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Jewish World Review March 1, 2001 / 6 Adar, 5761

Thomas Sowell

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Merit and money -- SOME people may have found it an inspiring example of social conscience when various super-rich people, such as the Rockefellers, came out publicly against repealing the taxes that the federal government levies against the property left by people who have died. But it is a lot less than inspiring when you look at it in terms of how much damage death taxes do to others and how little damage such taxes do to the super-rich.

When you have hundreds of millions of dollars -- or tens of billions of dollars, in the case of Bill Gates -- you are never going to be able to spend it all on your own lifestyle in your own lifetime. So this wonderful-sounding defense of estate taxes will cost the super-rich nothing in their own lives. Moreover, even if the government were to confiscate three-quarters of their wealth upon their death, their heirs would still never have to work a day in their lives, because the remainder would still be so huge.

It is a very different story for an ordinary farmer or storekeeper or someone who owns a little automobile repair shop. What happens to what he has worked for and saved over a lifetime can make a huge difference to his widow and his orphaned children. By what right should what he has already paid taxes on be taxed yet again at a time when his family has just lost its breadwinner?

Or do right and wrong no longer matter? Can we just say magic words like "social justice" and start confiscating? That has been tried in a number of countries -- and its consequences have ranged from counterproductive to catastrophic.

Forcing viable businesses out of business because the heirs cannot pay the estate taxes without selling off the assets is a loss to the country, as well as an unjust burden on the individuals concerned. Moreover, people have foresight and one of the reasons they work and sacrifice is to see that those who are dependent on them will be taken care of after they are gone. Destroying or undermining that incentive is sabotaging a virtue that is as important morally and politically as it is economically.

Those who want a society where everyone depends on government for their needs may be happy to see yet another blow struck against self-reliance. But no one else should be.

Talk about how various people have been "winners" in "the lottery of life" or have things that others don't have just because they "happen to have money" is part of the delegitimizing of property as a prelude to seizing it.

Luck certainly plays a very large role in all our lives. But we need to be very clear about what that role is. Very few people just "happen" to have money. Typically, they have it because their fellow human beings have voluntarily paid them for providing some goods or services, which are valued more than the money that is paid for them. It is not a zero-sum game. Both sides are better off because of it -- and the whole society is better off when such transactions take place freely among free and independent people.

Who can better decide the value of the goods and services that someone has produced than the people who actually use those goods and services -- and pay for them with their own hard-earned money?

Luck may well have played a role in enabling some people to provide valuable goods and services. Others might have been able to do the same if they had been raised by better parents, taught in better schools or chanced upon someone who pointed them in the right direction. But you are not going to change that by confiscating the fruits of productivity. All you are likely to do is reduce that productivity and undermine the virtues and attitudes that create prosperity and make a free society possible.

There seems to be some notion around that only purely individual merit can justify differences in income and wealth. But we are all huge beneficiaries of good fortune that we do not deserve. By what merit do we deserve to be living more than twice as long as the cave man and in greater safety, comfort, health and prosperity? We just happen to have been born in the right place at the right time. As Hamlet said, give every man what he deserves and who would escape a whipping?

The question is not what anybody deserves. The question is who is to take on the G-d-like role of deciding what everybody else deserves. You can talk about "social justice" all you want. But what death taxes boil down to is letting politicians take money from widows and orphans to pay for goodies that they will hand out to others, in order to buy votes to get re-elected. That is not social justice or any other kind of justice.

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, Basic Economics: A Citizen's Guide to the Economy.


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© 2001, Creators Syndicate