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Urban Rhythms

Silver Spooning

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 2/21/2001

Our Founding Fathers thought a great deal about the problem of inherited wealth. And many of them were dead set against it.

If the Founding Fathers had had their way, each generation would have been required to start from scratch. They envisioned their newly created nation as a muscular society in which each generation of citizens earned its own keep by the sweat of its own labor. Empowered by equal access to education and unfettered by caste or social standing, the strongest, wisest, most ambitious men would have blasted their way to the top in the brave new world the Founding Fathers tried to design, while the weak and the stupid would have plunged to the bottom.

Granted, the Founding Fathers talked a better game than they delivered. To preserve the illusion of the innate superiority of the white, Anglo-Saxon male, they did everything they could to keep from competing fairly with women, Africans, Asians, Native Americans, Eastern Europeans, or anyone else who might come along.

Still, they had read and endorsed Adam Smith, who argued in The Wealth of Nations that the social welfare of strong societies should be placed in the hands of the most competent. Later, Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) seemed to give the weight of science to the view that the best and the brightest rise to the top through hard work and competition.

And so, I imagine the Founding Fathers would be just a little bit saddened to see the sons of their grandsons' sons--as decadent and pampered a class of privileged aristocrats as anything produced by Old Europe--fighting so hard to eliminate the inheritance tax.

Estate or inheritance taxes are assessed on the net worth of estates valued at more than $675,000 when the estate holder dies. Only about 2 percent of descendants have to pay them. But many of the wealthy pay lawyers and accountants to set up shelters and dodges to protect the bulk of their wealth, forcing them to leave part of their fortune to charity. And apparently this annoys them. The inheritance tax (opponents of it have quite cleverly dubbed it the "death tax") appears to be one of those irritating nuisances the rich must put up with, like lazy servants and panhandlers. So abolishing it has become the battle cry of the new republic.

The estate tax was almost repealed last year. Congress approved it, but President Clinton, a working-class boy from Arkansas, vetoed it. Now, President Bush proposes to phase it out over the next nine years. A bill just introduced by Sen. John Kyl (R-Ariz.) would eliminate the inheritance tax immediately.

"Government has no business confiscating the legacy parents work their entire lives to build for their children," Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill whined during testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee last week.

This, of course, is what comes of our electing an elite, effete, patrician, pampered, privileged, high-society, playboy, Skull and Bones blue blood like George W. Bush to be president of the United States.

The measure to eliminate the tax had seemed like a shoo-in. The rich have been getting richer these last few decades, and the rest of us have become resigned to the realization that the brave new world envisioned by the Founding Fathers has failed. But now, a coalition of fat cats--very fat cats--has launched a crusade to preserve the inheritance tax. About 120 multimillionaires took out a full-page ad in The New York Times earlier this month to warn that repealing the inheritance tax "would enrich the heirs of America's millionaires and billionaires, while hurting families who struggle to make ends meet." Among those signing the petition are financier George Soros, David Rockefeller Jr. and Steven Rockefeller of the Rockefellers, Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, and William Gates Sr., father of the founder of Microsoft Corp.

These are a very different breed from the blue-blood set. The media quickly tagged them "liberals," which these days is a code word for bleeding-heart idiots. But, in fact, they sound a lot like the Founding Fathers.

"We have come closer to a true meritocracy than anywhere else in the world," billionaire businessman Warren Buffett, reputedly the fourth-richest man in America, told the Times (Buffett, however, did not sign the petition). "You have mobility, so people with talents can be put to the best use. Without the estate tax, you in effect will have an aristocracy of wealth, which means you pass down the ability to command the resources of the nation based on heredity rather than merit."

Of course, some of us might argue that an aristocracy of wealth already exists, inheritance tax or no inheritance tax. Still, Buffett's sentiments are on target. If we cannot have the reality, let's at least celebrate the ideal.

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