I don’t believe the following three arguments are definitive, but I think they are interesting.  I have taken them–or the roots of them–from an article on the topic by D.W. Haslett (“Is Inheritance Justified,” PAPA, Vol 15 #2, 1986: 122-155; I don’t know if Haslett would approve of my formulations).

I believe that adults should be, or should strive to be, self-sufficient and that parents are morally obligated to seek to raise their children in a way that makes it likely that they will, as adults, be self-sufficient.  I don’t want, though, to discuss those claims here.  I will note that by “self-sufficient,” I do not mean living in such a way that one never depends on or cares for any other.  Perhaps some are capable of living a good life without doing so, but most of us fare better having loved ones.  Nor do I mean, of course, that one should seek to never trade with others. Trading with others obviously helps most of us live well.  What I mean, then, is taking care of oneself, given the way one finds oneself in the world, with the participation of others that one voluntarily engages with with who are not themselves morally or legally required to do as they do.  (That last is vaguer than I would like, but will have to do.)

If government provides one the resources to live one’s life, one is not self-sufficient (taxpayers are legally required to provide the aid).  So too, if one’s parents (or other family members) provide one the resources to live one’s life, one is not self-sufficient (presumably they are–or feel–morally bound to do so).  It may be the case that with family, but not with government, there is no force involved.  That is not to the point here.  One is not taking care of oneself if one’s parents are.  When we are young, of course, our parents should take care of us; when we are adults, this is no longer the case.  If this is right, adults should not receive inheritances. At least absent other considerations.

The previous paragraph was a simple (perhaps too-simple) argument from self-sufficiency to absence of inheritance (for adults).  What follows is an argument from equal opportunity and an argument from productivity to absence of inheritance (again, for adults).

First the argument from equal opportunity.  I think equal opportunity is, in itself, valuable.  I think this for the simple reason that I do not think one enters the world deserving unequal opportunities.  Bill Gates’ children are lucky that they were born to someone able to provide them many opportunities.  Many people are unlucky because born to parents who cannot.  The former no more deserve opportunities than the latter.  Of course, they have far more opportunities–because they inherit wealth from their parents.  Inheritance is clearly opposed to equal opportunity, so if you value the latter, you should (to the same extent) dis-value the former.  But even if one does not think equal opportunity is valuable in itself, its instrumental value is important.

So, now the argument from productivity.  More wealth is produced in a society when there are more people to come up with new ideas of things to produce and new ideas of how to produce things already being produced.  Innovation drives wealth-creation.  Whoever invented the mp3 made carrying music far easier and less expensive–thus allowing for wealth creation.  When Henry Ford designed the assembly line, making production of cars quicker and less expensive, he made possible much wealth.  People are more likely to innovate–both with new things and new ways to produce things already produced–when they have opportunities to be educated, to travel, to experience a variety of things, etc.  When people live in poverty, they lack opportunities.  If we could alleviate the poverty we would increase their opportunities and, all else equal, the innovations they could bring to market–and thus the wealth in society.  It would seem that removing inheritance–which, I grant, gives many opportunities to those who are lucky enough to receive them–would allow a greater (wider) distribution of resources, thereby increasing the opportunities for all (and arguably, the freedom).  Of course, this is contingent on (a) it being true that lack of inheritance means greater distribution and (b) the decreased incentives to produce (of those who would otherwise be able to bequeath inheritances) not being too significant or being offset by other considerations (like the increased productivity of those with opportunities they would not otherwise have).  I suspect (a) and (b) are both possible, so I suspect we can increase the average number of opportunities available for all by removing the possibility of inheritance.  Doing so, as I indicate above, would increase the innovations and thus wealth in society, so would be good.  (I grant, by the way, that wealth is not the only factor involved in individual welfare.  It is nonetheless clear that wealth contributes to welfare.)

As I said, I am not sure these arguments are definitive.  If the system they support genuinely involves violating individual’s rights, for example, that would matter.  I am not sure it would do so, though, as in a society where no one expected to be able to bequeath or receive inheritances, its unlikely that anyone would think there was a right to do so–and, arguably, unlikely that there would be such a right.   (This sort of thinking fits, I think, with Michael Otsuka’s left-libertarianism.)

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  • good_in_theory

    I wonder if there’s some sort of leveling out concern here (not one I have but one others might have).

    If the goal is productivity/innovation, perhaps a greater diversity of standpoints leads to a greater diversity of potential innovations.  So inequality may be more conducive to innovation than equality.

    • Andrew Cohen

      I wouldn’t advocate wealth (or income) equality. Even if we had 100% inheritance and gift tax with no exemptions (not that I am endorsing that), we would have plenty of diversity in this (and other) areas.

  • j r

    Perhaps this is a silly question, but why does inheritance need to be justified at all?  Inheritance in any formal sense is just the recognition of what happens informally.  People keep things of value in their family; they pass them down from one generation to the next.  If something needs to be justified, then it is the act of intervening in that process.

    The inheritance of political power ended because political power ceased to be something that was exercised personally and instead became institutionalized.  That’s what happens when you move from a monarch to a president.  If the same sort of evolution were to happen with inheritance, it would necessitate a move from property as something that is personally owned and managed to something that is collectively owned and managed and only assigned to individuals for temporary use.  Why would we want that?

    • Martin Brock

      If inheritance were simply about personal possessions kept in a family, we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion, and estate taxes hardly affect this passage in the U.S. in fact. The Federal estate tax exemption is currently five million dollars.

      In reality, we’re discussing broad, forcible monopolies like software patents and entitlements to tax revenue like Treasury securities and shares of what are essentially state agencies like Lockheed-Martin, not to mention Buckingham Palace and the Crown.

      Who says the inheritance of political power ended? I suppose it was reformed in a more liberal direction in various places, but I don’t suppose it ever ended.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rick-DiMare/100000504645309 Rick DiMare

        “In reality, we’re discussing broad, forcible monopolies like software patents and entitlements to tax revenue like Treasury securities and shares of what are essentially state agencies like Lockheed-Martin, not to mention Buckingham Palace and the Crown.”

        Yes, this was Jefferson’s real target, not common families. There should be upper tax brackets approaching a 100% tax for estates like these.

        • j r

          Why would you do that?  Take the case of Treasuries.  You’re saying that the government should tax people 100% on collecting an existing debt from the US government?  What would that even accomplish?

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rick-DiMare/100000504645309 Rick DiMare

            No, I meant that, as with a progressive income tax, the estate tax should have an upper limit, as well as an exclusion amount. I’m not talking about a particular form of wealth, but the total wealth of the entire estate.

            For example, in tax year 2012 the exclusion amount for federal estate tax is $5.12 million with a maximum tax rate of 35% over that (and in 2013 it’s expected to drop to $1 million with a maximum rate of 55%). All I’m saying is that when you get into the mega-wealthy category, the maximum rate should near 100%. 

          • Martin Brock

            I don’t want a state directly to govern capital after the death of a wealthy capitalist, so we need to be clear about what “100% tax” means here.

            I like the idea of title expiration. A probate court auctions the capital. Bidders may borrow to bid, to the limit of their credit in a free credit market. The court receives the highest bid, in money, but it doesn’t deliver this money to central authorities for expenditure. It burns the money in a bonfire celebrating the deceased.

            The money burned is only a claim on other capital, so burning it only frees this capital to leverage the creation of new money. Money doesn’t disappear in this process, because new money appears in the decentralized process of extending credit, including the credit of bidders in the auction. In other words, the monetary system recreates the money that the probate court burns.

            Of course, if a deceased capitalist carefully prepares an heir to run his businesses, this heir has a big advantage when seeking credit to bid.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rick-DiMare/100000504645309 Rick DiMare

            What I mean by a “100% tax” is that some estates (including kingdoms) are so large and monopolizing, there should be an upper tax bracket that absorbs 100% of the excess wealth. Again, I’m not saying that any estate should be taxed 100%, without exemption levels, lower tax brackets, etc.

          • billwald

            Obviously 100% refers to the marginal tax rate. Obviously money collected as taxes doesn’t disappear. Obviously, at least to me, fiat money is not a “store of value” but functions as a universal IOU for goods and services.

          • j_m_h

            I don’t really get this argument at all. If one pays any attention to what States do with money what’s the point. They will not be using the money all that wisely and it will not serve to limit public spending or reduce the debt.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rick-DiMare/100000504645309 Rick DiMare

            I’m assuming the current monetary system, which depends on treating wages as income, is unsustainable, so I’m looking for other more fair sources of revenue for the state, and I think the state is essential for the enforcement of property rights.

            But I agree that under the current system, new sources of tax revenue “will not serve to limit public spending.” In fact, under the current monetary system, no taxes are at all are needed. They’re only levied for psycho-political reasons, to give the currency a fear-based sense of value, and to provide the illusion that we’re being asked for the money. But really, the central bank just creates whatever money it believes it needs, and funds whatever projects it favors.

          • j_m_h

            So I’m still not seeing the connection between what you say and how the state tends to act.

            Perhaps I’m going a bit far here but you don’t seem concerned with how much the state might spend or how it’s spend as long as the source meets some criteria you prefer.

          • RickDiMare

            The number one overriding duty of the state, from my understanding of Locke, is to protect the property of natural persons, not the corporate persons we’re inordinately supporting today. And in my view, if the state is doing that, and still has the capacity to do other things, that’s fine with me.

            But also, I don’t believe it’s up to the state to decide how much it can do (after protecting property). That capacity should be determined by how much revenue the state can Constitutionally extract from the public.

            Unfortunately, the situation we have now is that the state, through the use of its central bank, has extraordinary, historically unprecedented discretionary power. In other words, the state’s discretionary power today is not determined by a Congress that represents the people’s will, but by a Congress that is owned and controlled by the central bank (and even what I call “the people’s will” is controlled by the central bank … through “psycho-politics”).

          • billwald

            What could be less wise than killing people in Afghanistan for the purpose of building a natural gas line for Big Oil and increasing opium production for gangsters?

          • Martin Brock

            I would default on every Treasury security right now, inherited or not, and ruin the Federal government’s capacity ever to borrow another dime, but that’s another story.

    • Andrew Cohen

      I think Martin and Rick’s responses are good. I might add that I tend to think all social practices should be justifiable. It may be that inheritance is. Or not. But once we recognize how much of the wealth controlled by the few is inherited and how it helps them manipulate the state to their advantage, it seems pretty clear to me that inheritance needs to be justified if we are to keep it.

      • j_m_h

        So is wealth the problem or is abuse by wealth a symptom of a failing political system/society?

        • Andrew Cohen

          I don’t think wealth per se is the problem. But I do think that extreme inequality tends to lead to abuses of the power that come with extreme wealth. Of course, if there were no power to abuse, that would not be an issue!

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rod-Engelsman/822499328 Rod Engelsman

            Here’s a big problem I have with libertarian thought in general. Snap your fingers, eliminate the power center of the state, and then the wealthy can no longer game the system to their advantage. Okay… in theory. Maybe.

            But who exactly do you suppose are the folks that instantiate these power centers (states) in the first place? The teeming masses looking for handouts? Seriously?

            Isn’t the real way of the world more like: wealth confers power, then the powerful do what they need to consolidate still more power and wealth?

            My point is that if the wealthy didn’t have the state to work in their interests then they would simply create it by whatever means necessary. It’s so terribly useful after all.

          • Andrew Cohen

            Rod-I agree with the problem. My only recommendation for a (quasi?) practical solution at this point is the classic: we must remain vigilant against the encroachment of tyranny.

          • j_m_h

            Thanks Andrew, that clears up a good bit. I do think that some work needs to be done to tie up some loose ends related to your second sentence.

            I can see something of a case to be made for higher concentrations of wealth reducing the cases where wealth supporting A is cancelled out by weath supporting ~A. But I think has very limited explanatory power. 

            So I think we need to look at the underlying institutional structures that allow wealth to exert undue influence on political outcomes. My favorite these days is how we count eligible voters who don’t vote. 

          • Andrew Cohen

            jmh: looking to the underlying institutional structures is clearly key. I’m not sure that looking at voting patterns is the way to go from there though. On the other hand, I have no better answer yet.

          • j_m_h

            Well, as you think about it consider voting patterns from this perspective. Currently we have representatives and parties pushing positions that they claim have some “popular” mandate when they were only elected with 40%, and possibly even only 25-30%, of the eligible voting population. That means the majority of people do not support the policies.

            The suggestion that it’s the non-voter’s problem for not voting simply ignores the reality that many of these people simply have no alternative to vote for. Moreover, the write-in type vote is simply ignored in the current election process. 

            Finally, if non votes are counted against votes, the incentive structure for not voting changes and some of the “irrationality of voting” conclusions people have suggested for not voting are eroded–and possible eliminated. This then prompts a more accurate record of voter preferences.

            It could be that if the news simply reported the winning candidate in terms of percentage or eligible voters that could help but I think that still leave more scope for the rent-seeking and special interest policy-making that if we required representatives to earn at least 50.01% of the eligible voter population.

          • Andrew Cohen

            Except for the fact that I don’t think you can simply conclude that “the majority of people do not support the policies” from the number of non-voters, this strikes me as extremely important.

          • j_m_h

            My delayed response – true, I’ve over stated the interpretation of the nonvoters.

            I do think that even if one mischaracterizes some of the nonvoters we end up with a better institutional structure if one wants  representative democracy as the political system.

    • billwald

      In a conversation with my CPA he mentioned an unnamed client is involved in the breakup of a 100 year old billion dollar family trust. His point was that they intentionally stay out of the lime light and we don’t know who our owners are.  

      • RickDiMare

        Your comment reminded me of a BusinessWeek article I recently read, “How to Pay No Taxes: 10 Strategies Used by the Rich,” which lists some names of the super-rich who used these strategies: http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-04-17/how-to-pay-no-taxes-10-strategies-used-by-the-rich#p4

        For example, see a strategy called “Estate Tax Eliminator” or “The Trust Freeze.” 

        Accountants and tax attorneys call these “sophisticated tax avoidance strategies,” but they sound like criminal tax evasion strategies to me.

    • billwald

      Pragmatically, there is an economic and philosophical  world of difference between people who spend 80% of their wage income/only income on basic (median cost) food, shelter (now days) and transportation and those who have tens of millions in annual capital gains increases and don’t know how to  spend as much as 20% of their annual increase on consumer goods and services.  Without a graduated income tax on all income and/or a very steep inheritance tax the rich must become richer and the poor, poorer. What happens when the top 1% owns  98% of every hard asset (land, natural resources, infrastructure) that is worth owning?  

  • Eelco Hoogendoorn

    Where exactly do you draw the line? Can I give my friend $10 but not my daughter?

    If you believe redistribution of wealth promotes economic efficiency, and that this is valid moral ground for doing so, what sets you apart from the commies? Why single out inheritance? Should all gifts be banned for the sake of being morally corrupting? Where is the line between gift and mutually beneficial exchange?

    This post raises more questions than it answers im affraid

    • Martin Brock

      Inheritance and gift taxes draw lines. Titles to real property draw lines too. We can talk about where the lines should be drawn, but we shouldn’t pretend that the lines don’t exist.

      Gifts are the redistribution of wealth. You may argue that a title holder should have an unlimited right to this redistribution, a right to choose any successor in title for any reason, but the classically liberal tradition is full of counterarguments, and these arguments are not over liberty. They are over the writs of forcible propriety.

      No bright line separates a gift from mutually beneficial exchange, but no bright line separates my parcel of land on a frontier from yours either. If we accept a Lockean principle, my parcel ends where value added by my labor ends, but this line is hardly indisputable, and in reality, Lockean propriety does not establish property lines at all. Titles recorded at court houses establish them, and even these titles don’t eliminate disputes over the boundary.

      The post does raise many questions, but property rights generally raise similar questions.

      • j r


        Gifts are the redistribution of wealth

        Only if you start from the premise that wealth is something that is distributed as opposed to something that is owned.  In this conversation, the difference is more than semantic.  Redistribution implies a reset, while gift implies a certain continuity.

        • Martin Brock

          You can make any semantic distinction you want, of course, but my point doesn’t depend upon these distinctions.

          • bootytime

            That’s my point.  You’re throwing all transactions into a black box and for some reason pretending that they’re all equally fuzzy.  Some are and some are not.  The ability to pass your property on to the person of your choosing, or have it default to an heir in the absence of a will, has a pretty big historical precedent.  If you’re going to overturn it, the way slavery and  rule by hereditary right have been overturned, the onus should be on the person making the argument for some new arrangement.
            As for your examples above, those sort of confuse me.  I won’t speak on patents; that is outside of my bailiwick.  It’s a bit of a stretch, however, to describe securities as “broad enforceable monopolies.”  And how would it even work to restrict the inheritability of such things?  Every year a certain percentage of debt and equity would just disappear?  What would the benefit to such an arrangement be?  And wouldn’t any temporary benefit fade as soon as the market was able to account for the differences through pricing?

          • j r

            That’s my point.  You’re throwing all transactions into a black box and for some reason pretending that they’re all equally fuzzy.  Some are and some are not.  The ability to pass your property on to the person of your choosing, or have it default to an heir in the absence of a will, has a pretty big historical precedent.  If you’re going to overturn it, the way slavery and  rule by hereditary right have been overturned, the onus should be on the person making the argument for some new arrangement.
            As for your examples above, those sort of confuse me.  I won’t speak on patents; that is outside of my bailiwick.  It’s a bit of a stretch, however, to describe securities as “broad enforceable monopolies.”  And how would it even work to restrict the inheritability of such things?  Every year a certain percentage of debt and equity would just disappear?  What would the benefit to such an arrangement be?  And wouldn’t any temporary benefit fade as soon as the market was able to account for the differences through pricing?

          • Martin Brock

            I don’t throw all transactions into a black box, but politicians routinely throw transactions into a black box, confusing income earned laboriously with other income for example, and I live in a world shaped by politics.

            I don’t always agree with historical precedents, and I don’t agree that opponents of hereditary slavery had the burden of proof. The proponents of force, including forcible propriety, always have the burden of proof. Change can have unpredictable consequences, but a history of enforcing a particular standard is not a good argument for enforcing it in my way of thinking.

            But I do argue for a new arrangement here. Adam Smith argued similarly, so my arguments are also precedented.

            Patents are broad forcible monopolies, but I don’t describe securities generally this way. I describe Treasury securities specifically as entitlements to tax revenue, because that’s what they are.

            I wouldn’t limit inheritance of different securities differently. I would do away with Treasury securities altogether if I could, but that’s another story. I wouldn’t limit inheritance at all for that matter. I would only limit rights associated with the inherited titles.

            I would limit your right to consume the value of inherited capital but not your right to organize it seeking profit or for some charitable purpose. Most of what people may do with inherited wealth, and most of what the wealthiest people do with it now, would not change. I don’t want a larger state. A larger state is more concentration and less productive organization of capital.

            A certain percentage of debt and equity disappears every year, but I’m not discussing this disappearance particularly. On the other hand, while advocating a progressive consumption tax, I sometimes oppose expenditure of the monetary revenue by a central authority. Burning the money is arguably more productive. New money appears spontaneously in a free market anyway.

            The benefit is less marginal consumption by people who are not themselves productive. Burning state revenue has the same effect, so combining the two reforms seems doubly productive to me.

        • http://www.facebook.com/astrekal Alex Strekal

          At the risk of confusing you: everyone who isn’t completely satisfied with the economic status quo favors some form or degree of “redistribution” – even the most die-hard and conservative of libertarians, who have views entailing redistribution as it relates to the state’s property claims as such. The very nature of any property theory that entails a lack of justice in the current state of affairs implies redistribution – and redistribution is not simply a question of policy.

          • j r

            I don’t know about everyone, but I start from the position that the state has no property claims (other than the property that it actually owns).  I don’t have a problem with the use of taxation or of entitlement spending to address existing needs (call it social justice if you like).  I do not, however, see it as redistribution, but rather as the outcome of a democrat decision-making process.  Again, the difference may seem semantic, but it is rather important.

            To put it another way, the liberal democratic state, properly conceived, is a condo and not a co-op.

          • http://www.facebook.com/astrekal Alex Strekal

            I’m not sure what you mean by the state having no property claims. As I see it, its very definition of itself as a territorial entity is essentially a property claim. What libertarians generally *really* mean when they say “the state owns nothing” is that it doesn’t *justly* own anything from their point of view – which is a confused quibble based on conflating ises and oughts.

            Call it (policy of the sort you mention) what you like, it is, in the literal meaning of the term, redistributing resources. It is changing the distribution of resources in a multitude of directions.

            For me, the liberal democratic state is more like a gigantic absentee landlord posing as the commons, kind of like fuedalism blown up to the level of a nation as such – which plays into why I oppose it.

          • j r

            States exist to enforce territorial claims against other states.  I don’t buy the idea that the state has any pre-existing claims on the lives or property of citizens.  In fact, for me, the state is essentially a legal fiction, a club to which I maintain membership because it bestows upon me certain privileges.  

          • http://www.facebook.com/astrekal Alex Strekal

            You still seem to be confusing isez and oughts. I’m not claiming the state has a *legitimate* or *just* pre-existing claim to anything. I’m being descriptive and pointing out the simple fact that it does have a claim, that it is in control of resources, which means that it owns stuff. And since that is encompassed by an entire territory that people live inside of, the state effectively does stake a claim over the lives of citizens.  

          • billwald

            Pragmatically, the goal of the Articles of Confederation was 13 sovereign nations under a single foreign policy. The Constitutional Convention turned the USA into 13 provinces under one federal government.

        • billwald

          This error is typical of parents. When they “give” a  ”gift” to their children, title passes and the parent loses moral control if not legal control. If my child trashes his toy or car, that’s life. 

          Continuation of a business should not be an important consideration in tax law. If I can’t trust my children while I am alive then my estate might as well go to a charity after I am dead. 

      • Eelco Hoogendoorn

        “Inheritance and gift taxes draw lines. Titles to real property draw lines too. We can talk about where the lines should be drawn, but we shouldn’t pretend that the lines don’t exist.”

        I didnt ask the question as a matter of pragmatism (though thats a relevant one as well) but to zoom in on the boundary of Andrew’s ethical beliefs. It is not clear to me what exactly motivates this thought.

        If it is the moral wellbeing of the recipient that we are concerned with, is it not the recieving of ‘unearned’ gifts generally that we should be concerned with, rather than the narrower definition of inheritance? If someone unrelated to me tries to give me $1M, should that money be intercepted? Should the lottery be legal at all?

        Or did I earn  my lottery prize by having gambled; and won? I must say I am more charmed by the idea of banning lotteries rather than having centralized authority putting a price ceiling on parental love.

        • Martin Brock

          Yes. The same principle applies to any gift. From my perspective, the problem arises when a gift is large enough to enable the recipient to consume the fruits of other people’s labor largely by exchanging the rental value of the gift for the labor. This gift denies the other people’s right to an exchange of labor for labor, and this right is fundamental in my way of thinking.

          Precisely how large a gift is “fair” is a reasonable question, and I don’t have a cut and dried answer to the question, but I will assert that a gift enabling an able man to consume other people’s labor for his entire life is over the limit. A precise limit is not necessary to establish the principle or to establish a system of forcible propriety incorporating it.

          I would not intercept your $1M gift, but I would limit your discretion in employing it. You may invest it however you like, and you may regift it for some charitable purpose, like supporting the disabled, however you like, but you may not personally consume it, not all of it anyway. [Of course, if you are disabled yourself, the principle differs.]

          I oppose state sponsored lotteries, and I would subject income from a private lottery to a progressive consumption tax, like other income, because this income represents a claim on forcible propriety. How you obtain the income is important to me, but no practical system of forcible propriety can ever create a Lockean ideal.

          A progressive consumption tax simply assumes that income above some margin is more likely a product of statutory force than of productive labor. Any formal system of propriety necessarily incorporates simple assumptions of this kind.

          “Earn” is a legal term, so it means what the lawyers say it means, but I would say that you don’t “labor” to earn a lottery prize. We must draw semantic boundaries somewhere.

          I’m happy for your parents to love you, but I’m not happy for your parents to entitle you, by writ of forcible propriety, to consume the fruits of my labor without laboring yourself in exchange.

          A statutory authority establishes the bounds of forcible propriety, not the bounds of parental love. Confusing the two confuses my parents with the state, and the state loves this confusion far more than it loves me. My parents love me far more.

        • martinbrock

          In the U.S., gift taxes exist and essentially extend estate taxes. I’m no fan of the United State or its taxes, but I don’t distinguish gifts before deaths from gifts after death.

          For me, the moral well being of the recipient is not the issue. The forcible proprieties entitling a proprietor to make a gift of his property is the issue. Property rights are forcible impositions. They may be useful forcible impositions, but they are forcible impositions nonetheless. I don’t want forcible impositions creating a class of people entitled to consume the produce of others without producing themselves for a market exchange.

          I oppose state sponsored lotteries. If people want to gamble freely among themselves, without state sponsorship, that’s their business, but if they’re gambling entitlement to forcibly imposed rights of exclusive use, the principle is the same.

          Your parents’ love is not remotely comparable. No one holds a gun to my head prohibiting me to enjoy your parents’ love without your consent, but if someone does, I feel the same way about it.

          • Eelco Hoogendoorn

            It seems you just replied here. Not sure if this is a software bug or not; in that case, excuse the necromancy.

            I don’t dispute that property is a social construct. And that we ought to construct it in such a way as to satisfy our objectives.

            But I still find your objections to ‘unearned wealth’ uncomfortable vague. And I am much more worried about the unintended consequences of such fuzziness than the thought of some trust fund kid being a trust fund kid.

            I am not sure what you mean by state sponsored lotteries; it sounds like a bad thing to me. But if even purely private lotteries (money confers a fungible right of exclusive use) should be banned, that again opens a rather messy can of worms.

            As much as I think the stock market plays a valuable role in allocating capital, I could not agree more with the critique that the vast majority of people participating in it are entirely clueless curve-fitters. The sophistication of most ‘analysts’ is no more than of the guy in the casino with elaborate theories as to whether now would be the right time to bet on red or black. Casino or stock market: these people regularly get filthy rich nonetheless.

            Should wealth acquired in the stock market be tested for being acquired by means of luck? Or should we do away with the whole thing, just to be sure?

            Exactly where is this ‘class of people entitled to consume the produce of others without producing themselves for a market exchange’ that concerns you so much? Have the descendants of Rockefeller taken over the world like locusts? I never met any of them in any of the service jobs I have held. 75% of billionaires are self-made. It seems to me that there is a lot of truth to the saying that ‘a fool and his money are soon parted’.

            It sounds to me like just trying to get to terms with the annoying phenomena of trust fund kids is not only the easier solution, but far less societally damaging than the vague and broad restriction of property rights you suggest.

          • martinbrock

            Strangely, I only received email notification of your previous reply today.

            My objections are to unearned entitlement to forcibly imposed, exclusive rights to resources, and I see nothing fuzzy about them.

            Several U.S. states (including the state of my residence) sponsor lotteries to raise revenue. I oppose these lotteries, because they are highly regressive taxes on stupidity and desperation. I have no problem with fools losing their money, but I see no point in a state raising revenue this way.

            Free markets are efficient, and successful investment is a game of chance, but I have no problem with financial speculation or private lotteries. Investment is more than rolling dice, but even if speculators are only rolling dice, I have no problem with it. Natural selection is all about rolling dice, and you and I and all of nature’s wonders are the consequence.

            A class of people entitled to consume without producing is dynamic and not simply the descendants of Windsors and Rockefellers. Many of the entitled are government employees (not only the retirees). Others are entitled to counterproductive patent royalties. Others are recipients of public assistance. I’m not simply discussing trust babies here. I intend to establish a disability trust for my children.

            No billionaire is self-made, but I have no fundamental problem with billionaires. Insofar as large states are inescapable, I favor a progressive consumption tax limiting the entitlement of the wealthiest proprietors personally to consume the yield of their resources. This restriction of property rights is not vague. It’s relatively simple and classically liberal and consistent with a minimal central authority.

            I am not anti-rich. The sort of consumption tax that I favor would slash taxes paid by the rich and reduce tax revenue by orders of magnitude, because it would effectively require the wealthy to reinvest marginal income rather than consume it while deferring taxation on the investments.

            Common juries hearing tax evasion cases, not professional politicians and bureaucrats, would distinguish “investment” from spending subject to the tax (“consumption”). That’s no more vague than common people entitled to negotiate contracts.

    • http://www.facebook.com/astrekal Alex Strekal

      “If you believe redistribution of wealth promotes economic efficiency, and that this is valid moral ground for doing so, what sets you apart from the commies?”

      Oh dear. Another libertarian cold-war-influenced conflation of “anything remotely implying redistribution” as “communism”. I guess moderate liberals are communists.

      • Eelco Hoogendoorn

        Oh dear. Another libertarian cold-war-influenced conflation of “anything remotely implying redistribution” as “communism”. I guess moderate liberals are communists.

        Andrew puts forth a defense of redistribution that is so general it can be applied to anything, without delineating a limiting principle. Im sure he is not a communist, but itd be nice if he laid out his case clearly enough so that I could tell the difference without the context of this blogs title, for instance.

        A strange question (“all gifts be banned”) just after invoking the specter of “communism”, which as an actual notion, has a whole lot to do with favoring the gift (the gift economy).

        This seems to me to be the logical implication of Andrew’s arguments. Wealth has to be ‘earned’ in order to be legal, and just getting it from someone apparently does not cut it. Whether the donor happens to be your dad seems quite immaterial to me. It is the moral implications of such gifts that he seems to be concerned with. ‘What of gifts generally?’, seems a fair question. Can I give my friend $10, yes or no? $10.000? $100.000 if his only child desperately needs expensive medical care? Will the commissar make an exception for that? Or are these unintended consequences to be scoffed at in the face of the greater good being served here?

        P.S: The way I would put that is that communism, as an actual notion, has a whole lot to do with the ‘fairly tale economy’. People do not turn to giving eachother stuff just because you kill them for trading it. Infact, the historically more probable effect is to turn their starving minds to killing you first.

        • http://www.facebook.com/astrekal Alex Strekal

          “People do not turn to giving eachother stuff just because you kill them for trading it.”

          This is itself already an overgeneralized strawman of communism as a political philosophy. And whether you consider it to be a “fiary tale”, you have an intellectual responsibility to actually account for what the people you are making statements about actually believe. The notion of “the gift economy” can’t simply be dismissed without engaging what that notion is.

          “‘What of gifts generally?’, seems a fair question.”

          Not when posed on a way that implies that communism is about an *opposition* to “gifts generally”, when it is all about trying to have a society in which “the gift” overcomes the need for markets.  

          • Eelco Hoogendoorn


            This is itself already an overgeneralized strawman of communism as a political philosophy. 

            I bet one could fill many a book with all the convolutions of communism. Regardless, I consider that a pretty good go at summarizing the actuality of it in a single sentence.


            And whether you consider it to be a “fiary tale”, you have an intellectual responsibility to actually account for what the people you are making statements about actually believe. The notion of “the gift economy” can’t simply be dismissed without engaging what that notion is – that would require you to not narrowly chalk it up to a loaded practical question of “killing people for trading”. 

            The confusion here seems to stem from your conflation of the terms ‘communism’ and ‘gift economy’, a viewpoint which I do not share. Having established that, “killing people for trading” and “fairy tales” seem pretty concise descriptions of the former and the latter respectively. There is more to be said about either, for sure, but not in the same number of words.

            Not when posed in a way that implies that communism is about an *opposition* to “gifts generally”, when it is all about trying to have a society in which “the gift” overcomes the need for markets.

            To get back to your odd use of terminology: I have never heard someone describe communism in those terms before. I thought mainstream communism was all about owning stuff at the collective level and allocating that according to scientifically established need, rather than freely acting individuals either trading or gifting things.

          • http://www.facebook.com/astrekal Alex Strekal

            “I bet one could fill many a book with all the convolutions of communism. Regardless, I consider that a pretty good go at summarizing the actuality of it in a single sentence.”

            When what we’re talking about it is in terms of political philosophy, particularly what a given political philosophy has as a conception of justice, no, it isn’t a good summary. It’s completely sailing over engaging the political philosophy discourse over it.  

            “To get back to your odd use of terminology: I have never heard someone describe communism in those terms before.”

            Then you have not had very many intellectually honest encounters with communism as a political philosophy – or you simply have strong biases stopping you from even understanding what you oppose. Or have never encountered an anarcho-communist.

            “owning stuff at the collective level”

            To the extent that this does describe communism, although its language is inaccurate, this is precisely caught up in the notion of the gift economy. But it really is *not* “owning stuff at a collective level”, when one is talking about a lack of formal property right altogether.

            P.S. <—- not a communist

          • Eelco Hoogendoorn

            Then you have not had very many intellectually honest encounters with communism as a political philosophy – or you simply have strong biases stopping you from even understanding what you oppose.

            Just as with religion, I do not much care for what the book says. The book can be made to say anything on proper reading; what its adherents actually make of it seems to be the more interesting question. The same goes for communism; I have little interest indeed for those conceptions of communism that never made it out of the ivory tower.

            Or have never encountered an anarcho-communist.

            Wasnt it Hayek who said these people are ‘simply confused’? (tried to hunt down the quote but couldnt find it). Indeed I have never encountered a person capable of embodying that contradiction.

            If you ask such people how to actually make their world come about, they will always resort to collective action to coerce their worldview on you, without blinking their eyes. These people will throw around price controls and other regulations like there is no tomorrow, and seem happy to ignore nobody is going to obey those, without the policemen they so claim to abhor.

            As far as I am able to discern, there is only statist communism, and those in denial concerning the forcefull means required to bring about this contorted state of affairs.

          • http://www.facebook.com/astrekal Alex Strekal

            “Just as with religion, I do not much care for what the book says. The book can be made to say anything on proper reading; what its adherents actually make of it seems to be the more interesting question. The same goes for communism; I have little interest indeed for those conceptions of communism that never made it out of the ivory tower.”

            Curiously, you don’t seem to apply this to libertarianism, which hasn’t made it out of the ivory tower. By your argument, you should be disinterested in engaging libertarian political philosophy too. Yet here you are. Isn’t it funny for someone in an ivory tower discussion to dismiss serious engagement with others on the grounds of *them* being armchair thinkers?

            All that I’ve asked of you is to actually engage those who disagree with you with the charitability of actually trying to understand their position. That shouldn’t be too much to ask in a space that’s supposed to be all about “academic” intellectual discourse.

            “Wasnt it Hayek who said these people are ‘simply confused’?”

            I guess appealing to authority figures to simply dismiss *people* out of hand is good “academic philosophy”?

            “If you ask such people how to actually make their world come about, they will always resort to collective action to coerce their worldview on you, without blinking their eyes.”

            That’s quite an ideological presupposition for you to make. So, lets get this straight. Instead of having to understand people’s position, you can just dismiss them as violent a priori. That’s rich.

          • Eelco Hoogendoorn


            Curiously, you don’t seem to apply this to libertarianism, which hasn’t made it out of the ivory tower. By your argument, you should be disinterested in engaging libertarian political philosophy too.

            I do apply this to libertarianism, and I am completely desinterested in, for instance, all libertarian policy papers that make as much sense in the context of an advance auction of stolen goods, as does a gift economy in, well, the real world. Even if I was a libertarian, I wouldnt care for working out the details of some line of thinking in which premises I do not even share. I like thinking about the consequences of different rule systems, even if I do not share their motivating values. I do not care for where the premise 1+1=3 leads to.

            I guess appealing to authority figures to simply dismiss *people* out of hand is good “academic philosophy”?

            Just because Hayek said it doesnt make it right; I just thought it was an funny break of character for a man who typically doesnt mind going on for a few thousand pages on a subject.

            That’s quite an ideological presupposition for you to make. So, lets get this straight. Instead of having to understand people’s position, you can just dismiss them as violent a priori. Without knowing them, you already know what their methods are. That’s rich.

            No, thats just a plain old generalization. Just like one loses ones appetite at some point for say, listening to the next person make the case as to why ‘evolution is just a theory’, so I have come to have low expectations of anarchist-communism or its brethren. But by all means, prove me wrong.

          • billwald

            Appropriate government is a matter of scale and social contract. Many families function well as pure communistic societies. We did and all 5 children turned out to be decent people and good neighbors. 

            Until the EEC, Sweden and her neighbors did well with their form of socialism. There is NO system which will function well for a nation of 300 million people and 1000 social contracts.     

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rick-DiMare/100000504645309 Rick DiMare

          The discussion about redistribution of wealth and communism interests me because, having an affinity for Henry George’s inquiry into the possible causes of poverty, he called for land value tax in his time, and the 1st plank of the communist manifesto is: “Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.”

          So, does this mean Georgists are communists? If not, what’s the difference between Henry George and Karl Marx?

          This question leads me back again to the importance of the 1895 Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan case, wherein the Supreme Court struck down a 1894 income tax on rental income because it might cause a direct tax on land (and direct taxes under the Constitution are subject to certain restrictions).

          To cut to the chase, the difference between George and Marx, in my view, is that Marx wants to take “all rents of land,” leave no incentive for private industriousness and place all discretionary power in the state.

          George, however, as evidenced by the discussion that ensued after his death, and leading up to ratification of the 16th Amendment, wants to leave an incentive for landlords, “lendlords” and employers. In other words, simply not take it all, and let the income tax on property sources regulate the relationship between government and private business (i.e., if the gov’t taxes too much it will realize that there is a point at which the tax causes a diminishing return).

          • Eelco Hoogendoorn

            I certainly think there is a distinction between discussing what distribution of wealth we consider proper, and communism. Everybody has their favored distribution of wealth, implicitly or explicitly.

            But if every unequal distribution of wealth is seen as undesirable and cause of redistributative action, the logical result is complete egalitarism. The OP makes little effort to distantiate himself from that logic.

            Taxes on land or other limited resources certainly make a lot of sense to me. Generally speaking, I consider arguments of the type ‘I got there first’ extremely weak support for a property claim. If nothing else, the full cost of the enforcement of their property claim should be borne by people such as landowners through the form of a proportional and continuing tax. And as a general means of raising revenue, it is also one of the more straightforward taxes, creating little incentive for negative-sum behavior. Unlike an inheritance tax, by contrast.

            So yeah, im with you on the Georgism. I think both arguments from fairness and from efficiency justify a tax system along those lines.

          • Rick

            “But if every unequal distribution of wealth is seen as undesirable and cause of redistributative action, the logical result is complete egalitarism.”

            That may be, but I don’t see that unequal distribution of wealth should be the target of the tax or regulation. In other words, someone shouldn’t be taxed simply because they own more stuff than us.

            Rather, it’s rent-seeking behavior that should be the target, i.e., behavior where someone is controlling or dominating the property or labor of another, which typically translates into employers, landlords, lenders (including those lend money into existence) and speculators.

            People who are working on their own as independent contractors, or selling their labor to another, should not be taxed/regulated (simply for laboring).

    • Andrew Cohen

      Again, I think Martin’s comments are good. In any case, it might be that we need a more general accessions tax rather than just an inheritance tax. I’ve also heard it suggested–I don’t think I would endorse this–having a cap on how much anyone person can receive via gift or inheritance.
      By the way, don’t be afraid: its frequently the case that doing philosophy raises more questions than it answers.

  • Martin Brock

    With certain exceptions, involving disability for example, I favor an obligation to labor for a market exchange of labor or the products of labor, as opposed to an exchange of rents for labor, rents being the value of governing resources other than labor. I don’t say that rents should not exist. I only say that a man should not personally consume the fruits of another man’s labor by writ of governing a resource other than the first man’s labor.

    Resources other than labor exist and must be governed, and I don’t want a central, statutory authority governing these resources. I want decentralized ownership of these resources and market organization, but corresponding rents can be reinvested or serve a charitable purpose rather than being consumed by the person governing a resource. Limiting title in this way preserves the principle of labor exchange, for personal consumption, without centralizing authority.

    As a practical matter, the value of labor is most of the value everything produced, not all of the value only most of it. This statement is empirical, not theoretical. Humans value artifacts. Labor is the largest cost of most businesses, and it is also the largest share of the cost of productive means that businesses employ. The labor theory of value is not true, but it is a decent, first order approximation. Classical liberals asserting the theory were not fools.

    But the principle I assert here is not an economic principle, like the labor theory of value. It is an ethical principle, like the propriety of a man over the fruits of his labor and other resources improved by his labor. As a matter of fundamental ethics (my chosen ethics), a person owes another person a market exchange of labor for labor. If I inherit all of Microsoft’s software patents, I still owe you a market exchange of the fruits of my labor for fruits of your labor that I personally consume, not an exchange of the value of these patents. Whether the patents ought to exist at all is a separate question. Given their existence, inheriting the property should not entitlement me personally to consume its value.

    Managing my inheritance may be laborious, of course, but calling all of the value of these patents “fruits of my labor” is clearly nonsense. Marginalism, which supersedes the labor theory of value in the liberal tradition, denies this nonsense, and the same marginalist principle applies to other valuable goods that are not fruits of my labor, like land or a house I inherit.

    Children are not generally exceptional. Children owe supportive parents a reciprocal obligation, like support in the parents’ old age. I’m not suggesting judicial accounting for the precise terms of a contract here, only a general, ethical principle. I’m not defending a system like Social Security either. The support of aging parents by their children is the primary historical precedent for the Social Security program as a matter of historical fact, but the program screws parents royally.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rick-DiMare/100000504645309 Rick DiMare

      “Children are not generally exceptional. Children owe supportive parents a reciprocal obligation . . . ”

      Martin, maybe not. It’s nice if children respect their parents, and support their parents in old age, but generally speaking, those (parents) who put others in a vulnerable or dangerous circumstance (children) owe a duty of care to those they have put at risk.

      • Martin Brock

        Well, I’m describing my ethical assumptions here, and children owe a supportive parent reciprocal support in my way of thinking. People may also owe support to people they place in vulnerable circumstances. I see no contradiction here. I may owe you support at one time, and you may owe me support at another time.

        You can say that a parent places a child in vulnerable circumstances, but a vulnerable existence presumably beats non-existence. You can also say that a parent produces a child, that a child is the fruit of its (supportive) parents’ labor, and children traditionally are literally property of their parents.

        This “property” was never remotely like slavery. Neither was a husband’s property in his wife and her property in him. We can all agree that slavery is immoral, but “property” too often gets a bad rap these days.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rick-DiMare/100000504645309 Rick DiMare

          Yes, “presumably.”  … to be or not to be …

          • Martin Brock

            The presumption might be overcome … but only long after puberty.

    • Andrew Cohen

      Martin-Very interesting. I think I like this but will need to think more about it.
      One comment for now, sort of in line with Rick’s: whether children owe anything to their parents will surely depend on what we mean by “parents”–I know people whose parents (both biologically and socially) deserve absolutely nothing from them; these are people who turned out decently or better despite their parents.

      • Martin Brock

        I always qualify “parent” with “supportive”, or if I don’t, I should. Even a materially supportive parent can be abusive, but this abuse is a separate issue.

        Frankly, as both a parent with regrets and as a child with imperfect parents, I’m extremely skeptical of the state’s role in policing parents, but I will certainly discuss cases in which a child should not owe an abusive parent. I’ll also discuss cases in which contracts should be void.

  • Aeon Skoble

    It doesn’t matter that the inheritor doesn’t deserve it – the relevant point is the bequeather’s rights.  http://www.thefreemanonline.org/departments/capitalists-should-love-the-estate-tax-it-just-aint-so/

    • http://www.facebook.com/astrekal Alex Strekal

      What coherance is there to the notion of enforcing the rights of someone who no longer exists? Do their rights when they are alive create something that extends in perpetuity into the future for all time? What *is* “the beqeather’s rights”, in practical terms given this context, other than their intentions before they died?

      • Aeon Skoble

        It’s my rights when I’m alive that are the point.  I agree that dead people don’t have rights, but that’s not what this is about.  Estate law exists to make it easier for still-living people to do what they want w.r.t. their children (or whomever).

    • Andrew Cohen

      Aeon-I meant the last paragraph to address this. That is, I think its an open question whether we have a genuine right to bequeath. I’m not saying we don’t, but it seems clear that if we do, it is a limited right. I have no right to bequeath my right to vote to my child. Nor various other things. What the limits are, I don’t know, but surely there are different types of limits. Why not a limit on monetary value?

  • LogisticEarth

    I have a big problem with the premise that inheritance is undesireable because the heir did not “earn” it, or did nothing to “deserve” it.  You’re forgetting half of the equation.  Any person has a right to direct their property as they see fit, so long as you are not aggressing against others.  As such, the original owner, who presumably DID “earn” the wealth either through direct work and voluntary transactions, should have the right to distribute that property as they wish.  Traditionally this has been to pass the wealth down the bloodline, however we do frequently see the super-rich donate large portions of their wealth to persons other than their children.

    SHOULD an uber-rich person give everything to their children?  Perhaps not, but should we prevent them from doing so?  Clearly, no.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rick-DiMare/100000504645309 Rick DiMare

      “Any person has a right to direct their property as they see fit . . . ”

      But a corpse is not a person.

      • LogisticEarth

        Which is precisely why contracts like wills are written up to specify the intentions of the deceased while they are alive and an acting legal entity.  At the point of death the legal  rights pass onto the executor and then to the heirs.  If you null any transfers made after the person is dead, then what about transfers made while still alive?

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rick-DiMare/100000504645309 Rick DiMare

          That’s my point. Unless minors or dependents are involved, make most of the transfers while alive. In other words, let the primary focus be on investing in the self-sufficiency and happiness of dependents when alive, not on making them rich after one dies.

          But that’s not to say I’m for a 100% estate tax (which is actually the 3rd plank of the communist manifesto).

          • Josh

            There may be every good reason to delay wealth transfers until death or beyond. For example, one may wish to safeguard an inheritor from the temptation to spend the money for personal comfort or gain, or one may wish to ensure that an inheritor achieves financial security on his own before being handed a windfall for which he is ill-prepared. Many other reasons may come to mind.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rick-DiMare/100000504645309 Rick DiMare

            Josh, yes, I was thinking about that when posting. There are trusts and spendthrift clauses to handle that situation, even for those who are no longer legal dependents, but who are, psychologically, still depending on their parents.

            But often the law has to draw the line somewhere, and declare the citizen to be an independent adult (whether or not s/he is really ready).
            Also, there are some circumstances where children are dependents for life because of, for example, some serious disability. And in situations like this, more property should be allowed to transfer to the dependent after death of the parent(s). But this is all grey area “battle ground” stuff for estate and elder care lawyers to sort out when the circumstances dictate.

    • http://www.facebook.com/astrekal Alex Strekal

      “the original owner, who presumably DID “earn” the wealth either through direct work and voluntary transactions”

      That’s quite a convenient presumption to make, especially in our world as it exists. The people it most dubiously applies to is precisely “the Uber-rich”.

      • LogisticEarth

        That presumption is made with the understanding that if the wealth isn’t justly aquired, then their rights to it, living or dead, are void.  I don’t think anyone here is arguing that injustly aquired property can be justly passed on.  We’re certainly not begining from a just starting point in the real world, but Andrew seems to be discussing inheretance as an abstracted concept, not in the context of past and ongoing injustice.

        • http://www.facebook.com/astrekal Alex Strekal

          Just to clarify: The qualm I was getting at is precisely over what we consider “justly aquired property”.

        • Andrew Cohen

          Yep. Thanks LE

    • Andrew Cohen

      See my reply to Aeon above.

  • berserkrl

    The right to own property includes the right to give or exchange it.  If people are not allowed to do so when they’re dead, they’ll do it when they’re alive.  If they’re not allowed to do it when they’re alive, then farewell libertarianism.

    • Aeon Skoble

      Exactly.  This was what I was trying to say in my Freeman column above.

      • berserkrl

        And — switching to consequentialist arguments — people near the end of their lives would lose incentive to produce/save/invest.

        • Andrew Cohen

          Aeon and Rod-I recognize the issue here. A gift tax might have to go hand in hand with the inheritance tax. It could be a more general accessions tax or a limit to how much one can come to own without labor. On the other hand, I am not sure it would be that bad if older people lost some incentive to work, nor if they started giving their money away to loved ones earlier.

  • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

    In addition to the excellent arguments already cited with respect to the tenous gift/inheritance distinction, there may be an even more obvious counter to the anti-inheritance position. Few people would deny that a person, after having paid all just taxes owed, has the right to dispose of their property as they see fit. This would include dissipating it by gambling, the purchase of depreciating assets, lavish consumption, etc. (I spent 90% of my money on fast women, fast cars and booze, the rest…I wasted). But if this is so, it produces the strange conclusion that people have a right to waste their respources, but not pass them on to loved ones.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matt-Missett/35303482 Matt Missett

      In addition to the possibility a person could waste their resources, what would stop them from selling their assets to loved ones at well below market rates (i.e. selling their house to their son/daughter for $1)? The only way to prevent this would be to significantly interfere with an individual’s right to enter into contracts. 

      • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

        I agree that the evaluation of any tax scheme must include inefficiencies introduced and the cost of compliance.

    • Andrew Cohen

      Mark-See previous replies.

  • Eelco Hoogendoorn

    Another difficulty of a type not yet addressed just occurred to me:

    If the family unit is not a morally valid entity for the transfer of property rights, then surely a nation can be no such thing. The difference between the kids of Gates (who stand to get just $10M each allegedly) and what any kid gets from their parents in material value, is smaller, in terms of orders of magnitude, than what a child in a first world nation stands to inherit from its nation, relative to a kid from the third world.

    Surely then, at every change of government, any budget surplus should be handed off to the UN for the sake of redistribution. If not, what is the moral distinction?

    • Andrew Cohen

      States have budget surpluses?
      More seriously: interesting idea. I do think its a problem that some people are unlucky in where they are born, but I don’t think it should be treated quite the same way. (Unless we could remake the entire world a libertarian world, which I would like.)

  • Joseph Stromberg

    Second what Roderick said.

    Also, the argument thus far seems to rest on a free-standing claim that
    everyone really “ought” to be independent as seen from inside some
    arbitrary (Kantian?) notion of individualism, and if they aren’t so,
    they must be made so.  Why this is any better than forcing people to be
    free, or to trade with outsiders, I can’t say.  It seems that we
    may have here a continuation of the larger war on tradition, family, etc., of which
    some of us are rather tired.  If BHL is meant to be a
    “thicker” sort of libertarianism, some of the thickness is going to
    have to come from tradition, religion, and similar non-individualist
    sources and not entirely from do-it-yourself moral theorizing (MacIntyre alert).

    • Andrew Cohen

      I’ve argued extensively against MacIntyre’s views. I see no reason to think the thickness must come from any “tradition” (unless you mean that incredibly thinly) or religion or, indeed, any non-individualist sources.

  • geoih

    What a lovely justification of robbery.

    • Andrew Cohen

      Justify calling it robbery.

      • geoih

        A person owns property in accordance with present conventions. They choose to dispose of it after their death in a manner recognised as appropriate by convention. Another person wishes to change that convention and confiscate this person’s property through coercion and force. Taking a person’s property through coercion or force is the general definition of robbery.

        • Andrew Cohen

          Excellent. Your reliance on conventions gives the game away. If conventions change such that bequeathing and inheriting are no longer accepted, than not having them will not be robbery. They might be robbery now, depending on how things are done–but my guess is we could take steps that were in accord with existing conventions so that the changes made never involved robbery but that ended with a very different set of conventions where there was no inheritance.
          By the way, this should not be taken as indication that I think all property is convention. I do not. I think there is a non-conventional objective core moral form of property and that this is fleshed out by conventions differently in different times and places.

          • geoih

            Excellent. You accept that by the present convention the idea of taking somebody’s inheritence is just robbery.
            Conventions can change, now all you have to do is try to change them. Property conventions have developed over thousands of years. There have been many deliberate attempts to change them (Soviet Union, Maoist China, etc.), yet the old conventions survive as strong as ever. Even after milenia of taxation, people still fight it, and without the state to enforce it, it would obviously collapse.
            Of course, robbing people of inheritance will simply cause them to give away their property before they die.

          • Andrew Cohen

            geoih: I would agree that the idea of taking somebody’s inheritence seems like robbery to many. I think, though, that this is at least partly because many people do not understand all of the operative conventions. I also think its clear that many people do not understand the history of those conventions. They have changed quite a bit over thousands of years, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Take Hinman vs. Pacific Air Transport (1936) that Dave Schmidts talks of in his post in our Land symposium. The Court essentially said “you were mistaken about what property is.” There is a way that is good, but the decision could have been a bit different. The Court could, for example, have upheld ad coelum and imposed a charge on airlines for the right to fly through people’s property (i.e., over their land). The income could have been distributed to land owners (or used for public goods). Instead, the Court said ad coelum did not hold. Which of these solutions is better? I’m not sure, but my proposal has the benefit of making property rights stronger.
            As for inheritance, I mentioned benefits in the original post (these have largely been ignored in the comments).
            As for the change incentives: (a) it might be better if people used their money before they die; it might even be better if they gift it before they die; (b) I’ve indicated in other responses to comments, that a gift tax or general accessions tax might be needed.

          • geoih

            Quote from Andrew Cohen: “I would agree that the idea of taking somebody’s inheritence seems like robbery to many.”

            I think taking somebody’s inheritence would be considered robbery by most everybody, except the people trying to justify their robbery. Citing one court case about airspace is hardly a significant argument, especially since there are plenty of opinions contrary to that decision. In any case, it’s irrelevant. We’re talking about tangible property that is already recognized as such.

            Your so called “benefits” are just another self-interested argument for taking somebody else’s property. If disposing of property before dying was in a person’s self-interest, then they would already be doing that. Having the state incentivize some action a person wouldn’t normally follow is just another self-interested action by somebody who does not own the property, and most likely in the self-interest of those working in the state.

          • Andrew Cohen

            (1) The point in talking about Hinman was only to show that conventions change (that is their very nature!), nothing more.  (2) Whether “most everybody” would consider it robbery is, I assume, an empirical claim about currently existing people.  I don’t know if its correct or not, but more importantly, its truth status is tied to the people existing at the time of its utterance and if the convention changed, so too would what the people believed. (3) Self-interested?  Not in any sense that matters. Its about justice for all. (4) “Having the state incentivize some action a person wouldn’t normally follow” may be another way of saying “having the state help change the convention of the normal way people act.”

          • geoih

            My point is that the inheritence convention has been around for thousands of years, and all manner of state actions to the contrary have not changed it.

            Conventions by definition are empirical. Having “most everybody” do something is how you establish a convention. There are plenty of examples through history where state decreed ‘conventions’ have not worked, because “most everybody” thinks the state is wrong.

            How does confiscating somebody’s rightly earned property have anything to do with justice?

            The state is not some separate entity with its own existence. It is just a collection of individuals, all pursuing their own self-interest. When they are given free rein to confiscate other’s property without fear of penalty or relatiation, they most likely will do just that. Is this the sort of incentive you’re aiming for? That is indeed a strange form of justice.

          • Andrew Cohen

            (1) The inheritance convention has changed!  We no longer think people can inherit political power, social status, or careers. (2) I am not advocating “convention by decree,” which I realize is oxymoronic.  I might be advocating subtle changes to put pressure on the conventions; this is normal in common law.  (3) Do you think justice is compatible with Joe Poor not having adequate nutrition solely because his parents didn’t excel?  I do not.  (4) Of course, the state is just a collection of individuals (though with rules, etc).  I’ve said as much before on the blog.  (5) would be a repeat of #2, though I’d add that of course setting the rules would be a difficult project requiring much more work than has been offered.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rick-DiMare/100000504645309 Rick DiMare

    I haven’t studied this stuff for a long time, but for everyone’s information, there’s gift tax in the U.S., which is a kind of “backstop” to the estate tax: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gift_tax_in_the_United_States

    Presently, the gift tax exclusion is $13,000 per year, per person, so a wealthy individual can gift up to $13,000 per year to as many people as s/he wishes (but there now appears to be a “lifetime gift exclusion,” which I didn’t think existed).

  • Josh

    Families who reproduce have an indisputable right and arguably responsibility to help ensure the well-being of their descendents. Parents who are very successful at wealth creation and/or stewardship have no less obligation or opportunity than anyone else to raise children who are, in turn, responsible wealth creators and stewards as well as virtuous human beings. But plundering resources which may be the product of generations of patient and skilled cultivation for the sake of redistribution by and to those less committed to long-term generational patience and security, can scarcely be just.

    • Andrew Cohen

      Whenever anyone starts by claiming an “indisputable right,” the doubts rise. Where does this indisputable right come from?

      • Josh

        Thanks Andrew. Without meaning to be cheeky, are you a parent? There can be no more fundamental right of a parent than the right to seek the benefit of one’s child.
        I’m asserting an opinion, of course. There’s a body of discourse in ethics on the contrasted ideals of universal love and particular love. I would defend the proposition that the parent who would sacrifice his child for the benefit of a stranger is the greater monster than the parent who would sacrifice a stranger for the benefit of his child.
        You may arrive at different conclusions, in which case you should dispose of the wealth you generate in accordance with them. I’ll defend your right to do so. But I would argue that surely the moral case for property rights is *stronger* when those rights are asserted on behalf of others (especially of one’s dependents or of the needy) rather than solely for personal enjoyment.

        • Andrew Cohen

          Josh: Actually, I misread your first line when I responded–I thought you said “families who produce.” That said, I think parents have an obligation to ensure the well-being of their non-adult children; I am prepared to say this entails a right to do so. I don’t think the same holds for their adult children. On the other hand, I actually don’t think we should make all such help illegal. But I tend to think some limit would be fine–and justified. In any case, nothing I said should be taken as entailing sacrificing a child for the benefit of a stranger. Not giving an adult child millions of dollars is hardly sacrificing that adult child.

          • Josh

            Thank you Andrew. Whether millions of dollars are required to protect a family’s interests is a matter of opinion.
            As the German borders closed in the prologue to WWII, it was possible for very wealthy Jews to trade their wealth to escape, i.e. to live. Their descendants, who would have had to start again from scratch, might have internalized some lessons from that which would lead them to a different approach.
            It might be, too, that families with a particular set of values would not see inheritance as giving something to an adult child, but rather as part of a continuing generational contract of stewardship.
            I do not really see any universally applicable justification for a given set limit for multigenerational wealth accumulation, and I do not think any SPECIAL limit or taxation should be placed on this income as compared to the overall progressive tax structure. In particular, I suspect that those empowered to make such decisions about limits will NOT share the perspective of those who take generational patience seriously as a value. This concerns me.

          • Andrew Cohen

            I don’t think its a mere matter of opinion.  I think we can come up with an argument that would indicate “best practices” given our system.  (I don’t think the German Jews case is applicable–they weren’t, if I understand it, bequeathing money or any form of capital other than life and freedom.)  As for the passing along an ethic of stewardship (or any general cultural capital) argument, I’m somewhat skeptical and somewhat suspicious.  On the one hand, passing down cultural capital is clearly important; on the other hand, I doubt it requires passing down a billion dollars (or, perhaps, any capital). 

          • Josh

            It sounds as though you are not sympathetic to the idea that multiple generations should be able to benefit from coordinated economic activity. 

            I used the example of the German Jews because what wealth was available to them can NOT be presumed to have been generated entirely be the generations which actually escaped. 

            You seem to be taking a fairly firm line on this, and it occurs to me to wonder whether you hold family businesses in any special regard or disregard. 

          • Andrew Cohen

            I’m not entirely sympathetic, nor entirely dismissive of intergenerational familial economic coordination.  Similarly, I don’t hold family businesses in either special regard or disregard.  If people want to pass something down to their children (and the children want it), I think its nice that they be able to, but I certainly don’t think that outweighs all else.  When children can’t get adequate nutrition simply because their parents did not excel, I think something is wrong, so think something has to be improve-able. 

          • Josh

            But that is only a general argument for the moral validity of redistributive taxation, not support for particularly taxing inheritance.  You could make the same argument for why it is better to tax (than not to tax)any other subgroup.

            I suppose my particular resistance is that it seems as though you are treating inheritance tax like a sin tax.  I would argue that it is a tax on vrituous behavior, like an added tax specifically on savings would be.  Even if it were not viruous, but only one of a million neutral discretionary spending choices, it would not merit being singled out for special taxation.  

            I wish instead that you had proposed higher taxation of conspicuous or luxurious consumption.    

            (By the way I mentioned family business because of the particular burden placed on them by the estate tax, not faced by businesses with which they might compete.)

          • Andrew Cohen

            Josh-I’m not close to finished thinking about the topic, but my current thinking is that either a national sales tax or an inheritance tax would be the best options for the limited needs my ideal government would have.  You are right, though, that I haven’t given anything close to a full argument for either.  

            I suppose, though, that I have doubts about large inheritances being either the (a) result of or (b) conducive to virtuous behavior.  Regarding (a), I suspect (I don’t pretend to offer empirical evidence here) the largest inheritances were amassed in businesses that had help from government which I think is an illegitimate use of power.  Regarding (b), obviously there will be exceptions, but I imagine (again, no empirical evidence to offer) that knowing one will never have to work can encourage people to engage in non-virtuous activity.  At the end of the day, (a) bothers me more because its rightly a political matter, while (b) is a moral but non-political matter.

          • Josh

            I think your assumption that the largest fortunes have been accumulated via corruption and government-sponsored market distortion probably is overreach, and in any event you were not confining your remarks only to the largest fortunes.  Far better – in myriad ways – to tackle government’s role in crony capitalism, than to indiscriminately attack the earnings of successful wealth generators. 

            I’ll look forward to reading your future posts!

  • j_m_h

    In thinking about the arguments against inheritance I’m reminded of Marshall’s Scissors. You cannot only focus on the limiting of inheritance but must also consider what actually will happen with it. Government’s have proven themselves to be fiscally irresponsible. The presumption that the world will be a better place by changing who gets the money. It’s an incomplete analysis so incapable of providing any justification for the change.

    Now, that said — since I don’t think taking the money from one person and giving it to others to decide on how it will be spent a much better approach would be available. Why not cap what anyone can amass. Once the threshold is reached the person’s only contributions to economic activities must be in the form of voluntary contribution.

    Why, first I don’t believe that the most productive, innovative or intelligent of us will stop contributing merely because they won’t make that last 500 million or a few more billion. Second, I also don’t buy that there’s only one person who can get any particular job done; there are very capable people who can step in should the person hitting the threshold say “I quit if not paid.”

    Now there’s no massive inheritance to pass on or to worry about who should get it.Who knows, we might even find these people become philanthropic with their time by offering to mentor multiple people regardless of where they work.

    • Andrew Cohen

      I agree with the problems you state in the first paragraph. I mention the idea of a cap in another comment; I am not sure I would try to defend it, but I do find it interesting. I agree with your 3rd and 4th paragraphs

  • billwald

    ” More wealth is produced in a society when there are more people to come up with new ideas of things to produce and new ideas of how to produce things already being produced.”
    In the 19th century, not the 21st century. In the 19th century the world was on a gold standard – gold was money was wealth. In the 21st century, the world is on a fiat money system. Right wingers and Libertarians don’t understand the consequences of a fiat money system. If fiat “money” has no intrinsic value then it can’t be wealth.  Fiat money is an intermediate step between labor or invested assets and acquiring wealth in the form of (more) assets. Fiat money is also a means of buying social status and political power. 

    The top 10% own or control 90% of all the assets. They want more money to buy more assets and/or more power. No one will convince me that a person with a billion in invested assets wants more money to buy more consumer goods.

    What happens when the top 1% or less owns or controls 98% or more of everything worth buying? Why would these people want more money when there is nothing left to buy?  Serfs don’t have anything worth stealing. Middle class people might have stuff the rich people want. When the very rich own everything why will they care if a large middle class exists?

    There is a world of difference between people who spend 80% of their annual increase paying monthly bills and people who don’t know HOW (on what) to spend as much as 20% of their net annual increase on consumer goods and thus re-invest 80% of their net annual increase. Unless their accumulation of assets is not redistributed with a large death tax or graduated income tax, how can the rich NOT get richer every generation and the working class NOT own less every generation?
     

    • Andrew Cohen

      billwald: Well, it seems you are on board with taxing or eradicating inheritance!  Still, it looks like we disagree about other bits, so a few comments: (1) Fiat money can well be wealth even though it has no intrinsic value, unless you have a non-standard definition of wealth. (2) I agree the top 10% aren’t likely to want (much) more consumer goods.  (The caveat is due to the fact that they will likely want new goods that weren’t available before.)  (3) The scenario you describe, with 1% owning 98% or more of everything worth buying rings fairly hollow.  If the rest of us really were in that scenario, we’d be like serfs, as you suggest.  This means we would not be able to buy much.  So how would the rich folks continue to make money?  They wouldn’t.  A strong economy, in short, needs lots of consumers and the scenario you describe doesn’t have that.  One might have suggested that the 1% could be their own economy, but given (2) that is ruled out.

      • Damien S.

        The 1% don’t have 98% of the wealth.  The top 20% do have about 84% of the wealth, and the bottom 40% have about 0%.
        http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2010/09/28/actual-vs-estimated-u-s-wealth-distribution/
        The top 1% have over 33%.
        Wealth and income has been aggregating to the top.  The economy’s been not doing so well.  Hmm.
        http://www2.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html

        Fiat money can be wealth exactly as much as gold, modulo the jewelry/industrial uses of gold.

      • billwald

        Andrew Cohen:  There are two parallel economies in the US. One for the people who work for wages and one for the people who live off capital gains. That is why the stock market rises as union jobs go off shore.

        How will the end of the scam “middle class” lower the standard of living of the rich class? 

        I think US wage earners are a new sort of industrial serf, an international commodity  of semi-skilled labor. For the first 20 years after WW2 the labor union contracts set the community top end wage standard. Once the rest of the union contracts are gone the wage goal for the employers will be the federal minimum wage.

        • Andrew Cohen

          billwald: (1) I’m not sure why we should think there are 2 rather than 1 with different components. (2) I’m not sure I understand your question, but taking a stab at it: no middle class (loosely defined as those with wealth but not those in the top, say, 10%) means no one to buy the products the big companies sell, which means the rich can’t get richer. (3) Your final paragraph seems like either an unfair description or a lack of understanding of what serfs actually were–or both.  (4) When the economy does well–and sometimes even when it doesn’t–the minimum wage is a wage almost no one makes.  In any case, so far as I can tell, minimum wage laws either set the wage lower than people actually get paid OR increase unemployment–that is, they either do nothing, or they do bad.

          • Damien S.

            (4)  That would be the simple theory.  AFAIK attempts to verify it empirically have not met with unambiguous success, leading to ideas that raising the wages of the poor ends up increasing demand for goods and services largely provided by the poor, at least within real world ranges.

          • billwald

            Before WW2 the middle class were doctors, lawyers, engineers, business managers and such. The middle class (that designation was not common)  had live-in servants and the working class knew they were not middle class. 

            Post WW2 “middle class” is a statistical fiction used to stir up a war between union members and those who think they are to smart to need a union. They have bought the fiction that “anyone can grow up to be the president” and that every American could be rich if the government and unions would get out of their way because Americans are smarter and harder working than every one else in the world.

            Middle class is a fiction because it is calculated by taking 20 percentile either side of median wage. This fools the uneducated because they picture the wage distribution as a bell curve with a poor tail on one end and a rich tail on the other. Not true!

            In the Seattle area the median income is around $40K but government poverty calculations permit families with over $60K income to qualify as poor people depending on the number of children of children. In other words, the median family living on one median wage is poor.

            Thought experiment: If median wage was dropped another $5/hour (about $11K/year) the people who now think they are median income workers would still be “middle class.” 

            It is difficult to to find comparable numbers but far as I can tell if “middle income” was determined from mean (average) income instead of median income the person who thinks of himself as being in the middle would have at least 50% more cash income.

            Ten workers sitting at a bar. Median income, $40K, mean income, $45K. Bill Gates joins them. The median income of the eleven, $46K, mean income $50 million (something like that). That’s how the math works. My point, median income is not the middle guy of a bell curve.

            Teach me why I am wrong. 

            Also please explain how accumulating fiat money with no backing is equivalent to accumulating real wealth like real estate or holding mortgages. 

          • Andrew Cohen

            I don’t think we have to define “middle class” the way the government does.  Nor do I think we have to go with the way people self-define (I read something somewhere that indicated some absurdly high percentage of people self-identify as middle class).  We can go with something more definite, using straight math, dividing people into thirds, but I doubt that would get to the point.  So, what I said above: if we define the ”middle class” as those with wealth but not those in the top, say, 10%, then these are the people needed to buy products for the wealthy to continue to stay wealthy and get wealthier.

            As for fiat money: so long as its used, I see no reason not to think its wealth.  I can take my dollars and buy real estate or gold or whatever I want (including whatever you would count as “wealth”).  Its true that its value is built on a fiction (or fictions), but so long as people believe that fiction, it functions in exactly the same way as any other form of wealth–indeed, it functions better since it is more liquid.

            If that doesn’t satisfy: consider that gold and diamonds also have no inherent value.  They are valuable because people think they are.  If people stop thinking they are valuable, they cease being valuable (the problem, I take it, with fiat money).  Land may seem different, but its not hard to imagine a world in which land has no value either.  Indeed, religious folks have been imagining such a world for thousands of years.

          • Billwald

            When money was gold one could save money and at least break even in buying power.  Save fiat money and one loses buying power due to inflation.

            Fiat money functions as a government countersigned IOU for goods and services. 

            Agree that wealth is anything that people think it is. But  it can’t be something that loses value every year.

            Before white people ruined their society the Pacific North West tribes were the wealthiest people in the world. Why? Because they invented the potlatch as a means of gaining status.

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potlatch

            They never learned to work metal. They could not “save” food and or most of the items they made.   In the potlatch they could gain status by giving away the most stuff.

            Land had no value to the east coast Indian People. When the trash in the villiage became annoying the villiage was moved.  They did not understand the “white” concept of holding an exclusive title  to a specific plot of land.

  • TracyW

    Okay, my granddad inherited the family farm. His mother pulled him out of school at age 14 to work on it, as his father was dead. He spent nearly all of the rest of his life working on it and working hard. By your logic, should his parents have left him the farm, or not?

    How about granddad’s children, my mother and aunts and uncles, none of whom took over the farm. They got educations (paid for by the government and their parents), and from those educations were able to produce resources for trade with others. How is their inheritance different to my granddad’s?

    In other words, how many people in this world take care of themselves as adults without any past help from their parents, or people in a parental situation, or governments? What’s the moral difference between inheriting a farm, and being given an education as a vet? 

    I think equal opportunity is, in itself, valuable.  I think this for the simple reason that I do not think one enters the world deserving unequal opportunities.

    But wouldn’t we be all worse off if we got equal opportunities as this would reduce the gains from trade? I think that equal opportunity in and of itself, would be boring. I see it in instrumental terms as a negative. 

    People are more likely to innovate–both with new things and new ways to produce things already produced–when they have opportunities to be educated, to travel, to experience a variety of things, etc.

    Hmm, what are the statistics on this? How does this tie in with Adam Smith’s Division of Labour writings about the benefits of focusing tightly on one task? (Both situations may drive innovation, the question is what is more likely to produce innovation).

    Plus if we all got equal opportunities, there would be no specialised knowledge, no happenstance that gives different people different insights on the world. Wouldn’t this be bad for innovation?  

    It would seem that removing inheritance–which, I grant, gives many opportunities to those who are lucky enough to receive them–would allow a greater (wider) distribution of resources, thereby increasing the opportunities for all (and arguably, the freedom).

    Wouldn’t it reduce specialisation, thus reducing the opportunities for all? 

    • TracyW

      Thinking on it more, I think the fundamental issue is that you assert an interest in everyone having equal opportunities. 
      But many parents have an interest in their own particular children doing well. 
      And this interest is obviously a very strong one, consider for example the Labour politicians who have chosen to send their kids to private schools (public schools in the topsy-turvy British terminology), for example Dianne Abbott. 
      Why should your belief about what is moral obligatory, outweigh their beliefs? 

      Bear in mind, when answering, that there are people who very strongly believe that everyone should be Christian and others who very strongly believe that everyone should be Muslim. 

      • Andrew Cohen

        Tracy: I did not mean to be asserting a personal interest at all.  I meant to be asserting something worth considering for a matter of objective argument.  That argument needs far more work, as I’ve already indicated.  But I do think it would be beneficial if more people gave this more thought.  

        • TracyW

          I didn’t say you were. I didn’t use the term “personal” in my comment at all.  I’d hardly call a call for outlawing inheritances “personal”, it strikes me as  far too sweeping for that. 
          If you can let me know by what short phrase you’d call your call for equal opportunities for all, I’d much appreciate it. But whatever we call it, why should your, or anyone else’s, call for equal opportunities outweigh parents’ own interests (if they happen to have them) in passing on inheritances to their children? 

          • Andrew Cohen

            Tracy: 
            1. I think the only interests are personal interests.  I’m fine, on the other hand, with “call for equal opportunities”–that seems exactly right.
            2. What outweighs what is a matter of argument.  I don’t pretend to have a definitive argument yet.  (Or even a definitive view!)
            3. (a) Its not clear that an objective argument about this matter, or any matter of political morality, must involved deriving an ought from an is, but more importantly, (b) your thought about not being able to derive an “ought” from “is” is flawed.  What Hume actually claimed is only that people too frequently go from one to the other without care, not that doing so was impossible.  Indeed, I think doing so is possible.  I should add that (c) talk of a “philosophical system” may make the problem seem more insurmountable than it is–and as its clearly a difficult problem, I prefer not to make it seem worse than necessary.  It may be that we only need agreement about a very narrow range of propositions.

          • TracyW

            Andrew,

            Thanks for your response. To be honest, I find “call for equal opportunites” rather long, do you have a one or two word description you’d be happy with?
             
            I’m fascinated to hear that Hume thought it was possible to go from an “is” to an “ought”, can you tell me where he described a way of doing this? 

            As for arguments against outweighing – I know of two basic conceptions of society. One is that society should be dedicated towards some end, or set of ends. Another is that society is, at its best, a way of allowing people to each pursue their individual ends, with as little bloodshed (literal or metaphorical) as possible and generally more efficiently. Obviously these conceptions are not mutually exclusive, and the relative importance may change over time (eg the UK during WWII was far more dedicated to the end of defeating the Nazis than it is to anything now). But, on the whole, libertarians tend to favour the second sort. In that case, a “call for equal opportunities” means preventing many parents from pursuing their own end of improving the lot of their children (although they might be wrong about methods). This may be good overall, but I think it needs some argument as to why your value is more important than individuals’ own values.

            Now perhaps you are not a libertarian, and place no value per se on letting people pursue their own view of the good life, at least not when it comes to their children. But if we decide that we, as a society, need to decide on ends for how children are raised, then politically it is quite possible that views you find unpleasant will be put in place. For example, many Christians think everyone should be raised to be Christian, and Muslims the equivalent. Are you happy with risking that?
            Also, the desire of parents to provide their children with the best start in life is a very strong one, it for example led to Dianne Abbott committing the very behaviour she’d strongly criticised in others. Obliging others to pursue the goal of equal opportunities will therefore in all likelihood be resisted, people will spend time trying to get around the rules, more resources will need to be applied to try to stop them, etc. 

            So I think that you need some pretty good arguments as to why your call for equal opportunites should outweight other people’s interest in giving their children what they think is the best possible start in life.

            I should add that (c) talk of a “philosophical system” may make the problem seem more insurmountable than it is

            I talked of “philosophical systems” because I think that’s how insurmountable the problem is. I may be wrong about this, but you have presented no reason to believe that I am.  

            It may be that we only need agreement about a very narrow range of propositions.

            Given the disputes in the history of Christianity about a very narrow range of propositions, I don’t think the word “only” helps us here. (And arguing forever over tiny differences is not confined to Christianity either.) 

    • Andrew Cohen

      Tracy-I have no final views about this, but I tend to think a reasonable first step would be a very sharply increasing marginal tax rate on all inheritances of values over $5 million (I am not sure that’s the right number and I actually tend to think the number would have to vary by geographical location).  That would allow small family businesses and homes to be “kept in the family.”  But Michael Otsuka’s alternative also strikes me as quite interesting.

      As for pretty much everything you say about equal opportunity: I think you confuse that with equality.  Having equal opportunity in no way reduces t he gains in trade since there would be vast differences in talents, etc, as well as vast differences in wealth (same reason).    Far from being boring, we’d get lots more interesting things created by a population that would remain diverse but that would all have opportunities.

      • TracyW

        Why, by your logic, should small family homes and businesses be “kept in the family”? 

        And if equal opportunity still permits vast differences in talent, then why the focus on outlawing inheritances? I don’t think that people enter the world any more deserving of a high intelligence than of a large monetary inheritance. 

        Perhaps the question I should be asking is what do you mean by equal opportunities, and how do you distinguish equal opportunities from equality? 

        • Andrew Cohen

          Tracy-Sorry, I wasn’t clear enough.  I am not insisting that such things should be “kept in the family.”  I only meant to be indicating what might be a “reasonable first step” with the thought that it would be reasonable, in part, because it would allow what I assume most people really want–keeping the family home or business in the family.  Whether that is what should ultimately happen (i.e., whether it would be part of a completely just society), I am not certain.  I frankly have doubts.
          Your last question gets to the heart of the matter.  Its a fairly difficult question.  As a start at an answer, I would say something like this: What I think would be ideal is a state in which what is a matter of luck from the perspective of the agent in question is not caused by social or political institutions.  The point is that when someone has no or few opportunities merely because their parents did not excel in their society, this is a matter of luck caused by social (and perhaps political) institutions and should not prevent the agent from having a good life.  This is a species of what we call luck egalitarianism, but its only a species thereof.  It is meant to leave out the luck involved in what talents a particular agent has (some luck egalitarians would want to correct for that as well).  That is, there is some reasonable sense in saying that having intelligence, athletic ability, artistic talent, great singing voice, etc, are all a matter of luck, but I don’t think I would push to try to equalize the results of those sorts of things.  (I am not completely sure about that.)  The difference, from my point of view, between those sorts of things and the sorts of things caused by social and political institutions is simply that they (the inborn characteristics) are really a matter of who you are whereas the other (social and political) are not.  So, while its true that I don’t deserve whatever level of intelligence I have, its also true that there is no real sense in asking the question since without that level of intelligence, I would not be me.Also, I should note that even if we did somehow manage to equalize the opportunities, we would not need to equalize the talents.  I will never be a great basketball player, for example (I simply do not have that athletic talent)–but that doesn’t mean I can’t lead a life as good as a basketball player.  What seems to matter is the opportunity to lead a good life (Otsuka might say a life of equally high personal welfare, but I am not sure I would say that), no matter what shape that life takes.  A struggling artist, a great basketball player, and an academic may all lead (even equally) good lives, though they bring very different talents to the table.

          • TracyW

            What I think would be ideal is a state in which what is a matter of luck from the perspective of the agent in question is not caused by social or political institutions.

            I don’t think this is separable. For example, my brother received a severe brain injury out cycling a few years ago, as the result of bad luck. An anonymous doctor who happened to be passing by kept his airways open until the ambulance arrived, and my brother is recovering far better than is normal for his type of accident. While we can’t show causality, it’s quite possible that his recovery had something to do with the luck of a doctor passing by, and yet the probability of a doctor passing by at that time is clearly affected by social and political institutions. As was the probability of him having his accident in the first place. 

            The point is that when someone has no or few opportunities merely because their parents did not excel in their society, this is a matter of luck caused by social (and perhaps political) institutions and should not prevent the agent from having a good life.

            Well, in the case of the USA at least, as far as I know, the data is that if a person’s parents did not excel in their life (at least in financial terms), that does not stop that person from having a good life. See http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2004/11/nature_nurture_.html, which reproduces a graph showing the relationship between child’s income and parent’s income, broken into adopted and biological children. The study, done by Bruce Sacerdote, looks at an adoption service that randomly assigned parents to children. It finds that when these children grew to be adults, their adoptive parents’ income did not predict their own income. But their adoptive parents’ income predicted their biological children’s income. This is over a range from 10,000 US$/uyr to over $200,000 US$/yr. 

            (Note, the study only looks at families where the adoptive parents passed testing, hopefully this excluded really bad parents. No one disputes that badly abusive parents can wreck their children’s futures, for example by hiting them about the head or locking them in the basement for years, but stopping that sort of abuse requires different interventions to eliminating inheritances.)

            So, while its true that I don’t deserve whatever level of intelligence I have, its also true that there is no real sense in asking the question since without that level of intelligence, I would not be me.

            Interesting view. I knew my brother pre- and post- his accident, and I’d say he was him even from when he first started recovering consciousnesss (when his brain was working a lot worst than it is now). He’s obviously changed by it, but then life does change you, I found giving birth an abrupt change. 

            What seems to matter is the opportunity to lead a good life, no matter what shape that life takes.  

            As it’s not necessary to inherit a fortune to live a good life (eg my other granddad, my parents before my grandmothers’ deaths, myself), I don’t follow why your definition of equal opportunities  results in you calling for an end to inheritances.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Eric-J-Blitz/1780343440 Eric J Blitz

    You can’t interfere with a person’s right to dispose of property on a just desert claims basis (interpreting and making declarative ought statements about the recipient’s rights and comparative outcomes) without similarly interfering with all property dispositions. That is, if you say ‘you cannot dispose of your property after death through legal arrangements because the recipients did not gain a moral entitlement to the property’, then you can also say that a person cannot exercise that free will in property disposition during their lifetime. If I prefer to give my child a car on his 16th birthday while I’m alive, what makes that disposition of a property interest any different after death from the point of view of desert claims? My child doesn’t ‘deserve’ that car anymore than the child who is born in Somalia to a destitute and starving mother under a rigid egalitarian rationale. If you interfere with disposition after death, you can use the same rationale to interfere with dispositions you disagree with during life. This is the problem with all just desert doctrines and with egalitarianism more broadly. The moral claims of the egalitarian rest on comparative consequentialism instead of resolving the moral claim based on the fairness of process in acquisition. If I had gained my property through some morally faulty process, interference in my subsequent distribution of that property might be justified. But do we want to regularly probe the justification for a person’s property ownership at death, when we are least able to obtain evidence from the person in question? That makes no sense and is an unworkable rule of law. If one is to question entitlement to property, it should be done during life and should focus on the process or method of acquisition, not the status of the holder (whether they are an heir or descendant). The egalitarian premise of just desert breaks down entirely when applied in a social context, because one cannot ever fully universalize the moral principle. That is, you can never level the field perfectly no matter how complete the mechanism. Once the field is level, different attributes of the actors upset the balance and the egalitarian moral premise collapses. Should I not be able to teach my child because I am smarter than another person, because that will lead my child to be able to acquire more property with that knowledge? Have I wronged my child or the other child by this disproportionate exchange of a value (knowledge)? Attacking inheritance is indistinguishable from attacking the concept of property itself.

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