- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2003

So tell us, Bill Gates and Chuck Collins just why should America tax accumulated fortunes? Because "the estate tax helps make America great"? Because the "enormous power" of that wealth places our democracy "at risk"? Very well. Also, a reviewer is bound to add, because Mr. Gates and Mr. Collins, leaders of the movement that might be called Celebrities for the Death Tax, are outspoken fans of government, and of government's varied interventions in American lives.
"Wealth and Our Commonwealth" is a plea for the philosophy that estate taxes whether you know it or not are good for you. If such a notion makes you wonder how a measure so widely disliked as the death tax can be considered virtuous by anyone, you might want to read this brisk, informative, non-rancorous book.
Is a book like this, even so, likely to make one join a crusade to restore the death tax (which Congress in 2001 undertook to phase out, but only through 2010)? That would depend on how many readers buy into the authors' view of government as a kind of benevolent uncle, qualified to determine how much wealth is too much wealth, then to step in to redress alleged imbalances.
"The estate tax helps make America great," the authors confidently affirm. It "connects us to our country's most fundamental values," such as taking from "the rich" in order to scatter bounty upon "the poor." Mr. Gates and Mr. Collins never put the matter that baldly, but they discourse passionately on the need to smooth out inequalities of income, invoking Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Carnegie and the two Presidents Roosevelt.
"At the heart of the 'American experiment,' " the authors report, "is our vision of equality of opportunity and the rejection of hereditary wealth and power." This gets very close to the egalitarian ideal of whack-back-the-tallest-stalks.
To read history, and not just our own, either, is to know how deeply the same ideal is embedded in human consciousness. Is "ideal" even the right word? The church early on defined envy another name for a principal motive behind all the stalk-whacking as one of the Seven Deadly Sins. The connection goes unmentioned in "Wealth and Our Commonwealth."
One of the ironies here (another is the irony of hearing two rich men cry, "Tax me, tax me!") is the effectiveness of the death tax, which produces for the U.S. Treasury only about 1 percent of its revenues, some $30 billion. As Bolshevism goes, this hardly qualifies as a warm-up exercise. Mr. Gates and Mr. Collins, it is true, yearn to increase the death-tax take; but, given current political trends, that prospect seems dim.
If the death tax isn't an efficient engine of redistribution, what is it, then? In practice, more an encumbrance than anything else; a hindrance to investment and efficient planning; a source of enrichment for financial planners and lawyers.
A point the authors clearly could not have intended gleams through the smoke of battle. That point is the messiness of federal policy in general and of federal tax policy in particular. Mr. Gates and Mr. Collins dismiss small farmers' supposedly overwrought complaints about the tax. What is the real problem? Aha the dominance of corporate farmers. But, this same dominance, as the authors seem pleased with themselves for noting, proceeds in part from the lavish tax subsidies big farmers receive from the very government that the authors trust with wealth allocation.
The reader could and doubtless should infer that things haven't been going all that well, government allocation-wise. Shouldn't that inference, far from fueling enthusiasm for Robin Hood theories, actually reinforce calls for major overhaul of the federal tax code?
The thesis of "Wealth and Our Commonwealth" is backward-looking and nostalgic. It is that government knows best: how much money rich people actually need; how to make sure they have that amount and no more; where the fruits of confiscation should wind up. Does such a consideration drain interest from "Wealth and Our Commonwealth" and its philosophical argument? I wouldn't go half that far. This little book illuminates, showing free-market disciples and anti-death tax crusaders what goes on here. Meaning …?
Meaning that an ancient cleavage endures in the human spirit. The argument here, older than the Sphinx, is not fundamentally about taxes or rates, or even about economic efficiency. It is about entitlement who deserves what? That, and who says so? Yeah, and where does some guy get off telling me what's good for me?
And so on … world without end. Alas.

William Murchison is Radford Distinguished Professor of Journalism at Baylor University.

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