by Lorenzo Sadun

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ...", wrote Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. This simple idea is at the core of American democracy. In other countries, the circumstances of your birth might determine your life, but in America you are supposed to succeed or fail based on your own talents and your own efforts.

It doesn't always work out that way, of course. I had advantages that others did not. I had parents who taught me right from wrong, stressed the importance of education and paid my way through college. Not everybody is so lucky.

Parents will always try to help their children, and that's good. However, when some children get much, much more help than others, it undercuts our equality. To level the playing field, society must not only give opportunities to the disadvantaged. It must also set reasonable limits to the built-in advantages of the extremely well-born.

The inheritance tax does just that, restricting the amount of wealth that each generation can start out with. When a wealthy person dies, he (or she) can leave as much as he wishes to a spouse, and as much as he wishes to charitable causes, without anybody paying a penny of tax. He can also leave his children and grandchildren up to $675,000, tax-free. Even split several ways, that's a lot of money, enough to pay for college for one child, to buy a house for another, and to start a business for a third. In other words, he can finance lots of opportunities for his descendants. But if he goes beyond opportunity and tries to buy them success, his heirs must share their windfall with the 99% of the population that isn't so privileged. The rule is simple: for every dollar above $675,000 that the descendants get, another dollar (more or less) must go to the rest of us.

Critics call this the "death tax", and argue that it's not fair to tax a person after his death. By focusing on the person who has died, they distort the picture. A dead person has no money (you can't take it with you!) and cannot be taxed in any way. The estate tax is not about the deceased; it is about the heirs. Do a rich person's children have the right, by virtue of their birth, to all of their parent's former wealth?

In medieval Europe the answer was yes. Lands, titles and power stayed in a family for generation after generation. If you were born into the nobility, you had privilege. If not, you were excluded.

In a democracy, the answer must be no. We rejected a hereditary aristocracy in 1776, and we should not reinstate it in 2001. Let it not be said of tomorrow's elite: "They made their money the old-fashioned way. They inherited it."