Renewed calls by leftists for a 100% inheritance tax force us to have the argument all over again – does the state exist to serve us, or do we exist to serve the state?
I’m sure that many others have already published their own incredulous reactions, but I cannot let my return to blogging commence without comment on Abi Wilkinson’s “brave” idea (filed under the Guardian’s “Utopian Thinking” category) for a 100 percent inheritance tax, levied in order to fund Our Precious Public Services.
In case you haven’t already encountered it, Saint Wilkinson appreciates our public services so much, and cares about the downtrodden in society just so darn much, that she thinks that a 100 percent confiscatory raid on assets upon every person’s death is both meritorious and desirable as a tribute to the all-powerful state, as well as being totally economically feasible.
The article reads like an earnest sixth-form essay, untainted by familiarity with much political theory and penned by somebody who sincerely believes that they are making this proposition for the very first time, and that it is therefore deserving of serious consideration and public debate.
Of course, the complete opposite is true – people have loudly clamoured for the expropriation of wealth from the dead and the living for centuries, with the idea of a 100% inheritance tax proving sufficiently odious that it is not enforced in any successful advanced economy.
Nevertheless, Wilkinson boldly writes:
The idea that we should be able to pass on our life’s accumulated wealth to descendants is deeply embedded. It appeals to the fundamental biological urge to protect your offspring and propagate your genes. Though only a small minority of estates are subject to inheritance tax in Britain as it currently stands, opinion polls consistently find that the majority of people oppose it. Instinct seems to override common sense. VAT falls disproportionately on people with low incomes, but it’s far less hated.
Understandable sensitivity around issues relating to death make it difficult to discuss, but it’s time this conventional wisdom was held up to proper scrutiny. Yes, the desire to pass on property to your descendants may be natural – but why should we be slaves to our biology? Social progress has frequently depended on our ability to transcend individualistic urges and work together for the common good.
A leftist may well ask why we should be slaves to biology (at least now that most of them have stopped promoting eugenics). Half the time prominent voices on the left can be found deliberately trying to negate, undermine or deny basic biology across a whole host of areas, because feelings and virtue-signalling must now trump science (which, after all, is very oppressive).
And as for “instinct overrid[ing] common sense”, it is far more likely that most people, being more perceptive than Abi Wilkinson, can perceive the ruinous implications of implementing a 100 percent inheritance tax policy – not least a vast and unprecedented brain drain of wealth and talent from this country, together with hugely adverse incentives for those who remain behind. Would I vote for a policy which benefited me by stealing from my neighbour, while also knowing that the same policy would lead to the ruin of the country? Unsurprisingly, probably not.
Some may argue that leaving inheritance is a moral right. It’s not about whether the recipients deserve or need it, nor whether having the ability to do so results in productivity gains. The point is that the deceased earned that money and it should be up to them where it goes.
This is where it gets a little murky. We tend to honour the wishes of the dead – at least to some extent. Those of us who are religious may believe their souls live on and they can witness what’s happening. Even committed atheists recognise the value of respect in this context, even if their primary concern is the emotional impact on those left behind. If someone wanted a certain sort of funeral, for example, it seems right to try and fulfil that. But what if the desires of the dead directly damage the wellbeing of the living? Is there any situation in which the previous instructions of someone no longer actually present in the mortal realm should be prioritised over the needs, interests and opinions of those who are still alive and kicking?
How gracious that we are still to be allowed funerals and other religious rites in Abi Wilkinson’s brave new world. Perhaps we should be grateful for this small dispensation and humbly surrender our accumulated life’s work on our deathbeds without any further complaint.
In the UK, official statistics suggest around £77bn is passed on in inheritance each year (tax avoidance means the real amount could be even higher). That’s money that no living being has a moral claim to, according to standard justifications of wealth inequality and private property. Were that money redistributed by the state, it would cover the cost of adult social care several times over. It could plug gaps in NHS, education and police funding. It could provide the kind of comprehensive welfare state that meant nobody had to worry about their family after they passed away – because there would always be a safety net.
Cultural norms teach us that the inheritance of private property is the default and any expropriation of this wealth must be justified. It should be the other way round. There’s some value in respecting the wishes of the dead, yes, but why is that more important than social housing, healthcare or any number of other possible uses for the money? It’s natural to want to protect and care for your family, but what about people who don’t stand to inherit a penny? Is there any reason their needs should matter less? We have to fund our state somehow – what makes inheritance tax more objectionable than income tax or VAT charged on essential consumer goods?
And what when that £77bn is spent in Year 1 of this nightmare programme, and Britain’s public services come back ravenous for more in Year 2, when the brain drain and disincentives to save or invest reduce next year’s haul by over half? What about Year 3, when the biological urge to defer gratification, save and build for subsequent generations is overridden by benevolent leftist policy, and the tax revenue is even smaller? What about Year 5, when Our Blessed NHS is still in perpetual crisis but inheritance tax revenues now bring in less money than would be required to power a street light?
The perpetual problem with the Left is that they insist on working against, rather than with, human nature. Market capitalism remains by far the best way of allocating scarce resources for the good of the most people because rather than going against the grain of embedded human instinct it works with that instinct, incentivising people to provide value in return for other needed items of value.
But the Left cannot accept this, because inequality. Never mind that this inequality is often less than they contend, and that any inequality takes place in the context of rising living standards for all – no, this is not enough. A functioning system and a great engine of prosperity must be sabotaged and brought down because it does not conform with certain Utopian political theories – theories which Abi Wilkinson might do well to better acquaint herself.
But more than all of this, the great question which not only Abi Wilkinson but the entire Corbynite, Utopian Left must answer is this: does the state exist to serve us, or do we exist to serve the state? Are we entitled to the product of our own labour with the state performing certain acts and services by our permission, or does the state ultimately have a claim to everything that we are, everything that we create and everything that we do, in life and in death?
Of course, we already know the answer to that question. The answer shines through brightly with every weepy new article about how we the people are failing “Our NHS” by not protecting it from the Evil Tories and by failing to firehose sufficient taxpayer money into its gawping, insatiable mouth. The answer shines through with every inane tweet misquoting Aneurin Bevan about how the NHS will continue to exist “as long as there’s folk with faith left to fight for it”, and with every false assertion that cutting taxes is somehow “giving money away” to the wealthy.
In short, it simply could not be more clear that the ideologues within the Corbynite Labour Party – as well as the journalists and commentators who support them – believe that we exist at the pleasure of the state, to serve the state. Sure, they might not put it quite like that. Instead, they waffle on endlessly about society and community, or piously lecture the rest of us on our responsibilities to one another – responsibilities which human beings are perfectly capable of managing through individual charity and civic society, but which the Left insist on funnelling through the state.
And if you are of this mindset, then why indeed not propose a 100% inheritance tax on everybody (save a few “objects of sentimental value” as graciously conceded by Wilkinson)? Abi Wilkinson presumably believes that she too is just a small cog in the machine of the British state; that if it were deemed to be better for society that she stacked shelves in a Tesco distribution centre rather than writing socialist twaddle for a living she would gladly switch occupations in a heartbeat, before giving up her meagre possessions to the taxman upon her deathbed. And she is fully entitled to believe in a totalitarian, dystopian state where the mere words “for the good of society” can be used to compel us to do anything.
But know, when these cherub-faced young socialists get on their soapboxes, eyes aflame with passion and fervour, what they really mean when they talk about “the good of society”. Know the warped moral framework through which these left-wing, self-appointed Defenders of our Public Services see the world – the individual utterly subordinate to the state in every way that counts, save a few highly revocable “rights” given as a distraction.
Because this same black-hearted evil informs nearly every policy that the Corbynite Left proposes, including many which are far more likely to come to pass than Abi Wilkinson’s totally original 100% inheritance tax brainwave.
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