Yesterday I began examining a statement by comedian and commentator Bill Maher. He made this statement on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, in a context of discussing what the Republicans need to do to become a viable party. According to Maher, they should, among other things, stop their opposition to the estate tax:
“The estate tax is the perfect tax. I mean, we gotta tax somebody, right? This is a tax on rich dead people: people who literally have estates, otherwise known as not you. People who don’t need money, on account of that whole being dead thing.”
Yesterday I noted how much Maher’s argument plays upon personal self-interest. It also seems to assume that the government can decide how much money somebody needs, and take whatever is extra. I’d be surprised if Maher, a wealthy libertarian, really wants to make this argument.
Part of what perplexes me about what Maher says is what he doesn’t bother to say about estate taxes. I’d like to know why he thinks is morally right, not just expedient, for the government to take somebody’s money just because they died. For some strange reason, this seems to me rather more like stealing than taxing.
Here’s a thought experiment to focus our thinking: Suppose there is a man who worked very hard throughout his life. At twenty, he worked in a construction company as a carpenter. In time he became a superintendent. He put in long hours. He and his family lived conservatively, trying to invest whatever they could. At fifty, the man had the chance to buy the construction company. In the years that followed, he worked even harder, putting in longer hours than he had before. The company thrived, owing to his hard work and practical wisdom. He continued to invest a fair amount of money because his family lived relatively frugally compared to their income level. Of course the man paid lots of income taxes throughout his life. His lifetime total added up to several million dollars in Federal income taxes alone. Finally, he sold his company and retired. When he died at age 85, his estate was worth $30,000,000. Because his wife had predeceased him, this money would be passed on to their children. But should a major portion of his estate be taken by the government?
Okay, this man was rich and now he’s dead. We can agree on that. Not counting the $2,000,000 that is exempt from the estate tax, this man will owe multiple millions of dollars to the government. This is true even though he already paid income taxes on this money. So here’s what I don’t get. Why is it moral for the government to tax this man’s estate? Why is it right for the government to take a substantial chunk of money he fairly and legally earned? Shouldn’t he be free to do what he likes with his money through his will?
Bill Maher would say that this man doesn’t need the money. Fine. But do we believe that it’s right for the government to take money we don’t need? Is this the standard of fair taxation? Bill Maher would also point out that the government is taking money from someone else, not me, so I should like it. But does that give me any moral foundation on which to stand in my support for the estate tax?
Bill Maher exemplifies the kind of shallow and selfish arguments that plague moral and political discourse in America. His cleverness allows him to make what seems like a moral argument for the estate tax, when mostly it’s an appeal to pure self-interest. Ugh!
Just for the record, I doubt that estate tax issues will ever be relevant to me personally. Those from whom my family and I will someday inherit money don’t have enough to pay estate taxes, and neither will I when my time on this earth is up. So I’m not motivated here by my own self-interest. In fact, as someone who has worked in non-profit organizations all of my life, I am probably an indirect benficiary of the current laws, since people sometimes make tax deductible contributions to churches and other organizations to avoid having to pay estate taxes. So I’m not moved by self-interest. What does move me, however, is curiosity about the kinds of moral arguments that people make . . . and the lack thereof. I’ll bring up another example tomorrow when I comment on something Jay Leno said in his conversation with Bill Maher.
P.S. A friend of mine wrote a thoughtful email about this issue. In it he suggested that estate taxes might have to do with the government’s belief that the nation would be better off without an aristocracy based on inherited wealth. Estate taxes, from this perspective, would be used to keep the economic and political playing field more or less level in our society. It still feels to me as if the government is stealing rather than taxing. But I appreciate a decent argument for estate taxes, even if, in the end, I don’t buy it. Ironically, my friend’s view of estate taxes is a little bit like the Year of Jubilee legistation in Scripture.