Vol. LVII No. 3

Should We Tax the Gratuitous Transfer of Wealth? An Introduction

Abstract: The estate tax was enacted because of concerns about the impact of large concentrations of dynastic wealth on the political process. As discussed in this commentary, which reviews the Symposium articles by Paul Caron, David Joulfaian, and Jennifer Bird-Pollan, recent research by political scientists supports the legitimacy of these concerns. In addition, a significant body of studies suggests that inequality has a long-term negative impact on growth. Paul Caron observes in his article that progressivity in our tax system has been decreasing and that the estate tax was 60% or higher for fifty years (1934–1983), a rate much higher than the current 40%. David Joulfaian notes that the estate tax clearly contributes to the progressivity of our tax system. He finds that estate tax liability of a decedent is on average equivalent to doubling the income tax liability of decedents during the prior ten years. Jennifer Bird-Pollan explores the views on estate tax from a liberal, utilitarian, and libertarian philosophical perspective. This commentary notes some additional aspects of the estate tax that strengthen the utilitarian and liberal arguments in favor of the estate tax.

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