What About Wealth?

The Origin of Transfer Taxes

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From the dawn of time, when a person dies, people have shown up to take the dead guy's property. The oldest records of human history tell such tales. It is completely understandable. Dead people don't fight back. They have no natural defenses. If you are going to take someone's property by force, it helps if they are dead first. No one understands this better than the ruling elite. Dead people don't vote. They don't write their congressional representatives. They don't march on the capital in protest. They don't take up arms in revolution. They are completely compliant and utterly silent when their property is confiscated. If you must tax someone, a dead person is the easiest target. There are even more political points to be scored and more spoils to be claimed when the dead person was rich. Especially if your world view is that all wealth is necessarily acquired by exploiting the underclasses, and therefore the possession of wealth is per se a crime against humanity, social justice demands that the public plunder all private wealth as soon as the owners are dead and unable to defend it.

Even the Founding Fathers of our Nation shared this view at least in part. The great U.S. Constitution from its inception deliberately permitted taxes on the transfer of wealth. (It took a Constitutional Amendment to permit federal income taxes.) A tax on the transfer of wealth at death was viewed as a fair means of preventing our Nation from plunging into the European experience of hereditary land holding aristocracies that owned all the means of production and held the balance of the populace hostage. The New World wanted no royals, no titles, and no men or women of high birth. A true meritocracy requires that each generation succeed or fail by their own virtue and cunning. A person may rise in such a society by their industry and the quality of their character, but not merely by virtue of their parentage. The Constitution initially prohibited taxing the acquisition of wealth because it was presumed to be a noble endeavor requiring thrift, hard work, and meaningful contribution to the common wealth through commerce. But the transfer of wealth to future unborn generations who did not earn it by their own labor was viewed as not only proper, but necessary for the survival of a free and unencumbered society.

Today we indiscriminately tax both the acquisition of wealth and its transfer, and the political factions speak of the two collectively as equally right or equally wrong, depending on their particular agenda. Today, both the voting public and the children of prosperity, neither of whom earned the wealth of the passing generation, believe they are entitled to it, and view all competing claims as an evil encroachment upon their property rights. It is time for those who have a lifetime stewardship over wealth to consider what will happen when they are done with it. The best way to guarantee a positive social outcome and avoid conflict over wealth between the competing claims of politicians and heirs, is simply to give it to charity. The path to virtue lies in the voluntary gift, not in plunder taken by force or by right.

Richard E. Durfee Jr.

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