Monday, August 08, 2005

Repeal the "Death" Tax? Phooey!

I'm not a big fan of political correctness. I don't like the idea of simply changing the name of something in order to give it a better spin. The problem with people who suffer from an ailment isn't in the name of the thing they suffer. It's the ailment itself. Telling someone that they're handicapped instead of crippled is not going to change their ailment. All that's going to happen is that the negative connotations of the old name will eventually transfer to the new name. Hence we now have "handicapable". I don't know what the next iteration will be, but I'm sure that it's coming.

So it's with a bit of trepidation that I criticize the name of something. But I personally can't stand the name "Death Tax". The people who make the argument that you're taxing death are as wrong headed as can be, and they've chosen a name that tries to convey something that isn't real. It's no more respectful to the dead to take their money than it is to leave it alone. The dead don't care anymore about their money: they're dead. The estate tax does NOT tax the dead. It taxes the living who inherit the estates.

But, unlike other taxes, it's acutely destructive. Other taxes, while being destructive, are much slower. A person who gives up 20% of their annual income loses a lot of money over their lifetime. But that destruction takes place only a little bit at a time. The estate tax, however, happens all at once: when a person dies. This has the impact of destroying, in one fell swoop, the thing that a lifetime had built up.

The effect of this destruction is most evident when you talk about how the estate tax impacts farmers. Farmers are small business owners. This particular small business requires an enormous amount of capital be effective. Land, machinery, storage facilities, processing facilities, etc. As a consequence, most of the wealth built into a farm is not in the form of liquid assets. When a farmer dies, the inheritors of that farm are suddenly subject to a huge tax burden. Most of the time, the inheritors do not have the cash assets to pay the tax. The only mechanism available is usually to change the non-liquid assets into cash by liquidating the assets. One person buys the land, someone else buys the equipment, etc. The resulting cash is then used to pay the tax. Even if the inheritors wanted to keep the business running, they usually can't.

The result of the tax is that a farm, which had been built up over a lifetime, is destroyed by tax policy. The estate tax is the easiest example of how tax policy destroys private property. If the government just took a bulldozer and razed 45% of the farm, we'd all be rightfully enraged with the government. We'd be calling for reforms and restrictions on the power of the government. Estate taxes do the exact same thing as bulldozering 45% of a farm, and we should be equally outraged and calling for restrictions on the power of the government, and an abolishment of such a destructive policy.

Unfortunately, farms are not the only private property destroyed by tax policy. And the estate tax is not the only tax policy that destroys private property. All taxation destroys private property. It's just that with the estate tax it's much easier to see the destruction. And lest you get too cozy with the destruction of private property, much rides on strong private property rights.

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