Inheritance Tax and the Overton Window

Abi Wilkinson, part of the Guardian‘s[1] quartet of progressive commentators Ellie O’wen Wilkinkriss (Ellie Mae O’Hagan, Owen Jones, Abi Wilkinson and Sam Kriss), supports raising the inheritance tax rate to 100%.

Well, I say supports. The column is a part of a series titled “Utopian Thinking” so it as at least somewhat speculative. But given that Wilkinson offers so many reasons to support this radical idea, with the only disadvantage she is willing to admit to being its unpopularity among other people, it is fair to treat it not as a curious thought experiment but as an attempt to push the Overton Window; or, in other words, to expand the ideological borders of mainstream leftism.

It is a profoundly bad idea. This is partly as its imposition would cause many to leave Great Britain. It is partly as it would encourage gaming the system. It is partly as it would require a vast authoritarian bureaucracy devoted to seizing private possessions. But these arguments alone surrender too much ground to Wilkinson. It is not just to take so much from people in the first place. 

Wilkinson suggests that as these taxes could fund a generous welfare state no one would have to fear for their loved ones. “There would be a safety net.” But we do not simply fear our loved ones will be impoverished. We want them to fulfill their dreams and realise their potential: to buy that family home; to make that career move; that enjoy those holidays they never had a chance to take.

“Cultural norms teach us that the inheritance of private property is the default and any expropriation of this wealth must be justified,” Wilkinson says. But according to her, “It should be the other way around.” Look, burn me on the altar of Ludwig Von Mises but I am not one for big arguments about property rights. In my impressionistic way, I think we are born into more or less favourable circumstances, and that as members of the same extended clan we should to some extent mitigate harsh natural inequalities. But if one has no right to decide what happens to one’s property after one’s death I do not think it is “private” in a significant sense. And while Wilkinson nods to the “value [of] respecting the wishes of the dead” she does not touch on the value of limiting the power of the state; the value of families deciding on their collective future and the value of devoting ourselves to the wellbeing of our loved ones.

In a great example of the motte and bailey strategy, Wilkinson asks “what makes inheritance tax more objectionable than income tax”. This is an irrelevant question. She is not making an argument for inheritance tax, which most of us accept should exist, but 100% inheritance tax. If our income was taxed by 100% we would find that as objectionable – or, indeed, more so.

What I found most unpleasant in Wilkinson’s article is her acceptance that there could be “a small allowance for objects of sentimental value”. It brought the reality of the idea home. Imagine relatives being forced to beg to keep their family heirlooms. Your granddad’s books? Well, okay. It’s not as if they’re first editions. Your mother’s piano? Sorry, pal. Too big for this allowance. Your grandmother’s house? Forget it. We’re selling it off. I will not deny that many people use inheritances to buy a couple of flats and doss about while collecting rent from people who work a lot harder than they ever have to. But this level of downright despotic dispossession would be sad and cruel however it was carried out.

I dislike the consistent attempts by Corbynistas to present themselves as moderate, traditional social democrats while nudging Marxism into the mainstream. Ellie Mae O’Hagan will not say that Marx was right, exactly, but she will compare his influence in the modern age to that of Shakespeare on literature or Darwin on science. Jones will mock people who call the Corbynites “far left” but rant that “Britain’s social order…will have to be replaced”. Wilkinson will write this stuff but then insist that it just a “philosophical argument” to challenge people’s “instant dislike of a tax”. (Kriss, at least, is absolutely honest about who he is.)

I am not saying they are sinister Machiavellians, or that we should throw up our hands and scream on hearing the name Marx. I am just saying that as Corbyn grows more successful his supporters will grow increasingly ambitious. As Wilkinson says, “all kinds of major social changes seemed impossible until suddenly they weren’t.”

We should prepare for that.

[1] It has been pointed out to me that Kriss does not and has not worked for the Guardian and I am happy to correct that.

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  1. “I dislike the consistent attempts by Corbynistas to present themselves as moderate, traditional social democrats while nudging Marxism into the mainstream.”

    Excellent piece for me that “presenting” aspect seems a very common and deceptive trait with crypto-communists. Or at best a cargo cult posture for the Dave Spart’s as to what an honest position might be. I would add to that tendency the self conscious attempt to distance herself from the perception that socialists commonly deny human nature; so while you see this:

    “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.”

    Wilkinson seems to forget she said that and later gives the game away by totally discarding that concession and admitting she sees this “deeply embedded” “biological urge” rather as a pathological “Cultural norm” that is easily correctable by the benevolent state:

    “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.”

  2. Clive

    There’s a lot of straw man argument in that proposal. All the blather about biological fairness is just dross. After all, people leave their wealth to all sorts of benefactors; family, friends, the local dog shelter… because it is *their* choice.

    At it’s core, their argument rests upon the premise that the State has the final say on your assets. If assets default to the State, then they are not yours.
    This is the same mentality that floated the idea a few years ago that all wages ought to be paid to the government and that IT would decide what amount to withhold for tax and what amount it would dole back to you.

    It’s a complete paradigm shift they are attempting to inflict. Never forget that.

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