Monday, July 7, 2008

More Important Things

William Saletan and Emily Yoffe have double-teamed Leona Helmsley for devoting her estate, valued somewhere between 5 and 8 billion dollars, to the care and welfare of dogs. For Saletan, the issue is that Helmsley deleted an earlier goal to help indigent people, and decided to focus entirely on dogs. He finds it bothersome, because to him, it shows that while Helmsley may have loved animals, she didn't "recognize or love the animals who matter most." Yoffe's point seems to be that since Helmsley was a bitter witch, the trustees of her estate should stick it to her by giving the money to the Gates Foundation, instead.

People who harp about what other people do with their own money give me a pain. We can complain about Leona Helmsley's priorities all we want, but who died, and willed that opinion commentators should be the final arbiters of who deserves the largess of rich people? My local PBS station runs spots asking people to leave money to the station in their estates. What great social ill does the existence of public television address? Wouldn't that money be "better spent" on poverty reduction? Or food security? Or public education? Or ending homelessness?

One we start deciding that we have the final say of the priorities of people leaving assets to others in their wills, you have to start asking yourself why the estate tax shouldn't be 100%. Why shouldn't we simply take the money of dead people (who won't miss it) and make ourselves feel better by letting them pay for our "generosity?" Why should we respect a "right" to let people choose who they are going to make financially better off, when there are other, needier, and by Yoffe's logic, more deserving people who would really benefit from even a small windfall? Hell, for that matter, why don't we just take "excess" money from rich people while they're still alive? When "Julie" had her housecat, Little Nicky, cloned, David Magnus of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University complained that for what she paid, "[S]he could have provided homes for a lot of strays." So why not just take the money from her, and do it? For that matter, Gates wouldn't miss a billion or five - you could chalk it up to a rounding error. Yoffe treads this path when she admits to "faint longings for the return of Marxism." She seems to have forgotten that while "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs" looked good on paper, it was really hard to implement in the real world.

There are always "better things" that people could be doing with their money. I spent a couple hundred dollars buying miniatures (along with rulebooks, dice, paints, et cetera) to learn to play a wargame that I decided that I didn't care for. I'm sure that SOMEONE out there could give me a lecture on some noble cause that the money would have been better spent to support. Or that the hours I spent painting toy soldiers and leaning over a table with a tape measure could have been more productively used to help someone improve their lot in life. But you could say the same about the money I spent on my car, or the time that I'm using to write this weblog posting. When does it end? And who gets to judge?

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