Professor Anne Alstott, giving the Webster Lecture on Wealth Transfers at the University of Iowa College of Law, spoke of the clash between family values and the estate tax.

The politically controversial estate tax is set to expire in 2010 but Congress is very likely to restructure it in the next year. Opponents claim the tax undermines the family, but in her lecture, Alstott took the contrarian position, saying that family values, properly understood, can co-exist peacefully with the estate tax in some form.

“When we begin to explore ideals of the family, we are leaving behind the traditional realm of taxation, with its focus on questions of income distribution and economic incentives,” she said. “Instead, we must begin to ask questions that lie in the realm of family law—questions like “What is a family?” and “What are the functions of the family in society?” and “When may the state properly regulate the content of family life?”

These questions take us into deep and contested issues in political theory, Alstott said, including the meaning of individual freedom, the relationship between wealth and personal identity, the nature of intergenerational obligation, and the relative obligations of the state and families for providing care and responding to economic distress. “Today, and in my ongoing project, I want to suggest that a close engagement with these questions yields a conclusion that contradicts the prevailing wisdom.”

Read Alstott’s lecture, Family values and the estate tax.