Poking conservative tigers

May 19, 1997|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Irwin Stelzer's hobby is writing trenchantly about public policy from his thinking place at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. Many conservatives, once they read his essay about inheritance taxes (in this week's Weekly Standard) may wish Mr. Stelzer would find another hobby.

Most conservatives want to cut inheritance taxation, if they cannot abolish it. They say such taxation is institutionalized envy, confiscation in the service of egalitarian social engineering and an affront to family values. Mr. Stelzer, whose idea of fun is poking tigers with short sticks, says conservatives should favor an inheritance tax rate at least as steep as the top rate on earned income.

How, he asks, can conservatives square opposition to affirmative action and to inheritance taxes? Conservatives, he says, oppose affirmative action because it confers on certain groups unearned advantages, and conservatives oppose inheritance taxes because such taxes deny a certain group -- inheritors of the fruits of other people's successes -- unearned advantages.

This supposed contradiction is not as wounding as Mr. Stelzer supposes, because preferences administered by government and based on race are inherently obnoxious, whereas preferences based on kinship and administered by parents are not. Still, Mr. Stelzer prods conservatives with a sharp stick, as follows:

If conservatives succeed in doubling the current $600,000 exemption of an estate's value from inheritance taxes, then an industrious individual who earns $1.2 million by the sweat of his brow will pay almost $500,000 in income taxes, but an individual who inherits $1,2 million from parents provided to him by the accident of birth will pay nothing. So conservatives, who say mighty blessings would flow from reduction of taxes on earned income, should favor reducing those taxes by a dollar amount equal to the amount raised by confiscatory taxes on inheritances.

To the conservatives' objection that a 100 percent tax on inheritances would discourage parental thrift and industriousness, Mr. Stelzer responds that such a tax would increase the incentive for children of the rich to pull up their socks and toil and save. If such a tax encouraged the affluent elderly to go on a binge of consumption to frustrate the IRS, that consumption would just replace the consumption of their frustrated heirs. Besides, such a tax might prompt a binge of charitable giving, a conservative goal.

Mr. Stelzer says inheritance of wealth only gilds the already amply gilded lily of birth. Government cannot stop the intergenerational transfer of assets at least as valuable as financial ones -- intelligence is largely heritable, and the children of the rich are apt to be expensively educated and supplied by their family context with useful goals, reputations and connections.

So conservatives, who endorse equality of opportunity as an alternative to liberals' policies designed to produce equality of social outcomes, should, Mr. Stelzer says, favor inheritance taxes to produce a ''level playing field.''

What he's missing

''What am I missing?'' Mr. Stelzer asks. The answer, which his argument forces conservatives to face, is that economic reasoning must be subservient to philosophic reflection which teaches that ''equality of opportunity'' is an unsatisfactory aspiration. Inevitably, such equality is largely a chimera. And a ''level playing field'' can be produced only by a government resembling a rampaging bulldozer that would crush all other social values, including liberty, as it tries to level down excellences, in education and elsewhere, that confer advantages.

Inheritance taxes should be abolished to encourage an ennobling concern for posterity, not as a mere abstraction but in the concrete particularity of one's children. Self-absorption is an unlovely human tendency; beyond a certain point, accumulation is mere hedonism and narcissism, unless directed beyond the horizon of one's mortality. The ability to look toward that horizon, and to project one's thoughtfulness past it, is a distinctively human capacity, and humane public policy should encourage the inclination to do so.

Furthermore, an unfettered right of inheritance would help to provide a social prerequisite for the political virtue of limited government. It would do so by encouraging society's molecular unit, the family, to pursue self-sufficiency. The surest way to strengthen family structure is by encouraging an ethic of provision that will braid the generations through the loving transmission of advantages.

Speaking of familial matters, Mr. Stelzer's son, who lives in Denver, has not yet read his father's essay against the privilege of inheritance. Mr. Stelzer says his wife has, and is not speaking to him. Sound woman.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 5/19/97

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