You’d think a Harvard economics professor would be able to do better than invoke horizontal equity as the sole argument for reducing the U.S. inheritance tax.
But not Gregory Mankiw, who uses the silly parable of the Frugals and the Profligates to make his case for a low tax rate on the estates of the wealthiest 0.2 percent of Americans who actually owe any estate tax.*
I’ll leave it to readers to judge whether or not it’s worth spending the time to compose a column on a tax that affects such a tiny percentage of rich—very rich—American households. And then to argue not for raising the tax, but for lowering it.
Me, I want to raise a few, more general issues about how mainstream economists like Mankiw think about inheritance taxes.
First, Mankiw presents one principle—horizontal equity, the “equal treatment of equals”—and never even mentions the other major tax principle—vertical equity, the “unequal treatment of unequals,” the idea that people with higher incomes should pay more taxes. Certainly, on the vertical criterion, those who receive large inheritances (for doing nothing more than being born into and raised within the right family) should pay taxes at a much higher rate than those who do not.
Second, even the notion of horizontal equity—that equals must be treated fairly—depends on an assumption that we each have come fairly to where we now stand. If that principle is violated (as it often is, e.g., because an estate represents the accumulated wealth based on other people’s labor, their surplus labor), then we need to ask if there is even an a priori principle of horizontal equity. The alternative is to judge everyone’s entitlements and burdens, including those occasioned by large inheritances, according to a single theory of equity or justice.
Finally, and perhaps even more important, both the horizontal and vertical equity standards presume that tax justice can be achieved by minimizing the coercive relation between the citizen and the state, which is then counterposed to the freedom guaranteed by a system of voluntary exchange. As Paolo Silvestri explains,
if the problem of the legitimacy of taxation as coercion is posed in terms of ‘voluntary vs coercion’, or freedom vs coercion, the maximum that one can ask it is to minimize coercion and maximize possibilities for voluntary exchanges, and / or minimize the role and size of government and leave as much room as possible to the private sector.
The alternative, of course, is to imagine a very different economic and political relationship, one in which both exchange and taxation—and thus notions of freedom and obligation—are understood in terms of an alternative logic. Consider, for example, the gift. If there is indeed something that the literature on gift economies has revealed it is the fact that social reciprocity—literally, creating and reproducing social relationships through gift exchange—configures the relationship between freedom and obligation in a manner quite different from that presumed by Mankiw and other mainstream economists.
What Silvestri makes clear is the circulation of the gift involves the free recognition (or non-recognition) of the obligation or debt occasioned by the gift, “in the sense that human freedom is asserted as such at the very moment in which it recognizes (or not) his debt.” Taxation, in particular, can be represented as an act of “giving back” to society, the recognition of a relationship of living together beyond the family—which, while never finally solving the tension between obligation and freedom, creates and recreates relations of mutual trust and living in common. It thus redefines the issue of equal or unequal return—the accounting framework of giving and taking embedded in notions of horizontal and vertical equity—in favor of asymmetry and an unending cycle of producing and resolving instances of justice and injustice across society.**
To which the only possible answer is further giving—and thus the freedom of those who have managed to amass great fortunes to comply with the obligation, after they have died, to pay taxes at a high rate based on large accumulations of the social surplus.
*There are many other facts about the estate tax Mankiw conveniently leaves out (according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities): the effective tax rate is much lower than the statutory rate, only a handful of family-owned farms and businesses owe any estate tax, the largest estates consist mostly of “unrealized” capital gains that have never been taxed, most other rich countries levy some form of estate tax, and the estate tax is the most progressive part of the U.S. tax code.
**My concern here is with the inheritance tax. Silvestri takes his argument in a related but different direction: “the European economic crisis, the restrictive fiscal policies and their social consequences [that] have done nothing but to sharpen the citizen’s distrust in such legal-political institutions, increased their resentments, and even undermined the very possibility of a democratic discussion on taxes.”