The current “death tax” in the United States allows a person to gift or donate up to $11.18 million tax free. The catch is, of course, that they must die. The Republicans have long made it clear that the “death tax” is a hated foe, but they also like to present a narrative of a free market and almost all Americans love to praise fair competition and equality of opportunity. As such, Americans like inheritance and fair competition. As with many cherished beliefs in belief sets, these two are at odds with each other: allowing significant inheritance conflicts with fair competition and equality of opportunity. While it is easy enough to argue for this point, it makes more sense to make people feel the unfairness inherent to inheritance. This can be done by playing my special variant of Monopoly.
Almost everyone is familiar with Monopoly. For those who are not, the rules can be found here. The gist of the game is that you win by driving all the other players into bankruptcy by using the rules of the game. In normal play, the outcome of one game does not affect the next: the game is an equal opportunity ideal in that everyone starts with the same resources, in the same place and with a chance to win based on ability and luck. My proposed variation adds in inheritance rules. This variation requires playing multiple games.
Rule 1: The first game in the series is played normally using the standard rules.
Rule 2: Upon the conclusion of a game in the series, the winning player records what they possess at the end—money, property, houses, and hotels.
Rule Three: At the start of the second and later games in the series, one player is randomly selected to receive the game possessions of the winning player from the previous game. The receiving player is the heir and the possessions make up their inheritance. The other players start normally. The game is otherwise played using the normal rules, with the exceptions noted in these rules. The series ends when no one wants to play it anymore.
Players can experiment with these variations to make the game more “realistic” or “fairer.” The rules need to be set prior to play.
Fractional Inheritance: The heir receives a percentage of the possessions of the previous winner (75%, 50% or 25% are suggested). Property is selected by drawing the property cards randomly. Round up.
Multiple Heirs: Two players are randomly selected to be heirs, dividing the possessions of the winner of the between them. This can be a 50-50 split or a 75-25 split at the discretion of all the players.
While a player who is not the heir could win the game, the heir obviously has an incredible advantage. Anyone playing by these rules who is not the heir can easily see how unfair the game is. This should help people feel how inheritance of significant wealth is inconsistent with having a fair and competitive economic system.
From a philosophical standpoint, the first game could be considered a state-of-nature game (of the sort envisioned by Locke) in which everything is initially available to all and property has yet to be divided up.
The players in the second (and subsequent) game are obviously taking on the role of the next generation. Since birth is random and inheritance is not merited by effort, the heir is selected at random rather than being the previous winner.
As with any analogy that compares something simple to something vastly more complicated, this analogy will break down quickly. To illustrate, the real-world features multiple heirs, there is no equal start for everyone else, there is not just one game with one winner and so through all the differences. My point is, of course, not that this game variant is a perfect model of inheritance in the United States. Rather, my goal is to get people who are fine with the inheritance system as it stands to play this variant and see if they still feel that this is a fair ruleset for the game. And then to think about whether it is a fair ruleset for the real economy. The question that I want to pose is this: would you play Monopoly by these rules? Why or why not?
As always, I am open to arguments against my view—perhaps allowing and encouraging massive disparities in inheritance is fair and makes for competitive economic system that improves the general welfare.