Such levies pit two vital liberal principles against each other.
One is that governments should leave people to dispose of their wealth as they see fit.
The other is that a permanent, hereditary elite makes a society unhealthy and unfair.
How to choose between them?
Some people argue for a punitive inheritance tax.
They start with the negative argument that dead people no longer enjoy the general freedom to disburse their wealth as they wish—as the dead have no rights.
How could they, when they are not affected one way or the other by what happens in the world?
That does not ring true.
The logic would be to abrogate even the most modest of wills.
But inheritances are deeply personal and the biggest single gift that many give to causes they believe in and loved ones they may have cherished.
Many (living) people would feel wronged if they could not provide for their children.
If anything, as the expression of their last wishes, bequests carry more weight than their passing fancies do.
The positive argument for steep inheritance taxes is that they promote fairness and equality.
Heirs have rarely done anything to deserve the money that comes their way.
Liberals, from John Stuart Mill to Theodore Roosevelt, thought that needed correcting.
Roosevelt, who warned that letting huge fortunes pass across generations was “of great and genuine detriment to the community at large”, would doubtless be aghast at the situation today.
Annual flows of inheritance in France have tripled as a proportion of GDP since the 1950s.
Half of Europe's billionaires have inherited their wealth, and their number seems to be rising.