Gone to the dogs


Becks wants to know how we can keep rich people from giving their money to dogs. I'm not sure I get this--rich people donate money to the ASPCA all the time, and I, for one, tend to think this is laudable. Protecting animals from suffering--the intent of Ms. Helmsley's trust--seems like the kind of thing a decent and prosperous society does, although of course, I would say that, wouldn't I?

The op-ed she links is written by a law professor who seems to regard Ms. Helmsley's money as belonging to said law professor, with sort of a lifetime tenancy agreement. If Ms. Helmsley declines to disburse this money as Professor Madoff sees fit, we're supposed to be outraged at the injustice of it all.

I can make all sorts of arguments for what shouldn't get charitable deductions, like museums--but then people like Tyler Cowen and Kriston Capps put forth very emotional arguments against me. The very idea of a liberal, pluralistic society is that we all have a lot of divergent ideas about what constitutes the public good, and therefore need a lot of room to pursue those notions without government interference. Using government fiat to declare that some purposes are valid, others not, is the antithesis of the American idea. Instead, we basically say that as long as you aren't using the money to benefit yourself or your descendants, it counts as charity.

Moreover, the law professor's complaints are, in this case, silly. The charitable estate tax deduction matters a lot to people who have heirs whose inheritance they would like to maximize--but given that the appalling Ms. Helmsley sued the family of her single dead son into penury after he died, it's hard to see how this would have made a difference to her bequest. Had we taxed her estate fully, the dogs would have ended up with less money, but needy children would have gotten no more.

You could argue, I suppose, that the government could have taken the money and given it to needy children. But looking at the budget shows that most of it would have gone somewhere else: affluent old people, wealthy farmers, defense contractors, holders of US debt, road builders, government employees, and so forth. Indeed, the law professor's favorite target, Head Start, isn't exactly a shining star in terms of poverty reduction.

My preference would be to eliminate the estate tax and tax the cash as it hits a person or entity. That wouldn't fix this 'problem', but then, I don't think anything will. On the other hand, it would make it harder to structure estates to avoid taxation (personal income of that sort is hard to structure), and it would allow us to be much more granular in achieving our goal, which is to avoid plutocratic accumulations of wealth, not punish people for getting rich and dying.