Philosophical commentary on contemporary political issues in the tradition of Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Michael Sandel.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

What Role Does an Estate Tax Have in a Meritocracy?

The appeal of a meritocratic system runs deep in American society. We believe that this country should be one where everyone gets a chance. "Equality of opportunity" has become the phrase of choice when approaching what composes a just system of distribution. If everyone starts from the same place, then let them end up where their merits take them. Thus we believe that people should have the right to reasonably exercise control over property that they gained from an initial position of equality with others.

The question of the levying of an estate tax, however, provides a challenge to this meritocratic premise. On the one hand, an estate tax can be construed as seizing the earned property of an individual who justly acquired it. While an argument can be put forth that property rights do not carry on past the grave, it's a strange argument to say that I could transfer my property whatever way I choose while still alive but that I could not, while alive, will my property to certain ends contingent upon my death. Most reasonable people would agree that individuals have a right to some control of their property after death. If I earned my property starting from a position of equality, then the meritocratic prerogative is for me to have control over the transfer of that property.

On the other hand, the ability to collect on an inheritance is a challenge to the meritocratic system. No one is given a chance to choose or "earn" their parents, but regardless, they most often find themselves as the primary beneficiaries of their parents' inheritances. Some may say that children "earn" the inheritance of their parents through love, affection, etc., but children are, by their relationship to their parents, already in a position to provide this love, affection, etc. that puts them in an initial position of inequality with others. Thus, bestowing inheritance stands at odds with meritocratic values.

How can this apparent contradiction be resolved?

One philosopher who provides a pertinent perspective on this case is John Rawls. In his seminal work A Theory of Justice, Rawls points out that our qualities that make up what we call our "personality," qualities such as intelligence, social skills, and work ethic, come to us as a result of luck. We have no control over our genetic endowment or our environment, so however we end up is of no merit of our own. Thus, a Rawlsian analysis of the estate tax would conclude that the estate tax is inherently just as a method of balancing inequalities that arise from unequal distribution of personality assets.

Through this line of reasoning, Rawls explicitly rejects a meritocratic political philosophy. This assertion is highly controversial and came under fire from philosophical libertarians such as Robert Nozick as well as critics of classically construed liberalism such as Alasdair MacIntyre and Michael Sandel. The overarching argument made by both sides is that it is nonsensical to say we could ever fully separate ourselves from our qualities. To say that there is some "me" that cannot be described by my intelligence, social skills, work ethic, sense of humor, interests, or background is an abstraction that tests the bounds of the meaning of "identity," and in the opinion of Nozick, MacIntyre, and Sandel, shatters it.

To say that there is a "me" that has no claim over the fruits of my labor is incorrect. Rawls cannot be dismissed so easily, though. Just because an individual can be established to have some claim over her property does not necessarily mean that this individual has a claim to all her property at the expense of everyone else's. No matter what position of equality one begins in, a system of public infrastructure is necessary to provide for the opportunity for individuals to flourish economically, socially, and politically, and that infrastructure requires public upkeep. This balance was well articulated by Senator Elizabeth Warren in a 2011 speech (fast-forward to 0:50).

What does this mean for the estate tax? It means that it would be unjust to tell people that they have no claim to provide their children with some inheritance with which to be comfortable and launch their lives. But it would be equally unjust to say that some of that money cannot be used to help other children in the community do the same. No fortune is dug out of the mud by an individual alone. A meritocracy depends on a social infrastructure to function, and infrastructure needs taxes.

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