Between Murray and Marx

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Andrew
Sullivan is a sharp guy whose website
is a daily source of solid commentary. Being a senior editor at
The New Republic, however, it's inevitable that he write
something problematic.

Sullivan's
March 19 column on the estate tax
is notable for what it appreciates
as much as what it prescribes. Consider this splendid fulmination
against confiscatory Beltway policies:

The
most offensive [tax] – the progressive income tax –
penalizes success and work. The better you do for yourself, the
more the government punishes you for your efforts. The Social
Security tax is almost as bad: The government absconds with your
money before you even have a chance to look at it – and then
pours it into an investment scheme no sane person would ever choose
for herself. But then almost all taxes harm people, drain wealth,
encourage inefficiency, and generally drag down the level of human
achievement. Think of tariffs, which discourage trade, or sales
taxes, which discourage buying and selling. Taxes are still necessary,
of course, because, in an imperfect world, government is necessary.
But taxes, even many liberals agree, are almost never good in
themselves; they almost always substitute bad collective oversight
for good personal judgment.

With
the exception of the penultimate sentence, these sentiments harmonize
with libertarian thought in its most vigorous, Rothbardian form.
The trade-deterring effect of protectionism, (Anti)Social (In)Security's
exploitative idiocy, the punitive envy underpinning the progressive
income tax, the deleterious nature of taxes in general – Sullivan
shares common ground with Murray Rothbard in identifying these ills:

  • "Progressive
    taxation, where each man pays more than proportionately
    to his income, makes no attempt at neutrality. If the proportional
    tax embodies a principle destructive to the entire market economy
    and the monetary economy itself, then the progressive tax does
    so still more. For the progressive tax penalizes the able and
    efficient in even greater proportion than their relative ability
    and efficiency." (Man,
    Economy, and State
    )
  • "Tariffs
    and various forms of import quotas prohibit, partially or totally,
    geographical competition for various products." (Power
    and Market
    )
  • "[T]he
    Social Security System is the biggest single racket in the entire
    panoply of welfare-state measures that have been fastened upon
    us by the New Deal and its successors…The whole system is a
    vast Ponzi scheme, with the difference that Ponzi's notorious
    swindle at least rested solely on his ability to con his victims,
    whereas the government swindlers, of course, rely also on a
    vast apparatus of tax-coercion." ("The
    Social Security Swindle
    ," in Making
    Economic Sense
    .

What
a bummer, then, that Sullivan recommends hiking and expanding the
estate tax. Instead of the current $675,000 minimum bequest to activate
the tax, he would set it at $500,000 and "increase the rates
so that anyone bequeathing more than $10 million sees the remainder
of his bequest go directly to Uncle Sam or to charity."

Sullivan
sees a nexus between intensifying the estate tax and the abolition
of primogeniture during the late 1700s. "America's revolutionary
abolition of this system helped disperse wealth and discourage the
indolence of aristocratic inheritance," he writes.

Justice
William Day noted in Buchanan v. Warley (1917), "Property
is more than the mere thing which a person owns. It is elementary
that it includes the right to acquire, use, and dispose of it."
Primogeniture (like its counterpart, entail) was a feudalistic imposition
that eliminated a landowner's discretion in disposal of his property.
No doubt many landowners would like to pass their property to their
eldest son, but others might prefer to pass it to a daughter or
someone else.

America's
abolition of primogeniture dovetailed with the repudiation of monarchic
governance and its patrician badges – hence the constitutional
prohibition on titles of nobility. (See Rothbard's "Elimination
of Feudalism and the Beginnings of the Abolition of Slavery"
in Volume IV of Conceived
in Liberty
.) John C. Calhoun wrote of the "artificial
distinctions" in aristocratic polities, and these were the
contrived tiers the colonial secessionists razed.

The
estate tax is the obverse of primogeniture, grounded in envy and
avarice with the same consequence of assailing property rights.
In this case, the State rewards prosperity with demand for tribute,
Cosa Nostra style (albeit with authoritative-looking letterhead).

Mindful
of John Marshall's observation in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)
that "the power to tax involves the power to destroy,"
the estate tax and its whopping rates violate the unmolested disposal
of one's property – that is, inheritance rights. This reeks
of The
Communist Manifesto
, which logically called for the abolition
of inheritance. (I write "logically" because in a regime
resentful of human attainment – a communist regime, for instance
– institutions such as inheritance that incarnate human attainment
must be smashed. George
Reisman describes this temperament
as "the utterly nihilistic,
loot-and-plunder theory."

Sullivan
recognizes that estate taxes "break up unified familial property"
and "substantially reduce its value," praising this envious
aggression as a democratic safeguard against "creeping aristocracy"
and "increasing inequality." This fits into his vision
for the Right: "Conservatism should be about rewarding work,
not inheritance, and encouraging success, not genetic dumb luck."

Although
he's no Marxist, Sullivan betrays leftist streaks here. The dig
against "genetic dumb luck" has a Rawlsian stench; the
caricature of familial property as dynastic incipience mistakes
proprietary tradition for the state-compelled caste that defines
aristocratic governments.

The
absence of an estate tax does not seal off upward mobility for others
or reward inheritance over work. Just the opposite, it respects
the work that has made inheritance possible and affords individuals
the opportunity to bequeath their labor's fruits to their loved
ones.

The
estate
tax had a militarist birth and progressivist revival
, a pedigree
indicative of its rapacious character. While the majority of Americans
do not face the estate tax, preserving this expropriative envy sets
a precedent for preying upon the non-affluent. The leap between
taxing those with $675,000 bequests and $75,000 or $5,000 bequests
is more minuscule than it seems. (Theoretically, any bequest creates
an inequality between heirs and non-heirs.)

The
Anti-Federalist and Old Republican John Taylor writes in Tyranny
Unmasked
of "A furious democracy, which invades private
property, and scatters it among a multitude." Sullivan's muscularly
argued but misguided prescriptions exemplify these words. May his
Rothbardian instincts get the better of him.

April
4, 2001

Myles
Kantor lives in Boynton Beach, Florida.

Myles
Kantor Archives

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