The New York Times reported recently that Dan Duncan died in March, leaving an estate estimated by Forbes Magazine to be $9 billion. He started with $10,000 and two propane trucks, and "and built a network of natural gas processing plants and pipelines that made him the richest person in Houston."
I do not begrudge his heirs the value of the plants themselves, other than the value created by any sort of monopoly they might benefit from -- which may be considerable -- and the value of the well-located land on which they sit. But the pipelines run over rights of way whose value has probably gone very lightly taxed, just as the value of railroad rights of way has traditionally been under-valued and therefore taxed lightly.
The estate includes over 100 million shares of the stock of Enterprise GP Holdings, worth $43 per share at the time of his death, shares which likely have appreciated hugely over the years without being taxed. Because Duncan's estate escaped paying estate tax, the value of the shares was not stepped up, so when the shares are sold someday, a 15% "capital" gains tax will be due, and his heirs will keep the other 85%.
Had Mr. Duncan died in 2009, while the estate tax was still in place, the $4.3 billion of shares would have resulted in a $2 billion estate tax. (That ignores his other holdings, including a 5,500 acre hunting ranch.)
The estate tax is an imperfect tool, but it is better than no tool at all to collect back for the community value which individuals during their lifetimes have managed to privatize.
The best solution, though, would be for each of us who privatize something from the commons to be required to compensate the commons, month in and month out, for that which we claim title to. Buildings, machines and pipelines are rightly private property, but the land on which they sit and the nonrenewable natural resources which they draw down are OURS, not the rightful property of any individual or corporation, and when we permit some to privatize that value without compensating society, we create wide channels for TRICKLE-UP. We're so used to it that we don't even notice.
Recall that a huge something over 70% of America's net worth is owned by just 10% of us, and over 34% is owned by 1% of us. Mr. Duncan's children are in that 1%. They have inherited the reins to a corporation which we've permitted to privatize the value of what ought to be common property.
Those who have high hopes and sincere expectations of someday winning a large jackpot in the Powerball Lottery may think it appropriate to defend the privileges associated with having large amounts of wealth (Powerball winnings, however, are income -- that's a detail) and they may think it to be in the best interests of their future lucky self to protect privileges associated with privatizing the commons. (They might want to take a look at the odds in their favor compared to the odds associated with the privilege of access to America's or the world's natural resources.)