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It can be easy for advocates of limited government to get
discouraged. Certainly there’s no way to deny that despite our best
efforts the national government has grown and continues to grow — in
terms of total spending and the array of activities it regulates and
criminalizes — through the Reagan years, the Bush years and the Clinton
years. But one does occasionally see small signs of progress, evidence
that some smaller-government or lower-tax issue to which advocates have
devoted attention is approaching a successful resolution. My example for
today is the death tax, as I wish I had possessed the wit to dub the
inheritance tax more than 20 years ago.

Americans whose relatives die are still paying this predatory tax.
But it has become a lot less controversial to advocate eliminating it.
When Dubya Bush introduced his exceedingly modest tax-cut plan recently,
he threw in elimination of the death tax almost offhandedly, as a
popular and relatively non-controversial add-on, a little extra most
everybody could support.

It wasn’t always non-controversial and politically popular. I know.
For three of the years when I lived in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s I
formed and ran a small lobbying outfit called Libertarian Advocate.
Among the activities we did was testifying before Congress. On one
occasion, when inheritance tax reform was a fairly live issue — I can’t
remember for sure whether it was 1977 or 1978 — I testified on the
inheritance tax.

The panel that appeared before a House Ways and Means subcommittee
consisted of several farm wives, a couple of small business owners and
me. The others told tales of hardship when a husband or principal owner
died and the federal government took most of the money, forced a farm or
business to be sold or broken up, and left the survivors miserable and
sometimes broke. They endorsed the current proposal, which was to raise
the amount of an inheritance that was to be exempt from the federal
inheritance tax.

I called the inheritance tax the cruelest tax of all, pointed out
that it cost the federal government almost as much to collect it as it
received in proceeds, that it constituted an only teeny part of the
federal budget and proposed abolishing it tomorrow. Everybody else
gasped.

Interestingly, however, the committee chairman, a crusty Texas
Democrat (I think it was Charlie Stenholm but I wouldn’t swear to it),
said during the session that the young man didn’t have a bad idea in
principle, but politically speaking abolition was a non-starter. I
simply replied that, if nobody talked about it, it would have no chance
of ever being considered rather than only a slim chance.

Afterward, in the halls, all the other panelists wanted to shake my
hand and say that they really thought eliminating the inheritance tax
entirely was the way to go, but they didn’t think it was prudent to say
it. But they were glad I did.

A few months later, Hans Sennholz of Grove City College wrote one of
those short policy books for the Heritage Foundation. Now, Hans is of
the Austrian school of economics, and I am convinced that on principle
he favored complete elimination of the inheritance tax (and almost any
other tax).

However, basing his observations on the committee transcripts, he
took care to criticize me — well, not quite criticize, but to call me
foolish and politically naive and not very helpful — for introducing a
radical alternative that was obviously not politically feasible at the
time. His concern was that having the abolitionist proposal out there
might make Congress less inclined to take seriously the more moderate
exemption-increasing reforms, which in fact were passed and did relieve
a certain amount of suffering.

But the conversation continued, and by about the middle 1990s
abolition of the “death tax” had become something close to conservative
and even Republican orthodoxy, with support from a significant number of
Democrats. And now George Dubya, hardly a tax-cutting zealot, includes
abolition in his tax proposal almost as an afterthought, as a
non-controversial and obviously beneficial step hardly any sensible
person would ever take the trouble to disagree with. Attitudes do
change. It is discouraging that it can take more than 20 years for
public opinion followed by the political establishment to swing around
to what I thought long ago was an eminently sensible position. And I
haven’t forgotten that for all the changes in public opinion the death
tax is still in place, and it’s more than likely that a serious fight
will be necessary before it is actually eliminated.

But we can see the possibility on the horizon, not just as a wistful
dream but as a likelihood. Would the shift have occurred if some of us
hadn’t been willing to be criticized by our erstwhile allies as naïve
and unrealistic more than 20 years ago for asking for what we actually
wanted rather than just for what was deemed politically feasible at the
time?

I don’t know. I suspect opinion would have come around anyway. But I
hope you won’t mind if I feel at least slightly vindicated. And while I
don’t denigrate the exercise of taking a realistic check on what is
politically feasible, I’m determined to continue advocating what I think
is really necessary to make our society freer based more on principle
than on a reading of the latest polls and political entrails.

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