Individualism vs. Inheritance
Luckily, I have a bit of contrarianism that I’ve wanted to air, and a series of Kevin Drum posts on using estates to pay for Medicare that has inspired me to make (drumroll please) . . . the case for the 100% estate tax.
No, really, I’m serious. After all, why should kids be allowed to inherit? I know, you are about to say something along the lines of “I worked hard so that my kids could . . . ” That is a noble emotion. But at the point at which this question becomes relevant, you will be dead. And dead people don’t have rights. They don’t own property. They don’t get to make decisions.
This is one of those ideas which combines a leftist desire for leveling of economic and social classes with a strongly individualist line of thinking: Sure, your parents saved up a lot of assets, but what does that have to do with you?
In a world in which each person is a social atom, the idea of money or property being handed down through families is necessarily repulsive. If you didn’t earn it, why should you have it? Perhaps this is why this particular leftist idea has a certain appeal to McArdle’s libertarian sensibilities.
Although conservatives and libertarians often find themselves treading similar paths in the modern political landscape, this is a sensibility I find pretty unappealing. More appealing to me is the sort of economic aspirations one sees among Austen’s characters — building up and successfully stewarding a family fortune which allows a degree of stability and leisure for future generations. I’d much rather see people working to build a stable legacy for future generations than taking a “I’m going to make as much as I can and blow it all before I die” attitude.
This individualistic view is characterized with startling clarity in this paragraph later in McArdle’s piece, in which she considers whether the motive of “earning” an inheritance might encourage some socially desirable behaviors:
Plus, adults hoping to be left something in the will might be performing valuable services for society, like visiting Mom in the nursing home to make sure that they haven’t tied her to a bed and left her to die. (on the other hand, there are the rich people who get tied to a bed and left to die by their heirs so that they won’t be able to change the will. Which effect is more powerful?) The trend towards a society based more on interactions with strangers, less on kinship ties, is generally a good one. But the family still serves useful functions that we don’t want to get rid of. If we mess with inheritance, are we disrupting an institution that’s tremendously important to both individuals and to society? [emphasis added]
It strikes me that a mass society based primarily on interactions with strangers rather than kinship ties is precisely the sort of thing which results in all sorts of dehumanization and bad behavior of the sort that conservatives interested in subsidiarity seek to avoid. By chance, I read today one of the most egregious possible examples of the way in which large, centralized organizations and stranger-based interactions can lead to really undesirable and expensive results: The state of New York has been spending $1.8 million dollars per patient per year to put developmentally disabled patients into large state-run institutions which are so negligently run that hiring and re-hiring ex-cons is common and abusing and even killing patients is tolerated. The situation was exposed through just that thing we haven’t quite learned how to live without, kinship ties: The family of a patient killed by one of the people employed to take care of him and a whistle-blowing employee who was seemingly unique at her facility in wanting to actually help the patients because her own son suffers from developmental disabilities, and so she didn’t see the patients as the “retard” objects of ridicule and abuse which many fellow employees did.
Kinship in the broader sense is one of the most basic ways in which human beings are made to interact with one another. Instinctually, we look out for people to whom we feel kinship in ways that we don’t necessarily do for those whom we see as “other”. Thus, while it’s important to try to broaden this tendency and encourage people to look out for all those they interact with rather than having an exclusionary, tribal approach to social interactions — it’s invariably going to work a lot better to work with the human tendency to take care of kin than against it.
This doesn’t touch on the question of whether we should “let” people with assets stretching into the billions pass that money on to their heirs untouched, but the proposals which McArdle and Drum are talking about are much more wide-ranging: basically getting rid of all inheritance (even very small ones) in order to pay for Medicare. On the contrary, it seems to me that if one of our major problems in the economic realm is short term thinking, whether it’s people mortgaging their houses to the hilt or playing the stock market for short term gains, then going to a “use it or lose it” approach to wealth would only make things worse. The grandmother who’s hoping to leave a stable portfolio of investments and a paid-off house in the suburbs to help pay for her grandchildren’s college is going to be much more of force for social and economic stability than the high-living stock flipper who dutifully burns through all his money and dies in debt.