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Greed, Envy and the Estate Tax

Aspiring aristocrats think that taxing the wealthy is punishment --but individual wealth is impossible without the labor and ideas of others.
 
 
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Whenever I write about the estate tax, or what opponents call the ''death tax,'' the aspiring aristocrats come out the woodwork.

The idea that the estate tax is a needed check against concentrated wealth and centralized power, which the intellectual father of free markets, Adam Smith, argued would undermine capitalism itself, apparently causes some kind of allergic reaction among those afflicted with class envy. I know. Usually, it's ''conservatives'' accusing ''liberals'' of having ''class envy.''

Certainly, envy does apply to those ''liberals'' who do harbor ill will toward the wealthy because they are jealous of the advantages that wealth provides. But there's a flip side to envy. Some people envy the rich and, because they hope to someday be rich and be treated as royalty themselves, it induces them to become apologists for greed and view the wealthy as ''victims'' of guilt-ridden liberal policy-makers and their liberal ''mainstream'' news organizations.

Liberals (and ''the terrorists'') don't have a monopoly on envy; to say nothing of the fact that arguing over the inner-recesses of a stranger's psyche is a waste of time.

When I refer to the patron saints of the free market who either implicitly, or in some cases explicitly, support the principle behind the estate tax, opponents respond by sweeping aside tradition and talk about propping up a ''weak argument'' on the shoulders of authority. Another red herring. The point isn't to approach economic policy as religious conservatives do the Bible, but to be aware of internal contradictions and the associated mental errors that result.

Of course, there are those who view all taxes as theft; as the illegitimate confiscation of an individual's income or assets. If every man, woman and child were an island unto themselves, I would agree. But individual wealth is impossible without the labor and ideas of others, as well as the infrastructure, laws and civic institutions necessary for the creation and maintenance of wealth.

It doesn't matter how disciplined, hard-working, virtuous and thrifty you are. If you happen to be born in, say, Haiti, you couldn't be a Bill Gates because of the political and economic environment. Therefore, because the society in which you live makes it possible to be rich, there is a legitimate social claim on a portion of every individual's material wealth. Looked at that way, taxes are not theft but the cost of membership in a society that makes being rich a possibility.

Some call the Warren Buffets and Bill Gateses of the world ''limousine liberals.'' I call them historically astute enough to know that whenever you have a narrow concentration of wealth, you have unstable societies, plagued by revolt and unrest, which is a threat to the wealth of the wealthy. It's not guilt that convinced Buffet and Gates and hundreds of other multi-millionaires and billionaires to form Responsible Wealth in opposition to the Bush administration push to permanently repeal the estate tax. It's their enlightened self-interest.

To those aspiring aristocrats who think taxes ''punish'' success, consider what Responsible Wealth member Frank Butler has to say. Butler is the former president and general manager of Eastman Gelatine Corp., a subsidiary of Eastman Kodak; past president and current board member of Ministry of Money, which deals with money issues from a biblical/spiritual perspective; past chairman of the board of Faith at Work and a Gordon College trustee.

''Punish is such a loaded term,'' he wrote me last week.

''As a 'successful' and 'wealthy' person, I would say that I do not feel any tax I pay is punishing me. And I certainly am not advocating punishing anyone with taxes. I feel that paying taxes is part of my responsibility to the Commonwealth that has nourished me and provided me with opportunities far greater than I ever imagined - and I am saddened that from my perspective the concept of Commonwealth seems to be largely disappearing from the public consciousness.

''If my memory is correct, when I entered the work force in the early 1950s, the top tax bracket was somewhere near 90 percent and no one that I knew of considered that as punishment. I do not remember what the estate tax laws were then - it was too far in the future for me to even think about. I would say now, at this stage in my life, that an estate tax is a great way for me to help celebrate my good fortune by sharing some of the results with others and hopefully helping them be more fortunate in the future.''

Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff reporter and a syndicated columnist.