Death and taxes

Political philosopher Martin O'Neill looks at the thinking behind a political issue of the day. In h

In a letter to his friend Jean-Baptiste Leroy in 1789, Benjamin Franklin famously opined that “in the world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.” Franklin was surely right about this, just as his judgment was sound in so many other matters – after all, this was the man who told us that “beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy”. But it is astonishing how often passions become enflamed, and good sense goes out the window, when we encounter the heady mix of mortality and tax.

Recent events have borne this out. No matter when the next election is held - obviously it's now later rather than sooner - Inheritance Tax (IHT) will be one of the key issues, with Tory plans to raise the IHT threshold from £300,000 to £1,000,000 promising to be their most popular single policy.

David Cameron and George Osborne have found a policy that resonates with the fears and aspirations of many of their fellow citizens, who hold IHT in suspicion and opprobrium. IHT is seen as a despicable “death tax”, which hits families just when they’re down. Moreover, it is seen as especially illegitimate, given that it is a form of “double taxation” (“why should the government take my money, when they already taxed me when I earned it?”).

IHT is viewed as the manifestation of government in its most sinister form: cold and rapacious. But it is actually quite puzzling as to why IHT has quite such a bad image. It’s a fair and progressive form of taxation, that should be popular with both social democrats and free marketeers, for reasons that I’ll explain below. Labour shouldn’t be at all defensive about IHT (and certainly shouldn’t follow Blairite outrider Stephen Byers’s eccentric advocacy of its wholesale abolition), and instead should be prepared to proclaim its myriad virtues from the rooftops.

Here’s why we should learn to stop worrying and learn to love inheritance tax:

(1) Most People Pay Nothing (or at any rate not very much…)
At the current £300,000 threshold, only the richest 6% of estates pay anything. One common form of misjudgement is that many people who will not be affected IHT nevertheless think that they will be. A striking example of this kind of thinking comes from the U.S., where the Estate Tax threshold kicks in only at $2,000,000, or for the top 1% of estates. Nevertheless, Bush’s attempt at repealing the estate tax enjoyed widespread public support among the less well off. Surveys found that 20% of Americans believed that they were in this top 1%, with a further 20% expecting to come into this bracket in the near future!

Even those who fall within the threshold often don’t pay as much as they worry they will. Is Granny worried that her house is now worth £500,000, and the grandchildren are going to lose out? Well, under current rules, Granny can give them £3,000 a year each without any tax implications. Short of liquid cash? Then she can release some of the equity in her property with an equity release mortgage. Moreover, given that the first £300,000 is zero-rated, even if Granny eventually departs leaving an estate valued at, say, £400,000, the tax liability is only £40,000 – leaving a generous £360,000 for the grandchildren. The complaint that IHT stops people from “leaving something to make their descendants lives a bit easier” thus seem rather exaggerated.

(2) Arguments About ‘Double Taxation’ are Bad Arguments:
Perhaps the strangest, and yet most pervasive, aspect of opposition to IHT is that many people say that ‘double taxation’ is intrinsically unfair. But, if this were true, then it would be intrinsically unfair to levy any form of tax on the expenditure of post-tax income. Yet, we pay VAT, fuel taxes, alcohol duty, and stamp duty when we spend our hard-earned cash, without the same kinds of complaints about ‘double taxation’.

This sort of objection to IHT, if carried to its logical conclusion, would preclude the existence of any kind of system of taxation. To see why, just think that any discrete amount of money might be involved in a plethora of separate transactions over time, being subject to different forms of taxation at each point, depending on the nature of that transaction (employing someone, buying a product, bequeathing in a will, etc.).

The ‘double taxation’ argument suggests that, no matter how long this train of transactions, taxation can happen only once in the chain. The idea seems to be that once my money has been taxed once, it cannot be taxed again. Hence, we’d need to know the complete transaction history of the economy in order to know whether any element of taxation was legitimate or not.

This is, I may hazard to suggest, a crazy way to think about taxes. An objection to the aims or level of some tax, including IHT, needs to be made in a way that’s more careful than simply invoking this kind self-defeating ‘double taxation’ argument. The money and property that we legitimately hold is in part defined by, and results from, the operation of the whole complex web of tax rules and regulations.

We can criticize elements of that system, of course, for a wide variety of reasons, but a simple appeal to the illegitimacy of the government expropriating “my money”, simply short-circuits reasoned debate about tax. Yet, this “libertarian intuition”, as philosophers Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel call it in their book The Myth of Ownership, is pervasive, and difficult to budge. Clear thinking about IHT, as about all taxes, demands that we do budge this ‘libertarian intuition’ aside.

(3) If not Inheritance Tax, then what?
Inheritance Tax is a tax that falls disproportionately on the old (the typical case is of 60 year-olds inhering from 80 year-olds) and the rich. If we wish to repeal it, or raise IHT thresholds, then, unless we want to reduce government expenditure, the shortfall needs to be raised elsewhere. The chances are that it will be raised to a greater degree from those who are younger and poorer than those affected by IHT. Many of the opponents of IHT would be less sure of their position if questions about IHT were framed in a different way. Instead of “Would you like inheritance tax to be reduced?” the question should be “Would you like to replace inheritance tax with increased income tax or corporation tax?”. Here again, thinking of IHT as part of a tax system, rather than in abstract isolation, helps to make the issues clearer.

Cameron and Osborne suggest that their reduction in IHT can be met by levying an annual £25,000 charge on ‘non-domiciled’ UK residents, who pay no tax on their non-UK sourced income. This is a problematic proposal in a number of ways. First of all, one may doubt that it would bring in anything like the £3.5Bn that would be lost by the IHT changes proposed by the Tories. Secondly, many of the UK’s “non-doms” are not Russian oligarchs, or well-paid City workers. Some are simply Polish plumbers, who don’t want to pay tax on their non-UK income. So, some non-doms just could not pay the charge, or would de-register as ‘non-domiciled’ if the charge were imposed. Thirdly, the Tory position seems wholly unprincipled.

Surely either non-doms should pay UK tax in the same way as domiciled tax-payers (in which case we should tax them in the normal way rather than imposing an annual charge), or they should be exempt (in which case current arrangements are fine). It is difficult to see what the justification for the half-way house of a £25,000 ‘residency levy’ might be. Fourthly, let us assume that the Tories are right that we should be doing more to tax non-doms, in one way or another. Well, then, why don’t we do so in order to reduce income tax rather than in order to reduce IHT; or, indeed, why not tax non-doms in order to invest more in health in education? Given these other options, reduction in IHT is not a reasonable priority.

(4) Why Free Market Conservatives Should Love Inheritance Tax
Inheritance Tax is often seen as a policy of the Left rather than the Right, and it’s certainly true that there are lots of good egalitarian reasons that support IHT. But this is only half of the picture. Those on the Right, and especially those who believe in the usual justifications for the free-market, should be just as enthusiastic as the staunchest socialist about the preservation of IHT.

Here’s why. Let us assume that we believe in the glories of the free market economy. If we give people responsibility, and set them on their own two feet, then they’ll work hard and prosper. A free market in trade and employment gives us, let us suppose, a dynamic, innovative and thriving economy. It does this by incentivizing hard work, and letting economic rewards flow to those with the best ideas and the greatest capacity for hard graft.

But, if this is our vision of society, we surely must admit that the unearned windfall gains of inheritance tax distort this picture. Large inheritances distort the level playing field which would allow the dynamic and innovative to prosper. If welfare payments cause listlessness and sap dynamism, then we can only assume that large unearned windfalls will do likewise. Indeed, these were precisely the sorts of arguments given by Teddy Roosevelt when he proposed an American federal estate tax in 1906. As Andrew Carnegie (another proponent of IHT) put it “the parent who leaves his son enormous wealth generally deadens the talents and energies of the son, and leads him to lead a less useful and less worthy life than he otherwise would.” One need hardly point out that neither Roosevelt nor Carnegie were approaching these issues from the left.

The solution? Inheritance tax can be used to fund education so as to create that level playing field and broad opportunities, or, perhaps, used to fund capital grants to young entrepreneurs. This is exactly the sort of scheme favoured by Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott, in their book The Stakeholder Society, where they advocate capital grants to each individual of $80,000 at the start of their working lives, funded by a progressive estate tax. One of the interesting features of this sort of scheme is that it is all about using the state to facilitate individual responsibility and to create opportunities, rather than simply doling out welfare. This is a much purer vision of a free market society than societies that are gummed-up and ossified by inherited advantage.

(5) Why the Left Needs To Be Less Defensive about Inheritance Tax
Just like the Democrats in the US, the Labour Party has tended to be somewhat defensive when reacting to proposals to abolish or reduce IHT. Rather than simply emphasizing that not all that many people pay IHT, Labour should be trying the difficult task of transforming public opinion on the issue. Perhaps the strongest arguments for IHT appeals to ideas of reciprocity and fairness that are very commonly shared.

Teddy Roosevelt took the view that “The man of great wealth owes a peculiar obligation to the State, because he derives special advantages from the mere existence of government.” There would be no good in being wealthy if one could not enjoy stable property rights, the protection of the police, and the peace of a well-defended country, all of which need to be paid for. And individuals do not make their money in a vacuum, but by building on a broad history of innovation and development. This sort of reciprocity argument is also made by Bill Gates, Sr., father of the Bill Gates of Microsoft, in his book Wealth and Our Commonwealth: Why America Should Tax Accumulated Fortunes. This sort of argument can get broad purchase with those of every political stripe, as is demonstrated by the fact that Roosevelt and Gates are hardly “soak the rich” firebrands or loonie lefties.

When one looks clearly at inheritance tax in terms of a concern with fairness and opportunity, it’s difficult to see why it has become so unpopular. Perhaps it is significant that many of those whose families would lose out most massively from a fair system of inheritance tax are precisely those who own some of our most influential newspapers, and who have the spare resources to exert political influence through lobbying and political donations. If so, that gives one more kind of democratic argument for why IHT is a vital policy in a fair and progressive country.

To return from abstract arguments to concrete policies, what should Labour do about IHT, in reaction to the Tory proposals? The answer comes from an unexpected direction. The American philosopher John Rawls, in his final book Justice as Fairness, suggests that a just society should have a system of IHT that taxed beneficiaries rather than estates. In that way, inheritance could be taxed much more like income, and hence inheritance tax could be made progressive, through orienting it towards receivers rather than donors. Large estates need not attract any taxation, as long as they were dispersed among a number of relatively disadvantaged recipients. At the same time, even small estates could be taxed heavily if they were all left to others who were themselves already wealthy. Under this system of IHT, there could be no objection that the state was stopping middle-income families from “setting something aside” for their children. But, at the same time, this form of IHT would prevent wealth-transfers which greatly widened existing inequalities.

Such a system of beneficiary-centred IHT could command easier public support than the existing system, and which would be deeply progressive in its effects. Best of all, under such a revised system, Granny need not worry at all, as she would be free to pass on her estate to her modestly well-off grandchildren (although not, perhaps, to those of her grandchildren who were already millionaires). Recipient-centred IHT would be a system of progressive Inheritance Tax that would be worth having, and worth arguing for. It might also help to undercut some of our common irrationalities about death and taxes.

Martin O’Neill is a political philosopher, based at the Centre for Political Theory in the Department of Politics at the University of Manchester. He has previously taught at Cambridge and Harvard, and is writing a book on Corporations and Social Justice.
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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain