The “Death Tax” Cargo Cult

With its assault on the estate tax, the GOP is demonstrating that it’s not even under the thumb of the 1 percent, but the 0.2 percent.

A mansion in New York State. Arman Thanvir / Flickr

The estate tax is good. It acts as a modest brake on the growth of inherited wealth and the power of private dynasties, and brings money into the public coffers to boot.

That didn’t used to be very controversial. Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson were proponents of inheritance taxes, as were the nineteenth-century steel baron Andrew Carnegie and the right-wing economist James Buchanan. For roughly two hundred years, outside a fringe of reactionary plutocrats, there was broad accord on the question of the estate tax. Even conservative philosophers and statesmen found it difficult to defend letting economic elites pass on large bequests to heirs unfettered.

Then something seemed to change. In the last two decades, the Republican Party began to make a show of its opposition to the estate tax. This about face is one sign, among many, of how far the GOP and American democracy generally have gone off the rails. The Republican Party now represents something unique: untethered to any intelligible political philosophy, it’s increasingly guided by nothing but a hatred for the Left and a blind devotion to the billionaire class.

You Can’t Take It With You

The estate tax is simple: a rich person dies, leaving a large amount of property and assets to heirs, but before the transfer is complete the government takes a share and turns it into public money. At present, the US federal estate tax applies to almost no one: an estate’s value has to exceed $5.49 million per person before the tax kicks in. Only 0.2 percent of Americans owe estate tax when they die.

And yet Republicans have crusaded vigorously, and successfully, to give that top fifth of the top 1 percent a break. This year the House and Senate both passed bills that threaten the federal estate tax’s meager existence. Both bills double the threshold at which it applies, and the House version repeals it altogether starting in 2025.

Republican politicians can’t even be bothered to string together a coherent argument for why they want to dismantle the tax. “I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing,” said Republican senator Chuck Grassley last week, “as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.” Besides implying that 99.8 percent of Americans are drunken spendthrifts, Grassley seems unaware that it’s the heirs to the estate who pay the estate tax — not the former owners of the estate, who are dead.

One can avoid the headache of trying to untangle GOP logic by accepting that their only ambition in hobbling the estate tax is to curry favor with wealthy elites, only about 5,500 of whom are subject to an estate tax each year.

Creature of Public Convention

The current GOP paradigm has little to do with any particular conservative doctrine, and everything to do with cementing an alliance with capital in the present.

Though classical liberals sought to limit the state’s powers, they made frequent exceptions when it came to inheritance taxes. Adam Smith, the intellectual forefather of laissez faire, wrote, “A power to dispose of estates forever is manifestly absurd. The earth and the fullness of it belongs to every generation, and the preceding one can have no right to bind it up from posterity. Such extension of property is quite unnatural.”

While there’s never been complete consensus on the question, the estate tax was far from anathema to the Founding Fathers whom modern conservatives claim as their ancestors. Thomas Jefferson, in particular, felt strongly about the need for taxes to prevent generational wealth from exacerbating social and economic stratification. On the question of “whether one generation of men has a right to bind another,” Jefferson wrote in a letter to James Madison that “the earth belongs in usufruct to the living,” and that “the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.”

Jefferson reasoned that the alternative to an inheritance tax was the proliferation of “perpetual monopolies,” in contradiction to the stated values of the American Revolution. Benjamin Franklin, for his part, wrote that all property — with the exception of small belongings either of personal value or absolutely necessary for basic subsistence (the kinds of things socialists distinguish as “personal property”) — is “the creature of public convention. Hence the public has the right of regulating descents, and all other conveyances of property, and even of limiting the quantity and the uses of it.”

The federal government first imposed an estate tax in 1898 to help fund the Spanish-American War. While many of the nation’s wealthy grumbled about the imposition, Andrew Carnegie, among the wealthiest industrial capitalists of the era, published an essay the next year defending the tax.

“There are but three modes in which surplus wealth can be disposed of,” he wrote. “It can be left to the families of the decedents; or it can be bequeathed for public purposes; or, finally, it can be administered during their lives by its possessors.” He considered the first strategy the most “injudicious,” asking rhetorically, “Why should men leave great fortunes to their children? If this is done from affection, is it not misguided affection?”

It was progressives in the early twentieth century who advanced modern estate tax legislation. But the notion of an inherent conflict between conservative politics and inheritance taxation is, clearly, a relatively recent one. Even liberals who advocated for inheritance taxes relied on capitalist arguments — for example, Teddy Roosevelt maintained that minor redistribution on the occasion of death would help create “the conditions under which each man obtains the chance to show the stuff that is in him when compared to his fellows.”

The “Death Tax”

Until the late nineties, there was essentially no national debate about the estate tax. Ronald Reagan’s administration slowly raised the estate tax threshold over the course of his presidency, but it barely made the papers. Throughout the nineties, most debate centered on minute policy details. The tax itself wasn’t in peril.

The first Republican politician to earnestly propose abolishing it altogether was Newt Gingrich, in 1997. The timing was significant — the late nineties saw the first wave of baby boomers reaching an age where they needed to think about the death of their parents, and thus the status of their inheritances. “His proposal will not be adopted any time soon, lawmakers and lobbyists agree,” read a New York Times article about Gingrich’s estate tax repeal gambit. But it did turn heads, and expand the window of possibility.

Republicans made a wildcard attempt to repeal the estate tax in 2000 and were defeated. But the fight made headlines, and estate tax repeal started to become a political issue where before it had been a nonstarter. Once considered an inevitable part of the tax code, it now appeared vulnerable. The repeal initiative undermined the collective impression of its permanence, and enticed wealthy elites with visions of free money.

In 2002, the GOP tried again, and failed again. But estate tax repeal had emerged as a talking point. “Republicans promised to use their legislative defeat as an issue in the election campaign this fall,” reported the New York Times on the eve of the defeat. GOP politicians began calling it the “death tax,” obscuring its narrow application to the ultra-rich, claiming it was responsible for “destroying family businesses, family farms, and family dreams.”

A corporate lobbying group with political ties to Karl Rove, Rand Paul, and the Koch brothers agitated behind the scenes. The estate tax thus emerged as a policy meeting place for free-market ideologues, Republican politicians in search of donors, and economic elites looking to keep it in the family.

Question Mark

Conservatism is an inherently reactionary political orientation. Its modern incarnation emerged in the 1970s and ’80s with a mission: to sweep away business regulations, destroy the labor movement, and bring the American left to its knees. Having accomplished all this in under half a century, the movement is now rudderless and undisciplined. “After 40 years in Zion,” Corey Robin writes, “it has lost the will and clarity it acquired while wandering in the desert.”

The result is a sort of chaotic profligacy and unpredictability, exemplified most clearly by the party’s acquiescence to the leadership of Donald Trump. The GOP no longer has a blueprint, nor is it necessarily looking for one. Republican senator Ben Sasse was asked to describe the GOP under Trump in one word, and he took the liberty of using two: “Question mark.”

With its assault on the estate tax, the GOP is demonstrating that it’s not even under the thumb of the 1 percent, but the 0.2 percent. As some conservative thinkers have long argued, eliminating the estate tax isn’t even rational policymaking for the capitalist class. It’s simply a gift to hyper-elites. Since that money would otherwise go into public coffers — where it could be spent making life better for present and future generations — it amounts to a kind of sacrificial offering.