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The Paris Hilton fallacy

I normally enjoy reading TNR's Peter Beinart, but his recent piece on the inheritance tax was a huge disappointment. Beinart grossly oversimplifies conservative opposition to the inheritance tax, and then goes on to pronounce that opposing the tax is not only bad policy, but immoral -- then he jumps the shark and invokes Paris Hilton.

I shouldn't be surprised. The ditzy heiress has been a ubiquitous staple of liberal estate tax boilerplate these days, but I assumed the Beinart was capable of making a better argument than that. I guess I was wrong. The subtext of the Paris Hilton "argument" is simple -- "That stupid, blonde slut has done nothing to deserve that money. It should therefore be confiscated and redistributed to the rest of us." (Why the federal government is a more deserving recipient of the Hilton fortune than Paris or Nikki is not explained.)

The problems with this line of argument are obvious. To suggest that Paris Hilton is in any way representative of the typical victim of the estate tax is pure crap. Tarring everyone who inherits an estate worth a million bucks with the Paris Hilton brush is every bit as disingenuous (and offensive) as equating every recipient of social services with Ronald Reagan's "welfare queen." They are mirror images of the same, base rhetorical gimmick: eschew logic and rational arguments in favor of a stereotype designed to inflame anger and resentment in the voting populace.

So why would someone as bright as Beinart resort to such cheap demagoguery? Perhaps it's because a compelling, empirical case in favor of the estate tax is difficult to make. Maybe that's why Beinart result to vulgar symbolism and moral absolutism: "Ultimately, the argument against the estate tax, like the argument against social insurance, is moral. It is about right and wrong." When you make such pronouncements with all the authority of religious dogma, you obviate the need to buttress your viewpoint with facts.

Beinart bemoans the unpopularity of the death tax, and seems genuinely mystified that...

...many of the most fervent anti-estate tax crusaders have no monetary interest in its repeal. And, amazingly, most Americans oppose the tax even when told that it applies only to the hyper-rich.

Maybe these people recognize that antipathy for a brain-dead hotel scion is not an acceptable basis of fiscal policy. Perhaps they don't wish to live in a society where people like Beinart decide who gets what on the basis of someone's subjective notion of "worthiness." Maybe, just maybe, they're shrewd enough to recognize the tax for what it is -- naked redistributionism fueled by envy and class warfare.

The most pernicious aspect of the inheritance tax is that despite its confiscatory rates (estates are taxed at much, much higher rates than income and capital gains), it accounts for a miniscule fraction of total federal revenue. Government policies whose primary goal is the confiscation and redistribution of private wealth are anathema to many Americans. It smacks of Marxism to most, and rightly so.

The only argument in favor of an estate tax that I can begin to appreciate is that inheritance should be treated as income. Even so, the punitive rates of the current system are impossible to justify, as inheritances are taxed at a much higher rate than ordinary income. Furthermore, even if we were to treat inheritance as income, generous exemptions should be allowed so that inheriting the family home (or farm or small business) would not incur a huge tax liability.

Better yet, consign the damn thing to the dustbin of American history, along with the poll tax and debtors' prison. Taxes should be levied to raise funds for the government, not for the sake of social engineering.


bless you Barry that was superb.

I guess a tax on spending would be a pretty good solution to how to tax inheritors. imagine how much cash Paris blows...

Two good reasons to be against the death tax.
1. You too may be rich some day.
2. Taxes on "THE RICH" have a way of becoming taxes on the not quite rich, then the getting rich, then the not so rich.

That's hot.

Good post, but I think that you may be missing the point about the estate tax.

Here is an excertp from the book Unequal Protection:
"In a letter to Joseph Milligan on April 6, 1816, Thomas Jefferson explicitly suggested that if individuals became so rich that their wealth could influence or challenge government, then their wealth should be decreased upon their death. He wrote, "If the overgrown wealth of an individual be deemed dangerous to the State, the best corrective is the law of equal inheritance to all in equal degree..." -- the estate tax. "

The estate tax was designed to prevent Oligarchy, not to punish a wealthy-rich-girl-slut, or anyother moronic rich person.

Hell, it was nearly written into the Constitution. The point is that a Democracy will not survive under the influence of a ruling elite.

OK, question - did Paris actually *inherit* the money she's spending, or are her parents just handing it to her while they're alive.

I guess I should have checked to see if her father was still alive before asking this question, but I'm too lazy.

> ...did Paris actually *inherit* the money she's spending...

I don't think so. I think the argument is that one day she *will* inherit a bunch of money... and that she shouldn't... or something.

...got this from Opinion Journal (from an email message):

"Paris Hilton is not an heiress--at least in any strict sense of the definition. Paris Hilton's parents, Kathy and Rick, along with her grandfather, Barron Hilton (co-chairman of Hilton Hotels), are still alive. So, death tax or not, she is not the beneficiary of a repeal of the death tax.

Great-grandfather Conrad, who founded the hotel company, left the bulk of his estate to the Conrad Hilton Foundation and the Conrad Hilton Hotel School at the University of Houston. Conrad Hilton died in 1979, before Paris Hilton was born, and you cannot make a bequest to those not yet alive.

It would therefore appear that Paris's lifestyle is on her parents' dime--and, increasingly, her own, as she's reportedly been paid in the millions of dollars for her TV show, among other things (Forbes magazine reports she earned $2 million in 2004, and $6.5 million in 2005). As distasteful some may find her celebrity or lifestyle, conflating the $6.5 million she reportedly earned last year with the death tax is about as far off the mark as one could be."

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