Edmund Burke observed, two centuries ago, that “The power of perpetuating our property in our families is one of the most valuable and interesting circumstances belonging to it, and that which lends the most to the perpetuation of society itself.”

In other words, all you grabby socialists, you confiscators of inherited property, keep your cotton-picking hands off other folks’ hard-earned goods. Not that congressmen listen attentively to dead Irishmen. This is one main reason the exactions of the estate tax remain so sharp and painful; more so, these days, for the middle-class than for the mega-rich, with their mega-priced lawyers.

On the other hand, this sorry state of affairs may be changing. Whether or not congressmen listen to statesmen, they undeniably pay some attention to wrought-up voters. The words they are hearing about the estate tax grow angrier and angrier, and you know what anger can mean in politics.

Small wonder so many are ticked. The bull market on Wall Street has propelled into the ranks of the rich a lot of Americans who consider themselves, well, non-rich. The value of a 401(k) account, the instrument on which more and more Americans stake their financial futures, pushed up the value of the owner’s estate.

And consider the rates: 37 percent for starters, rising to 55 percent. More than half You get to give the feds more than half of what you own—this, for the high privilege of dying. No, you can’t take it with you, but you used to be able to leave it behind, suitably distributed among loved ones. Today the feds start their self-apportionments from estate of more than $650,000 ($1 million in 2006).

Tom Riley writes in Philanthropy magazine:

In 1996, only about 3 percent of Americans who died were subject to estate tax. But that number is growing rapidly. Federal Reserve data suggest that over 6 percent of U.S. households have a net worth sufficient to subject them to the estate tax if they [sic] were to die today, and every uptick in the market adds new households to the club.

By 2004, the number of estate tax forms filed with the feds is expected to rise 52 percent—to 143,000. Particular victims include the owners of small businesses and family farms. The farm aspect may have helped more than anything else to grab attention for this issue. Americans are notoriously sentimental about those farms on which only the merest handful would actually live, given the chance. To accuse the federal government of enmity to rural America—this is to say something pungent and powerful.

The estate tax dates back to 1916. Republicans and Democrats alike supported its short-term use during war-time. Ah, but leave it to Franklin D. Roosevelt and his collaborators to bump the top rate up to 77 percent, where it remained until the early 70’s. Well, granted—55 percent isn’t as bad as 77 percent. But two points warrant consideration: first, as previously noted, the entrapment of middle class families in the toils of a tax designed for Rockefellers, Harrimans, and Fricks; and second, the raspberry directed at Edmund Burke and his intellectual kinsmen for arguing in behalf of perpetuating, rather than dispersing, inherited wealth. Congress’s decision for the latter, rather than the former, is driven by spite. Never mind how hard you work. Forget prudence and forbearance! Bat away all those Burkean “flies of a summer”: the kids, the grandkids. Let ’em make their own pile! Morally, intellectually, this may not be despicable advice. Whether it is the advice a government office men and women is entitled to dispense is surely a different matter. The government’s nose is stuck so far down in our pockets we sometimes forget there was ever a time when government protected, rather than thwarted, honest accumulation.

Can anything be done? That’s the odd part. Yes. Congress moves in that direction. California Rep. Christopher Cox’s bill to abolish the death tax has about 200 sponsors and virtually unanimous, as you might suppose, business support. An alternative is the ten-year phaseout proposal sponsored b}’ two House Ways and Means Committee members, Republican Jennifer Dunn of Washington and Democrat John Tanner of Tennessee. Neither lawmaker could be called an acolyte of Newt Gingrich.

What’s this? Prudence asserting itself in Washington? The “contract of eternal society” making the rounds for signature? Mr. Burke, Mr. Burke, for an old dead guy in ruffles, you are so . . . so . . . stylish.