The American Aristocracy


Earlier this year, we allowed the estate tax to lapse entirely. Billionaires are now free to take a lifetime of accumulated wealth and pass it on to their heirs. We've come full-circle from the last Gilded Age. So it's worth looking back at Andrew Carnegie's Gospel of Wealth for a reminder of why we needed an estate tax in the first place:

The growing disposition to tax more and more heavily large estates left at death is a cheering indication of the growth of a salutary change in public opinion....Of all forms of taxation, this seems the wisest. Men who continue hoarding great sums all their lives, the proper use of which for public ends would work good to the community, should be made to feel that the community, in the form of the state, cannot thus be deprived of its proper share...This policy would work powerfully to induce the rich man to attend to the administration of wealth during his life, which is the end that society should always have in view, as being that by far most fruitful for the people.
For Carnegie, the ideal estate tax would not generate any revenue at all. It was instrumental. He hoped its prospect would nudge the wealthy into actively redistributing their own fortunes in support of the particular goals they found attractive. It was only if they attempted to hoard the fortune the society had enabled them to accrue, and pass it on to future generations intact, that the state would have an obligation to intervene.

And that vision still resonates today. It spoke to Warren Buffet, who not only read The Gospel of Wealth, but also gave a copy to Bill Gates. It helped inspire their charitable giving and their advocacy for the estate tax, and it's now providing the impetus for a broader campaign for philanthropy. 

Then there's the other reason for the estate tax - warding off aristocracy. We once understood the threat posed by hereditary privilege, but as our experience with an actual aristocracy has faded into the dim recesses of our collective memory, we have grown less vigilant. It is not simply that hereditary privilege creates a permanent schism in society, and mocks the notion that all have the opportunity to succeed. It has an equally corrupting effect on the aristocrats themselves. Carnegie observed that "it is no longer questionable that great sums bequeathed oftener work more for the injury than for the good of the recipients." One might think that a conservative movement always alive to the dangers of welfare would be leading the charge for the restoration of the tax. Alas, not.

So it's vital that Congress restore the estate tax. It should do it to encourage philanthropy.
It should do it to preserve our democratic republic. But if that's not enough, then at the very least, it should do it for all the poor little rich kids who would otherwise lead lives of wasteful indolence. Perhaps it would help if we relabeled the Death Tax as Welfare Reform?

This post first appeared here under the name Cynic.

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Yoni Appelbaum is a social and cultural historian of the United States. He is a doctoral candidate at Brandeis University, and a lecturer in history at Babson College. He previously contributed to under the name Cynic.

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