In an early classic, before he became known for mind-bending blockbusters like Inception and Interstellar, Christopher Nolan made Memento. In that film is the key to the debate over inheritance tax, which is again in the news with the disclosure that David Cameron received a gift from his mother (reducing the potential inheritance tax liability).
It is a film about a man seeking revenge for a brutal attack that killed his wife, but Leonard Shelby, the hero, takes little utility from his vengeance. He is almost immediately dead to the consequences of his actions, thanks to a brain injury that has removed his ability to form new memories.
However, he still wishes to do right by those he loves: “I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still there.”
Whatever we think about his seeking vengeance, who would quibble with the idea that, when we close our eyes, the world is still there?
I don’t think it is too much of a leap from what happens to Leonard when he forgets whatever he has done to ourselves when we die. Our eyes have been closed but the world is still there. The interests of the dead continue to exist after they have died and should be respected.
Inheritance tax is not a tax on the unearned wealth of the person inheriting any more than income tax is a tax on unearned wealth if the income is spent providing for children while the parent is alive (my little boy is unable to work for his nappies). Inheritance tax is a tax on the dead who earned that wealth while living.
It undermines the ability of the deceased to provide for their family financially at exactly the moment when they are necessarily least able to provide other kinds of support. We lose our ability to give our family comfort and counsel, and then on top of that the government weakens our ability to help them financially too.
Remember we are talking about an additional tax on income that has already been taxed when it was earned (income tax) and will be taxed again when it is spent (VAT). Inheritance tax means you pay less if you spend all the money on a holiday before you die than if you do the responsible thing and leave some of it to your kids.
Even if you don’t share the outlook of those who consider the world after they have died so important, isn’t that commitment to family a morally profound, wonderful thing? There are few other circumstances in which most of us are willing to make such sacrifices we can for a happiness we won’t even witness. These are instincts we normally try to praise rather than punish with a special double tax.
Despite the injustice of it, inheritance tax only makes a marginal contribution to Treasury receipts, raising less than 1 per cent of government revenues. There is no need to take a swipe at this final expression of the bond between parents and their kids for such a modest contribution to government revenues.
All we’re left with is an appeal to plain envy. This is a tax on the rich. Whether or not you go in for that sort of thing, though, it is a bad tax on the rich, unjust and rightly unpopular (rated the most unfair by the general public).
The world would be a better place if we cared a little more for that world outside our own mind, that world which is still there when our eyes are finally closed. Inheritance tax is a petty obstacle to a noble expression of the bonds of love and loyalty that bind the living and the dead. It deserves all the loathing it gets and the best way to ensure we all play by the same rules would be to scrap it outright.