Thursday, 4 June 2009


i've decided that i'm against inheritances, altogether, completely against it. to the extent that i think nothing should be passed on to one's children. why should it, after all? it's not like the children "earned" the assets, in the sense that they won't be receiving these assets in return for work done or risk taken. it's simply a passing on of wealth that is in no way deserved.

the fact that you are born to rich and/or hard-working parents is merely a matter of fate. and each individual is responsible for making their own way in the world. why should you be waiting around for someone to die in order to inherit wealth? make your own money, as much as you are able. and if it's not much or you are not able, then the state is there as a back up for you. and the state should provide a fair and sufficient back up so that you have enough for your needs.

and i'm particularly against family wealth that is passed down through the generations. which in effect means that one child (usually the oldest male child) inherits the bulk of the family inheritance and the others have to survive on their own talents. this seems to be preposterously unfair - why should one child inherit due to an accident of birth? or if the most deserving child is chosen, why should the others be totally left out? it makes no sense, and with modern laws, is not seen much at all.

but i would rather see those assets widely dispersed to those who have most need of them, who are usually not the children of the deceased. said children have often had a pretty good upbringing with access to the best education, and they have the ability to earn a decent income of their own. they don't need the wealth as much those who weren't so lucky in the circumstances of their birth.

i'm feeling more strongly about this today because i've seen yet another instance of families wrangling over wealth and an old person being pressured to do something that is highly unfair. by children who show nothing but greed and entitlement to something that they personally have done nothing to deserve. and i recall one particular person who moved all his assets (worth several millions) into a trust of which only his son was a beneficiary. this was done solely to prevent the daughter from splitting up the family wealth, and i can't even begin to imagine how she feels.

unfortunately this is the way of the world, and our cultural customs are so strong that i don't realistically believe it would in any way be possible to do away with inheritances. even though we would all be so much better off without them - well maybe not economically in each individual case, but in other ways.

someone asked me what would happen to all the wealth if we followed this particular proposal. and so on one of my flights of fancy, i said it should be put into a massive fund to be used for eliminating child poverty, so that no child ever died of starvation on this planet. it's nice to dream a little, isn't it?


Deborah said...

Nothing? I'd like my daughters to have my jewelery, none of which is particularly valuable. But I agree - I see no good reason for wealth to be passed on, especially in cases where it is not passed on to all children equally.

I've been urging my parents to spend all their money on themselves.

stargazer said...

well, i guess i could make an exception for personal effects, prticularly things that wouldn't have the same value to anyone outside the family. but even then, you would be surprised at what people squabble over. or maybe you wouldn't...

Hugh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hugh said...

I think personal effects could potentially be worth a lot of money, particularly if the family is wealthy.

Certainly we can't have a true meritocracy while wealth is inherited. You've actually moved into anarchist thought here Anjum - one prominent anarchist thinker (I believe it was Proudhon, but I could be wrong) basically advocated what you are suggesting, that on death all of a person's wealth would be seized by the collective and used for the collective good.

This has actually been the practice in some historical societies - particularly in the Mughal Emperor, where the phenomenon was studied by Barrington-Moore in his work on the development of democratic and non-democratic governments. Although the Mughal rulers tended to seize the wealth for their own personal benefit rather than the communal good, the effect was the same - lower rates of saving and higher consumption, particularly among the super rich. Barrington-Moore felt this 'predatory state' made it hard to form a bourgeois class that he identified as crucial to democracy, and that it was an important part of what made the Mughal state despotic, although I'm not sure you would agree with this conclusion.

The biggest practical problem I can see is how to prevent people from simply gifting their children with things before they die. So for example, rather than letting my son inherit my house when I die, I can simply give it to him as a gift when I start to get sick.

Actually, now that I think about it some more, to truly achieve the meritocratic effect you're looking for, you would basically have to forbid all transfer of wealth between parents and children beyond the basic necessities of an upbringing (food, shelter, education costs etc).

stargazer said...

i'm not sure that i do, hugh! and i'll admit to being strongly influenced by my muslim background. there are very strong statement and values around not hoarding wealth, and spending it on the poor and on your family during your lifetime. also encouraged very strongly is the forgiveness of loans, particularly to the poor, which goes alongside a ban on taking or paying interest and a ban on profiteering.

what all of this does is to place responsibility on the community to care for its weakest members. which is not so difficult, because no-one is hoarding their wealth, so there is enough money to go around. lest you think that the system encourages bludging, it doesn't because a healthy person is encouraged (possibly requried) to collect firewood and sell it rather than to take charity. commerce and trade are encouraged, hard word is encouraged and making a fair profit is a good thing.

so it all sort of fits in, but the trouble is that people just don't act that way. it's an ideal, i guess, and the closest i've ever heard of it's being reached is during the reign of umar ibn al-khattab.

but i think my main point is that sense of entitlement that kids of rich parents have towards wealth that they have had no hand in generating. it bothers me immensely, especially when i see them behaving badly!

stargazer said...

and repsonding to your second comment, my knowledge of mughal history is woefully inadequate.

and as i say in my post, i don't believe cultural customs would allow this kind of policy to be discussed let alone implemented!

re gifts in your lifetime - i don't have such a problem with those because you are still alive to deal with the fallout if you behave badly. and then it becomes an issue of pushing values that create a concern for the least well-off - a concern that should be as important to you as your concern for your children. that's not something that can be forced. it would have to be a cultural movement, and we are currently so far away from that point that i despair of ever getting close. i can't even say that i'm close, so yes, feel free to use the "h" word!

Hugh said...

Sorry for the double post, I thought my first one hadn't gone through for some reason.

First of all, 'bludging' isn't something I generally get concerned about.

I've proposed this idea before, albeit not from a religious perspective, and the criticism I've always heard is that since for many people the chief motive for commerce and profit is to pass wealth on to their children, any banning of inheritance is going to necessarily constrain those activities. That was certainly Barrington-Moore's finding, although he wrote his book 40 years ago, so it's quite possibly been questioned since then.

I'm not sure why you're OK with gifts prior to death though. They seem to be just as objectionable under the criteria you've established in the first paragraph - the children don't earn them, they haven't done any work or taken any risks, and it's not deserved.

I think your point about having equal concern for our own children as we do for the least well-off is a very interesting one that gets to the heart of the matter. I'd go one step further and say that, if our children are not significantly disadvantaged, we should care about them less than we do about the least well-off. Proudhon, in pretty much the same breath as he advocated an end to inheritance, suggested that all children be made wards of the state, and that parental involvement in their upbringing, while prima faciae desirable, should be done through the auspices of the collective.

stargazer said...

i didn't say i was "ok" it, just that i had less of a problem and then went on to say where the problem was ie concern with our own children over concern over the least well-off.

re the last bit of proudhon that you mention, well, that's just a little too wierd for me. the way i see it, my children are my responsibility to bring up well and as productive members of society (and i accept this is a matter of judgement so not any set kind of thing). once i've fulfilled that responsibility and i have excess wealth, then i should serisouly consider whether my children are deserving of that wealth over other more needy people. and that's where a strong sense of community kicks in. without it, we won't feel responsible for anyone but our own immediate family.

Hugh said...

I guess I don't really understand how it's different for you. You say that while the parent is still alive, they can deal with the fallout if things go badly as a result of their gift. It's not clear to me what you mean. If a parent gives a child a BMW and the child proceeds to exhibit the behaviour that you're concerned about, what can the parent do?

stargazer said...

nah, i was meaning stuff like if you gave one child a BMW but did not give the partner or other child(ren) something of the same value, and then people started throwing tantrums about that, then at least you would be alive to sort it all out or take the potential nastiness that would result from your actions. that's the only context in which i saw it as a little less of a problem.