Friday, December 14, 2012

The Aristocrats

A little known part of the on-going nonsense in Washington is the fact that cuts in the Estate Tax will expire at the end of the year.  Back when they were cut, there was all sorts of carrying on, calling them "Death Taxes", acting as if they were some break on economic growth and a blight upon the entire American ethos.

Except, of course, what they are is an expression of a basic American principle - we aren't going to have a hereditary aristocracy in this Republic of ours.

I heard a report on NPR the other evening in which an estate planner was saying that people with estates that would fall within the lowered limit/higher tax rate were "worried".  I'm sorry, but I would have thought that if an individual managed to amass a million dollars and more of wealth, that person would have provided well for his or her family members; perhaps even provided an example, say, for their children to follow such as hard work, thrift, and sound investment so the children could prosper without help from dead Daddy and Mommy.

When primogeniture was eliminated from the Constitution, it was done to prevent the creation of an aristocracy, seen at the time of the founding as a parasitic class, contributing nothing but maintaining power and authority through no reason other than birth.  If you read Barbara Tuchman's The March of Folly, there's a description of the kinds of feasts the Lords and Ladies of 18th Century Britain would enjoy.  At a time when industrialization was just beginning to stir and penury and want were spreading, the aristocracy took it as a matter of course, indeed of right, to gorge themselves while the peasantry starved.  Having fought and won a revolt against this kind of thing, the Founders had no desire to start it up again.

All the hugger-mugger about small businesses and what hard working people who earn a lot of money deserve is nonsense.  With the Gilded Age and the rise of American billionaires, very often amassing their fortunes through illegality, violence, repression, and manipulation of the political process, the levying of a confiscatory Estate Tax (the original tax was 100%; it was aimed at one person, John D. Rockefeller) was seen as ensuring that the accidents of history and the purposeful greed of industrialists didn't create that most despised of British institutions: a hereditary aristocracy.  While sold to the public with this argument, it was also offered as a way of promoting charity, and it worked quite well.  After all, rather than face the state taking one's wealth, many wealthy benefactors spent a great deal of time and energy giving their money away.  Andrew Carnegie built libraries all over the country; Rockefeller invested in colleges and universities, including helping to create the University of Chicago and supporting historically black colleges and institutes in the south (one can say many things about Rockefeller, but he was no bigot, at least not by the standards of his time; he also provided massive amounts of money to eliminate ringworm across the South, in both black and white populations).

While this latter is a worthy goal, and has provided ample opportunity for the wealthy to do some good, the fact remains that defense of the Estate Tax is more than a little un-American.  The idea that family members, having done nothing more than being born in a family that was successful, "deserve" an estate runs against the very idea that we in the United States will not have the growth of a class of hereditary wealth, amassing power and public influence.  I find it more than a little funny that the most adamant defenders of the elimination of the Estate Tax are in a political party with the name "Republican".  Last time I checked, small "r" republicans weren't huge fans of aristocrats.

Except, alas, in early 21st century America.

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