175k. A business worth $10m would face a bill of $2.3m, but I’d be surprised to see such a valuable business structured as a sole proprietorship.

    Anyway, I think the fundamental argument here is very flawed. Mr. Joyner seems to think that, for some reason, giving money to your heirs should be untaxable, even though giving money in most other ways _is_ taxable. To me there does not seem to be any reason for this exemption. Furthermore, because the government needs to raise its revenues somewhere, repealing this tax on the 0.5% is going to raise taxes on the other 99.5% of Americans. It is extremely likely that this balancing tax raise will actually have a material negative impact on small businesses and farms.

    In closing, I’d like to invite any commenters here to post even a single, documented example of a small family business or farm which, in the last 5 years, has been sold off or closed because of the burden of the estate tax.

    EDITOR’S NOTE: I pretty much accept all ads here. I’ve run spots from Democratic candidates, anti-Bush t-shirt sellers, and even George Soros. I’ve rejected maybe 2-3 ads over the last two years, and those were just issues of taste where the advertiser ultimately changed the ad design and was accepted.

  21. jwb says:

    Steven Plunk: to see how the Founders felt about inheritance and the powers of the state, perhaps all you need to do is read what they wrote at the time. They despised the concept of inheritance and aristocracy, and many believed that each generation should start from scratch, working their way up from zero as their own talents and ambitions allowed, with the government playing the role of safeguarding equality of opportunity.

    You will note that the first Estate Transfer Tax was enacted in 1797, when the founders were still actors in the government. So clearly they believed that such a tax was consistent with the principles of the Constitution. Estate taxes were also passed during the Civil War, Spanish American War, and World War I, which is the act currently in force. So you see that the present action in the Senate is the first time in history that anyone will simultaneously claim to be at war, and move to repeal the Estate Tax.

    Back to the patron saints of the libertarian party: the Founders. Paine wrote in The Rights of Man that England should enact an inheritance tax to address the unequal distribution of land. Alexis de Toqueville praised the egalitarian estate law in Democracy in America. You don’t need to look far in the papers of early American figures to find statements warning against inherited wealth, aristocracy, and the accumulation of land in the hands of the few.

  22. DC Loser says:

    The Founding Fathers must have been a bunch of left wing liberal commies.

  23. James Joyner says:

    jwb: Paine and de Toqueville were English and French, respectively, and not among our Founders. De Toqueville’s book came out in 1835, well after the founding. It’s true that “Common Sense” was influential on many of them, especially Jefferson, but not all of his ideas were adopted.

    I don’t know the history of the estate tax in detail but would note that we didn’t even have a federal income tax until 1916. According to the Treasury Department,

    In 1916 Congress for the first time levied a tax upon the transfer of a decedent’s net estate. The Committee on Ways and Means of the U.S. House of Representatives explained that a new type of tax was needed, because the “consumption taxes” in effect at that time bore most heavily upon those least able to pay them. The Committee further explained that the revenue system should be more evenly and equitably balanced and “a larger portion of our necessary revenues collected from the incomes and inheritances of those deriving the most benefit and protection from the Government.”

    The Committee recommended an estate tax rather than an inheritance tax because many states already imposed inheritance taxes. It felt that the estate tax helped to form a well-balanced system of inheritance taxation between the Federal Government and the various states and that an estate tax could be readily administered with less conflict than a tax based upon inherited shares.

    Various changes in the estate tax provisions of law, as well as their repeal, have been proposed over the years, but the principle has been retained. Our office has available an excerpt from the Ways and Means Committee’s report on the Revenue Act of 1935. The report reproduces a June 19, 1935, message from President Roosevelt to Congress advocating an inheritance tax, in addition to the estate tax. Although the inheritance tax proposal was not adopted, the message provides information on why the taxation of individuals’ estates was considered appropriate.

  24. C.Wagener says:

    Carnegie did not face an estate tax and his often stated philosophy of charitable giving would have resulted in the same outcome even if he had. As for Ford, the endowment is used for purposes completely opposed by Ford when he was alive. Pew is even more extreme. Founded by a libertarian, it has been run by socialists since the 80’s.

    From an economic point of view an estate tax would reduce the savings rate since the primary motivation of extremely wealthy people to continue to accumulate wealth is passing it on to their children. As for having idle rich as a social problem, well it’s pretty far down on the list of worries.

  25. Steven Plunk says:

    The estate tax enacted in 1797 was a flat fee not connected to value of the estate itself. It was passed to fund the US navy and was repealed in 1802. It was not remotely similar to the present estate tax system.

    The founders feared titles not wealth. The idea of them taking private property at confiscatory rates as now would have chilled them.

    The idea of government safeguarding equal opportunity is true enough but taking from citizens is not safeguarding anyone, it is tyranny.

  26. jwb says:

    Steve Plunk: the 1797 tax was structured as a stamp act, but the taxes during the Civil War, Spanish-American War, and WWI all resembled the current system. They were all progressive, proportionate taxes with some level of exemption.

    But I ask you again, now that the government has plunged us into a state of permanent war mobilization, do you not believe that those families who have benefitted the most from the structure of our society also carry some burden of helping to pay for that structure? In no previous war have the wealthy been asked to contribute less. Why, when our armies are deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq and now even along our own border, should we be talking about raising taxes on future Americans, and 99.5% of current Americans, in order to mollify the super-wealthy among us?

    Do you remember the concept of shared sacrifice? Of sacrifice in proportion to benefit? Instead of repealing the estate tax during a war, we should be raising the estate tax, raising the income tax, raising the capital gains tax, and reinstituting the draft.

  27. spencer says:

    Economics says if you tax something you get less of it.

    So I guess the republican party trying to do away with the estate tax makes them the “death party”.

  28. John says:

    I’ve been working with a group called Coalition 4 Americas Priorities on this very issue.

    Some of the skeptics in this thread are right. Know how many family farms are affected by this tax? 3 in 10,000. or .03%. .03%!!!!! Yet repealing this tax would cost a trillion dollars over the next 12 years. Those arguing for repeal are really arguing for an increased national debt.

  29. Steven Plunk says:

    JWB:We have all benefited from the structure of our society but have we all worked as hard or as smart to get where we are today? Perhaps there are some who have fared poorly or who have had bad luck, perhaps there are some who have been extremely lucky and find themselves with greater wealth. There will always be differences and there’s nothing wrong with that. The wealthy pay more taxes now and will continue to pay more taxes in the future. Why must a portion of the country always ask others to pay more and more?

    You ask if the wealthy should share some of the burden, they are. You say they are contributing less then in any previous war, I find that hard to believe. It appears your arguments are based upon the idea that the rich neither deserve nor have earned the wealth they have accumulated, let alone have the right to pass it on to their children.

    I do believe in shared sacrifice but I do not believe in using the law to take from others more than what I give myself. The rich pay high taxes already. Heck, the middle class pays high taxes.

    We are talking about wealth that has already been taxed. Sometimes at the corporate level before dividends and then again as dividends paid. That’s enough, why take more and more and more? Because others are jealous of success? Because they have more? Because we can?

    It seems to be all about taking, taking, taking. That is just wrong. It is a form of legalized theft and bad for America.

  30. jwb says:

    Steven Plunk: I don’t actually agree that this wealth has already been taxed. These estates in the top half percent do not primarily consist of cash and other highly liquid assets, such as the average middle class family might accumulate through savings. The really valuable estates consist of partial ownership of some large company, like the Mars candy company, Wal*Mart, Microsoft, etc. These assets have never been taxed. If you founded a company which later becomes worth a billion dollars, and you own 10% of the shares, you have amassed a completely untaxed fortune of $100m.

    Suppose now that the founder and spouse both die, and the fortune is passed on equally to two heirs. Each heir gets $50m. Under your system, this money has never been taxed. The heirs do not sell the shares, because that would be stupid. They take out loans backed by the value of the shares and use the borrowed money to invest in other vehicles. They live off the returns, interest, and dividends from these investments. The top long-term capital gains rate only 15% and the top income tax rate is 35%. So these ultra-rich trust fund beneficiaries are actually paying much less tax on their unearned income than a person who works hard and earns very large wages. Is that a good tax system? I hardly think so.

    You might counter my argument and say that capital gains taxes should be increased to match the income tax rates. I wouldn’t argue with you there. But there must be some levelling of the load in this society. It would not be right for Paris Hilton to pay 15% of her massive income and for a hard-working high-earning person to pay more than double that rate.

    I would also like to say that the very wealthy are in many cases receiving a larger benefit than the average American does from our government spending. The value of their dollar-denominated assets is protected by the government stewardship of the currency, the markets, and even national security. They have a lot to lose if the country takes a bad turn. So shouldn’t they contribute proportionately more to the function of these protective systems?

  31. floyd says:

    from what i’ve read in these comments, right and wrong are strickly subjective and never based on principle.