While my criticisms of inheritance might seem silly and, worse, leftist, it is in perfect accord with fundamental American political philosophy and the foundation of capitalism. Our good dead friend Thomas Jefferson said, “A power to dispose of estates forever is manifestly absurd. The earth and the fulness of it belongs to every generation, and the preceding one can have no right to bind it up from posterity. Such extension of property is quite unnatural.” The Moses of capitalism, Adam Smith, said that “There is no point more difficult to account for than the right we conceive men to have to dispose of their goods after death.” As such, opposition to inheritance is American, conservative, and capitalistic. But this provides no reason to accept my view. What I will advance in this essay is an argument by intuition against inheritance using a fictional town called “Inheritance.”
Imagine, in a time before COVID-19, that you have been hired as an IT person for Heritage, a company in the town of Inheritance. You pack up your belongings and drive to the town. You spend the first week getting up to speed with the company and are not at all surprised when you find that the top officers of the company are family members—the current owner is the son of the previous owner. This is, after all, not uncommon. You are, however, a bit surprised to find out that almost everyone who works for the company inherited their job. You are one of the few exceptions because the previous IT person quit, and their daughter did not want to inherit the job. This strikes you as rather odd. But a job is a job and you are happy to be employed.
You learn that the town has an upcoming founders’ day and you sign up for the 5K. You find it a bit odd that the race entry form asks you for you best inherited 5K time, but chalk that up to some fun with the town’s name. You are a bit out of training, but run a 18:36 5K, the next closest person crosses the line at 26:22. Since an iPad Pro is the first place prize, you eagerly start towards the race director when she starts announcing the overall winner. You are shocked when the winner is the mayor of the town, Lisa Heritage—you beat her by 10 minutes. Her time is announced as a 17:34, which you know is not true. Thinking this is all a joke, you ask what is going on. Realizing you are the new guy in town, they explain that the place in the race is determined by the faster of the runner’s time or their best inherited time. The mayor’s mother, who was also mayor, was a good runner at her PR in college for the 5K was 17:34. Her daughter inherited the time and can use it for the race. A bit upset by all this, you make a bad joke about her running for office. The locals laugh and say that all political offices are inherited—there is only an election if no one who can inherit the office want it. You hope this is all some sort of elaborate prank.
During the winter you get a sinus infection and go to the town doctor. Looking at the medical degree on the wall, you see it was from Ohio State and the graduation date is 1971. Expecting to see an older doctor, you are surprised to see someone in their early twenties. You ask them about medical school, and they say they inherited the degree and the office. Incredulous, you ask if they have any medical training at all. They indignantly inform you that they have been practicing medicine since they were 17, when they inherited the degree. Looking up your symptoms on Google, they prescribe some antibiotics and send you on your way.
In making this appeal to intuition, I am assuming that while you probably accept the inheritance of wealth and property (including businesses), you probably do not believe that all jobs should be inherited. You also probably reject the idea that political offices, race times, and degrees should be inheritable. But allowing inheritance of property and wealth while rejecting the other sorts of inheritance seems inconsistent. This seems especially clear when it comes to inheriting jobs: while people generally accept it when family members inherit positions in a company, it would be odd for the other jobs to be inherited. The challenge is defending one while rejecting the other; at least if one wants to hold onto inheritance.
While families do pass on political influence (the Clintons and Bushes are good examples of this), Americans generally reject the idea of inheriting political offices—we did, after all, have a revolution to be done with kings and queens. There are clearly reasons for taking this view that are grounded in democratic values; but there is also the idea that inherited offices would lead to numerous harms arising from the concentration of power and lack of accountability. There is also the fact that such positions would be utterly unearned. While democratic values would not apply to inherited wealth and property directly, concerns about concentrated power and unfair advantages would still apply.
In the case of the 5K time, the person did not do the work for the time—they did not earn their victory. But the same also applies to inheriting ownership of the company—they did not earn their position; it was a matter of the chance of birth. The matter of inheriting degrees is also clear—a degree is supposed to reflect that a person has learned things and thus has some knowledge and skills. While this is not always the truth, an inherited degree is utterly unearned and would provide a person with no skills or knowledge. Allowing people to inherit degrees, especially in fields like medicine and engineering, would be disastrous.
One way to reply would be to bite the bullet and accept inheritance broadly. After all, human history has centuries of examples of cultures in which wealth, property, offices, and other things were inherited. This would be a consistent position but seems to lead to absurd results.
A better approach would be to try to break the analogies—to argue that inheriting wealth and property differs in relevant ways that would defend it from the absurdity of other inheritances. I will, obviously, leave that task to the defenders of inheritance and will certainly accept good arguments with plausible premises that support this view.