Generations ago, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”
The Estate Tax has been branded and rebranded throughout its century-long history. Thirty years ago, millionaires began using the term “death tax” in order to smear it as a punishment for bereavement. More recently, it has been called “the Paris Hilton Tax,” in reference to a socialite whose billionaire status is hardly the result of any meaningful work.
This heavy tax helped keep the United States fiscally sound during eras of high spending, especially during and after World War II. But its central objective was and should remain to impede the consolidation of American power and influence into a small aristocracy with a shrinking number of surnames. Without the Tax, it’s entirely possible that when ultra-wealthy business magnate and investor Warren Buffett dies, his tens of billions of dollars will fall to his three children unencumbered. Three people could stumble into a fortune worth billions of dollars as a result of the circumstances of their birth, while the federal government struggles to pay for education, infrastructure, national defense, and care for senior citizens.
President Trump, Vice President Pence, and the House Republican Caucus have made clear their disdain for the Estate Tax. Although the Senate’s tax reform proposal doesn’t include a full repeal of the Tax, some Republicans — such as Ted Cruz — have joined their co-partisans in endorsing the repeal. Even among the middle and working classes, many Americans continue to believe President Trump’s claim that ending the Tax would “protect millions of small businesses and the American farmer,” though PolitiFact rated the claim as “Pants on Fire.”
In May, several major outlets reported that the richest families in Florence, Italy had been the richest for almost 700 years. That fact again: in the year 1427, the richest Florentines had the same surnames as today’s richest Florentines. While the Republican Congress considers how to reorganize our federal tax system, consider that the United States is barely two centuries old. What kind of country to we want to be? On our 600th birthday (in the year 2376), will we celebrate the continued prosperity of the Waltons, the Kochs, the Hearsts, the Du Ponts, and the Goldmans? Or, will we celebrate a society of merit, in which the richest among us are those who have provided impeccable goods and services to the American people in their own time?
Thwarting the supremacy of a finite patrician class is, in a sense, the most American pursuit. Our republic was born in a moment of rebellion against a hereditary ruling class, and our Republican Party was born in an act of aggression against a Southern aristocracy that not only controlled the bodies and lives of abducted Africans, but also maintained near-hegemonic power over the Senate and the foreign policy of the United States.
Contemporaneously, Theodore Roosevelt Sr. instilled egalitarian, republican values in his asthmatic, six-year-old son who grew up to promote these ideas from the “bully pulpit.” Theodore Jr., an ardent defender of the ‘concern of the public,’ pressed Congress to advance a Square Deal between labor and the industrial elite, ensuring that ultimate power would rest with publicly elected representatives rather than millionaires that owned the means of production. The first President Roosevelt fought powerful trusts, regulated interstate commerce, arbitrated interclass conflicts, and dissolved dangerous concentrations of wealth and power.
These reforms are relevant in our time, not only because income inequality is more severe now than when Roosevelt took office, not only because the next Congress will take office on the centennial of his death, not only because a progressive movement once again threatens the gilded status quo, but also because his signature post-presidency achievement is at risk. A year and a half after leaving office, Roosevelt gave a speech that reads now as a direct warning to the incumbent Congress:
The absence of… restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power. The prime need is to change the conditions which enable these men to accumulate power which it is not for the general welfare that they should hold or exercise [emphasis mine].
He also pointed out that while it would be wrong to punish the rich simply for being rich, a vast wealth-gap is more than just a quantitative difference, it is a qualitative one too:
We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used… The swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size, acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means. Therefore, I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and… a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion, and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.
Roosevelt advocated imposing substantial taxes on unelected millionaires who exerted dangerous supremacy over the entire Western world. Though we rely heavily on these revenues in our era of fiscal woes, the point of this progressive taxation was not to raise federal revenues. Instead, the idea was to prevent the formation of an inherited aristocracy in our republic. In 1916, President Wilson signed such a measure into law under a more familiar moniker: the Estate Tax.
For a century, this tax has been a crucial bulwark against a de facto monarchy, where an exclusive class of well-bred American princes could build and consolidate their wealth and power unimpeded. In a republic, power is distributed broadly, and a world with trillionaires is simply not consistent with that system. We must preserve the Estate Tax in order to guard against a society with men so rich they can buy standing armies, small nations, and major legislative favors.
For more of Alex Garrett’s work, check out: http://evespolitics.com/social-issues/the-end-of-daca/”