THE ESTATE TAX IS VITAL TO AMERICAN REPUBLICANISM
Thwarting the supremacy of a finite patrician class is, in a sense, the most American pursuit. Dictionary.com defines “republic” variously as “a state in which the head of government is not a monarch or other hereditary head of state” or “a state in which the supreme power rests in the body of citizens.” The word owes its origin to the Latin phrase res publica, meaning “concern of the public.” Our republic was born in a 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 agenda of the United States. (Indeed, every antebellum presidential candidate who won the South won the most electoral votes.)
“Our republic was born in a 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 agenda of the United States.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that the Republican Party within our republic began as a disruptive, revolutionary force. President Lincoln’s administration was in contact with Karl Marx, whose letters transformed Lincoln’s view that abolishing slavery was a turning point in global nineteenth-century politics in supporting an international ethos that valued basic human rights more than the ideal production of goods. Contemporaneously, Theodore Roosevelt Sr. instilled those republican values in his asthmatic son, who was then six years old. Theodore Jr. went on to defend the “concern of the public.” He pressured Congress to advance a “Square Deal” between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, ensuring that greatest power would rest with publicly elected representatives and not the millionaires who owned the means of production. The first President Roosevelt fought powerful trusts, regulated interstate commerce, arbitrated inter-class conflicts, and dissolved dangerous concentrations of wealth and power.
These reforms are relevant in our time because income inequality is more severe now than when Roosevelt took office, the next Congress will take office on the centennial of his death, and his signature post-presidency achievement is at risk. A year and a half after leaving office, Roosevelt gave a speech that almost reads 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… We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used… The really big fortune, 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. The point of this progressive taxation was not to raise federal revenues (although we rely heavily on these revenues in our era of fiscal woes). Instead, the idea was to prevent the formation of an inherited aristocracy in our republic. In 1916, President Wilson signed it into law under a more familiar moniker: the Estate Tax.
The Estate Tax has been rebranded throughout its century-long history. Within 30 years, 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. The central objective of the estate tax was and continue to impede the consolidation of American power and influence into a small aristocracy with a shrinking number of surnames.
“Within 30 years, millionaires began using the term “death tax” in order to smear it as a punishment for bereavement.”
President Trump, Vice President Pence, and the House Republican Caucus have been clear about their disdain for the Estate Tax. Although, the Senate 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 it “Pants on Fire.” It’s entirely possible that when ultra-wealthy magnate Warren Buffett dies, his tens of billions of dollars will fall to his three children unencumbered. Three people could hoard these billions simply 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.
In May, several major outlets reported that the richest families in Florence, Italy had been the richest for almost 700 years. 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 do 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, the Goldmans, and the Trumps? 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?
Author: Alex Garrett
Also published on Medium.