What is more unjust than taxing someone, who already paid taxes his entire life, again when he dies?
Who do you work for?
I don’t mean your employer. I’m not talking about the name of your boss or the CEO of your company. When you go to work, for whom are you earning money?
If you’re an unmarried college student like me, approximately 100% of the money I’ve earned, after taxes, through employment has gone to thwart the seemingly perdurable increase of tuition costs, and maybe a ticket to a baseball game or two.
If you’re a newlywed, you might be working to pay off a new mortgage, or a new car, or maybe even preparing to weather the costs of university education for your own children.
And if you’re retired, you might be thinking of the money you’ve earned, and you might have thought about whom you want to leave it to. If you have children, chances are you’re planning on leaving a substantial portion to them.
But the existence of an estate tax means it’s not always that simple.
If you’re a citizen of the United States, when you die, you’re allowed to give a certain amount of money to a friend or family member without it being taxed. In fact, this amount is generally somewhat high. While it does vary from year to year, in the past few years you’ve been allowed to give up to around $5,000,000 of estate value without that being taxed. The estate tax would be applied only to the excess value. Naturally, then, the estate tax only actually affects the wealthiest Americans. The vast majority citizens will never face it.
Many proponents of the estate tax use this fact as part of their arguments to promote it. And such an argument may seem tempting. After all, chances are, unless you’re quite wealthy, you won’t have to pay it.
But let’s revisit my original question:
Who do you work for?
Do you work for your family? If you do, when you die, do you plan to leave some, if not all, of your life’s work to them? Even if you don’t, don’t you think you ought to be able to?
And if you ought to be able to, why should someone else not be able to?
Think about that for a second. Just because someone is wealthy, does that mean they should forfeit something afforded to all other Americans? Ironically, the argument used by many in favor of the estate tax is that the very notion that its burden will be placed on the wealthiest among us signals its fairness.
Am I the only one hesitant to find providing a certain set of privileges to some people and revoking those privileges for others, who have committed no crime, is unfair?
Certain politicians have championed the estate tax, and the 2016 Democratic nominee for President went so far as to propose hiking the highest rate north of 60%. I believe such politicians have a misguided view of the concept of fairness.
At a fundamental level, I believe it is wrong to punish someone for being successful. Why does someone being rich dictate that they shouldn’t be able to share their wealth with their families like everyone else?
The very concept of an estate tax existing only for the wealthy seems to be predicated on the principle that simply being wealthy means you carry an obligation to society that doesn’t exist for other citizens. Many people believe this to be the case, but once again I find such a notion to not only be unfair, but to be based in a worrying misunderstanding of a capitalist system.
“Capitalism is forced altruism. I starve unless I provide something to you that you find useful.” Those who are wealthy could not have become wealthy had they not provided services that at least some people found valuable.
This concept that being wealthy increases your obligation to society seems to imply that capitalism is somehow exploitative. It seemingly perpetuates the troublesome idea that those who create the most wealth for society don’t really deserve what they’ve earned, a notion perhaps spurred forth by our current President claiming that many who succeed “didn’t make that.”
But you did “make that” because capitalism isn’t exploitation.
Capitalism really is the most selfless economic system in the history of the world. Ben Shapiro put it nicely: “Capitalism is forced altruism. I starve unless I provide something to you that you find useful.” Those who are wealthy could not have become wealthy had they not provided services that at least some people found valuable. Their extensive wealth is evidence of their extensive contribution to society.
With this all in mind, I find the existence of the estate tax to be troublesome on principle. The eagerness of the Democratic nominee for President of the United States to perpetuate and actually widen this iniquity should trouble all of us who cherish the capitalist system and recognize that fairness means applying rules equally to all citizens, and not punishing the innocent.
Hunter Michielson is an undergraduate studying philosophy and German at Duke University.