Column: Did You Know the Founding Fathers Approved of the Death Tax?

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Mr. Carpenter is a writer and doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Illinois.

Assuming that your life is made considerably sadder by the thought of Enron's former CEO, Jeffrey Skilling, losing out on (another) tax cut of $55 million, last week's Senate rejection of the estate tax's permanent repeal must have made your day dismal indeed. Assuming, on the other hand, that the Senate's burdening of Jeff's heirs concerns you not one whit, then congratulations, you heartless blackguard.

Its vote, for the time being, belied the oft-heard and exceedingly simplistic accusation that no longer is there any difference between the major parties. While 9 Democratic senators voted in support of repeal, 41 did not. Across the aisle, only 2 Republicans--Lincoln Chafee and John McCain--displayed a fiscal and ethical conscience. Along with their borrow-and-spend sidekicks in the House, Senate Republicans once again rose to the occasion of demonstrating just how far they wish to turn back the social clock.

They are, quite literally, of a pre-1797 mind, for it was that year in which Congress first passed estate taxation. We were engaged in a maritime rumble with dyspeptic Frenchmen, and to compensate for lost revenue resulting from disrupted shipping Congress slapped a tax on the dearly and freshly departed rich. It was, after all, a time of national emergency--the equivalent of war without declaration.

In the seventh month of the Civil War's second year, Congress again passed a progressive estate tax, exempting personal property valued under $1000. Amidst the rising debt of a bloody war, it further tapped the sale of what I, at least, consider necessary staples of any cultured home: liquor and tobacco. Modern congressional conservatives--who pine for those libertarian days of the rich before FDR breezed into town--would be appalled to learn that their sainted Republican forebears did another unthinkable deed during the War Between the States: they imposed an excise tax on yachts. Somehow the rich pulled through.

With the coming of the Spanish-American War, once again Congress enacted a graduated estate tax, this time topping out at 15 percent, subject to proper exemptions, of course. It died with the passing of armed conflict, just as earlier estate-tax legislation had done. But in 1906 Republican President Theodore Roosevelt proposed to Congress that a permanent--and peacetime--"death" tax be instituted, as well as a progressive income tax. "The man of great wealth owes a peculiar obligation to the State," he wrote, "because he derives special advantages from the mere existence of government"--not the least of which is "the protection the State gives him." Since the republic's creation the national government had soaked the poor on a regular basis through price-boosting tariffs and excise taxes, and it was about time aristocrats anted up. Compared to today's Republicans, it would seem our 26th president had "peculiar" ideas about advantaged individuals' obligations to others.

Among other problems a decidedly unprogressive Supreme Court stood in TR's way, however, rendering his far-sighted hopes unfulfillable for the next 10 years. It took the development of yet another war to bring estate-tax permanency. With myriad adjustments here and there, it's been the law of the land since crusty old Woodrow Wilson sat stewing in the Oval Office about ... everything.

Notwithstanding conservatives' high indignation, the rich, as we all know, have gotten richer; privileged heirs have continued to reap vast, unearned fortunes; and, excepting Andrew Carnegie, the obscenely monied have not made a habit of leaving libraries rather than inheritances behind. All in all, the estate tax has worked out pretty well for all classes, as revenues from the wealthy dead--usually forked over with a certain posthumous deference in the hope that villagers won't start flaming their descendants--have gone to enhance the nation's general welfare.

Naturally, now that baby boomers' swollen ranks stand at the edge of retirement facing a troubled Social Security and Medicare system, conservatives seek to starve an already starved government of crucial revenue. In the 10 years following the current law's sunset, repeal would cost government $740 billion--which is to say, in practical terms, a more secure life for a lot of people who'll be worrying about keeping the rent paid, not the holiday weather in Monaco. On top of that, conservatives seek permanent repeal while wailing for greater sums to be spent on defense against foreign maniacs, whom they say will never go away. Believe me, my dear conservatives, we know how you feel.

The New York Times called recent Republican efforts to repeal estate taxes "a bad case of warped priorities" and "a cynical and fraudulent exercise." Come on, boys, don't sugarcoat it. Said many times and in many ways, every time we think the present crop of congressional conservatives can't sink any lower in the sea of unreason, they manage to do outdo themselves. It's a thing of wonder.

Eager anticipation of their next zany antics has become the national past time for those with a conscience and a pulse. Should Republicans lose the House and not regain the Senate this fall, we'll be forced to start watching football--and Teddy Roosevelt will stop turning in his grave.

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Jim - 12/13/2003

Adam Smith was read by our founding fathers. He was a moral philoshopher in the Scottish "enlightenment." He may well be, as you say, the "'founding father' of capitalism," but he, never
having heard or conceived the term, was more anti-mercantilism and anti-crown (british royalty) based monopolism. He advocated free movement of labor and capital, but you'd be hard pressed to find in the most available and annotated U Chicago edition of _Wealth of Nations_, otherwise entitled by the author as _An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations_, any emphasis in the annotations, of his full and liberal conviction that affirmative action, in the form of government financed education, progressive taxes et al. were necessary to correct for the social costs of free trade when some very few started with great advantage.

Adam Smith, his student Adam Ferguson, and many at St. Andrews in the day, witnessed some of the most advanced industrial organization, with profound changes to the capital labor relationship, next door to the traditional trade and relations of clans in the English decimated highlands.

We're pretty pathetic, that we'll allow the idiocy of Milton Freedman to have the pate of Adam Smith. Milton, tell me this: We deregulate it all, privitize it all, and what's to prevent those that already have an advantage to raise private police and military against those who would steal to survive?
Milton has his documented clients in Chile and elsewhere. Perhaps they're not pure laissez faire Milton, but they have just enough muscle to fend realities challenge from her advisors.

Tristan Traviolia - 6/21/2002

In the past I disagreed with Mr. Carpenter's commentary. On the subject of estate tax he is spot on. A large estate tax does not prohibit small government though. The tandem served us well from the Constitutional Convention until the New Deal.

Clayton E. Cramer - 6/20/2002

Keep in mind that "disentailment" was an important issue in Britain because many large estates were inherited in a form that prohibited the heir from selling or dividing the property. The effect was to produce a great many heirs who were land-rich and income-poor. This was economically very inefficient, and created some severe hardships for members of the lower nobility--as well as making it difficult for gentry to buy land, because the quantities available were too large. The context of "disentailment" is quite different from today.

Again: if you guys on the left like Adam Smith's ideas so much, why don't you start to follow them, not just the one's that you find convenient for concentrating wealth in the hands of the government?

scott pentzer - 6/20/2002

I don't have my Wealth of Nations handy, but I do believe Adam Smith devoted a chunk of space to the idea that disentailment of large estates was necessary to foster economic liberty and development. The estate tax achieves the same purpose--so couldn't we sign up the supposed "founding father" of capitalism too?

Richard A. Heddleson - 6/19/2002

But not the Federal income tax. In a democracy, we get to change things if that's what the people want.

Clayton E. Cramer - 6/19/2002

I would be a lot more impressed if Mr. Carpenter's use of the Founding Fathers as an authority on matters political and cultural were consistently applied.

The Founding Fathers also supported every free man having a gun; indeed, they passed a law that required every free white citizen between 18 and 45 to have a gun (the Militia Act of 1792). Mr. Carpenter has already made clear what his position is on that.