A Philosopher's Blog

Inheritance & Welfare

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 30, 2016

In general, conservatives tend to oppose welfare and similar sorts of social programs. They also tend to be protective of inheritance—for example, they refer to the tax on inheritance with the dysphemism “death tax” and have endeavored to battle this tax. While these positions might seem compatible, a strong case can be made that the arguments against social programs would also apply as strong criticisms of inheritance.

One stock criticism of programs like welfare is that receiving something without earning it is intrinsically wrong. People should, the reasoning goes, earn what they receive. This is often the logic behind proposals to make people work to receive social support.

On the face of it, inheritance would seem the same as unearned social support: a person just receives whatever is left to her. If receiving something without earning it is wrong, this would make inheritance wrong.

A sensible objection is that people sometimes do earn what they inherit. For example, young Lord Trump might have toiled in his father’s business, thus earning the inherited wealth from this business. The same would also apply to social programs. People often earned the social support they receive by the work they did before needing the support. For example, a person who was fired as part of boosting the stock value of the company would have earned unemployment benefits by his past labor. Those getting Social Security retirement benefits in the United States also paid in, thus earning what they received.

It might be contended that some do receive social support without having earned it through labor and hence it would be wrong for them to receive it. This same principle would also apply to unearned inheritance: so, if people should not get support on the basis of this principle, they should also not get an inheritance that is unearned.

A second stock criticism of social support programs is that the resources could be better spent. For example, it could be argued that eliminating benefits in favor of tax cuts for businesses would be more beneficial. After all, some claim, the poor waste the money on drugs –at least that seems to be the reasoning behind mandatory drug tests for recipients of support. This sort of utilitarian reasoning should also apply to inheritances: money that would be squandered by the idle rich like Paris Hilton should be used where it would do far more good, such as funding education or infrastructure repairs (perhaps replacing the lead pipes used to transport water).

A reasonable reply is that a person has the moral right to decide how her possessions will be distributed after her death—this is a matter of choice. In contrast, social programs involve the takers taking the money of the makers (presumably to squander on drugs). Thus, a relevant difference here is the matter of choice. Inheritance is chosen, being taxed to support the takers is not.

The easy counter to this, at least in a democratic state, is that providing such support is a choice: the citizens have decided that this is what they want. As such, the people have chosen, thus making it a matter of choice.

An individual can raise the objection that she did not chose to provide for the takers—she does not want her tax dollars going to them. As such, there is an important distinction between inheritance and social support.

I do admit that there is a certain appeal in the idea of a pay-as-you-go state system that also allows choice. That is, citizens would pay for the services they use (such as schools, roads, the legal system, defense, police and so on) and they can volunteer to pay for other things. Naturally, citizens who elected to not pay into the social support programs would be ineligible for benefits in these systems—so the makers who wish not to contribute would need to hope that fickle fate or poor decisions did not transform them into takers.

Despite the appeal of such a system, it seems likely that it would result in the collapse of civilization. This is the sort of argument Locke used when arguing why the citizens need to go along with the decision of the majority: the alternative is the destruction of the political body.

A final stock objection against social programs is that they have a harmful impact on the moral character of the recipients. Some common claims are that social support destroys the incentive to work, breeds a culture of dependence and destroys self-respect. These are, it is claimed, are the consequences of getting something for nothing.

These same consequences should also arise from inheritance, which is also getting something for nothing (the matter of earned inheritance and support was addressed above). As such, if social programs should be eliminated on this ground, so should inheritance. Mary Wollstonecraft argued at length in support of the claim that inherited wealth is morally deleterious in her Vindication of the Rights of Women.

One reply to this is to argue that there is relevant difference between the two: most inheritances are very small and thus do not destroy incentives or breed dependence. For example, if a young person receives $1,000 from an inheritance, that will not suffice to destroy his incentives or breed dependence. This is because $1,000 will not last long. In contrast, social support can provide a person with enough to live on, thus allowing dependence to take root and incentive to rot away.

This argument does show that small inheritances would be fine, but would show that substantial inheritances would have the harmful effects attributed to the social programs. If having bare survival support from the state suffices to create dependence and destroy incentive, then receiving considerable wealth from an inheritance should inflict massive harm on the recipient. As such, if people need to be protected from the harms of social support, they must also be protected from the terrible danger presented by significant inheritances. Since most people receive little or no inheritances, the majority of people will be safe from this harm and their inheritances should be allowed. However, the wealthy are in danger proportional to their wealth and must be protected from this dire threat to their independence and ambition.

It could be countered that only the poor are especially vulnerable to the danger of unearned wealth and the wealthy can, in general, safely accept it without harm. This is certainly an empirical matter and objective research should suffice to show whether this is true or not.

It would seem that many of the arguments against social support would also apply to inheritance. As such, if these arguments work against social support, they should also work against inheritance. But, perhaps so much social support would not be needed if wealth were less concentrated.


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13 Responses

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  1. TJB said, on May 30, 2016 at 10:22 pm

    Mike, since education is one of the primary drivers of economic inequality, I assume that in order to be intellectually consistent, you are also against anyone receiving anything better than an average education. Is this correct?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 1, 2016 at 7:53 pm

      You’ll note that I do not actually argue against inheritance in the post.

      I think every person should receive the best education they can handle; which is why I favor vastly improving public K-12 education and making college more merit based and affordable.

      My view is shaped by running: competition should be fair, but each person should be able to perform to the best of their ability.

  2. WTP said, on May 31, 2016 at 8:43 am

    Let me first state that I believe leaving a large inheritance to ones children is a bad idea, generally speaking. I believe Andrew Carnegie had something to say about such, but too lazy to look it up now. However, each person with money to spare should also have the skills to discern what children or other entities are capable. When such fails it gets much attention and thus a good bit of whining from the chattering chatterers. That said…

    It is about time for you filthy thieving leftists to learn to keep you grubby paws off the money we working people have earned. What we decide to do with the wealth WE created is our own business. Go get a real f’n job and learn how to create wealth before you banter, blather, and bicker about how the rest of us handle our wealth.

    A child can see through the numerous flaws and assumptions here, but it would have to be an honest child, yet our tax dollars are applied to subsidizing and outright funding you f’n thieves to spread your theiving “philosophy” to our youth like a modern day incarnations of the loathsome reptile Fagin from Oliver Twist.

    • david halbstein said, on June 12, 2016 at 10:36 am

      I don’t know about Andrew Carnegie, but it is widely accepted that George Eastman, the founder of Kodak and a bachelor his entire life, once said, “I never wanted to have children, because I have too much money. If I left it to them it’d ruin them, and if I didn’t, they’d hate me. (Not sure if that’s actually true, but it’s part of the story). Over the course of his life, he gave away almost everything he had to universities, hospitals and other charitable organizations. His home in Rochester is now a museum – but there was not enough money in his estate to maintain it after his death.

      • WTP said, on June 13, 2016 at 11:27 am

        Mr. Halbstein,

        According to Carnegie, “The parent who leaves his son enormous wealth generally deadens the talents and energies of the son, and tempts him to lead a less useful and less worthy life that he otherwise would.” Such practices were a throwback to those “monarchical countries [where] the estates and the greatest portion of the wealth are left to the first son, that the vanity of the parent may be gratified by the thought that his name and title are to descend to succeeding generations unimpaired.”

        In Carnegie’s view, it was the duty of a wealthy man “to provide for the legitimate wants of those dependent on him and, after doing so, to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds … to administer in the manner … best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community.”


        Carnegie believed inherited wealth spoiled the heirs. “I should as soon leave to my son a curse as the almighty dollar,” he said.


        This statement by Carnegie is often used by government thieves and the likes of Mike (but I repeat myself) to justify large inheritance taxes. Of course, what is folly for the inheriting child would be folly for the government as well, but government and it’s sycophants like Mike think so much more highly of themselves.

        BTW, don’t hold your breath awaiting a reply from Mike on your well stated and thought out comment below. The Ivory Tower has intermittent problems with its elevator. You’d think they’d be able to fix that.

  3. WTP said, on May 31, 2016 at 8:51 am

    And another thing…while you blather on and on critical of damn near everything that makes this country great (while it lasts anyway) the academic world is in a shambles. From Mizzou to Harvard to DePaul and beyond. Get your own damn house in order before criticizing the many, many, many things that you simply do not, and do not want to understand.

  4. TJB said, on May 31, 2016 at 11:08 am

    It is the same old story. Dems talk about taxing the rich, but at the end of the day they soak the upper middle class.

    Most of the pushback against inheritance taxes comes from farmers who want to keep their farms in the family rather than being forced to sells them to pay the taxes. Likewise family businesses.

    Apparently in Mike’s view the government owns everything, including the fruits of our labor, and we should feel grateful for ant little scraps we are allowed to keep. We are just slaves of the state, according to Mike.

    • wtp said, on May 31, 2016 at 12:53 pm

      That’s the most glaring idiocy of this whole post. It’s predicated on the idea that the inherit or does not deserve what he inherits because he didn’t earn it…and that’s putting aside the work that the inherit or may have put into that family business/farm/whatevs. Yet they gloss over the fact that the state, and especially those that the state distributes the confiscated wealth to, did not earn it in any way, shape, or form. It is flat out theft. Socialism is theft. And those who endorse it and teach and live off of it are thieves themselves.

      • TJB said, on May 31, 2016 at 10:07 pm

        Denying someone the fruits of their labor is deeply immoral.

        • WTP said, on June 1, 2016 at 8:37 am

          Yes. Theft is immoral.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 1, 2016 at 7:57 pm

          In all cases, regardless of the labor or fruits? Also, are you claiming inheritances are earned or something else here?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 1, 2016 at 7:56 pm

      The essay is not about arguing for or against inheritance. Rather, it is about considering the similarities between welfare and inheritance in regards to justifying or criticizing.

      I never claim the government owns everything.

  5. david halbstein said, on June 7, 2016 at 10:38 am

    The similarities are merely based on receiving money based on situation – you can be the child of someone who has created wealth or you can fit into one of the government’s categories for receiving entitlements.

    I disagree that there is any moral judgement whatsoever attributable to that act. We will all receive windfalls gladly, regardless of the source.

    Nor do I believe that either welfare or inheritance are inherently damaging to anyone. Some welfare recipients use the entitlement for exactly what it was intended to do – give them a leg up to overcome hardships so that they can become self sufficient. Others game the system, and try to figure “staying on welfare” into their own comprehensive financial plan.

    The same is true for inheritance. As much as you rail on Donald Trump (and I am neither his apologist nor am I willing to engage in an argument as to whether or not he is a despicable human being), he used his inheritance to create more wealth, and not only for himself. His “empire” has employed thousands of people, provided work for scores of independent contractors, and generated trillions in tax revenue. Others, like Paris Hilton or the Kardashians, choose other pathways for their inheritances.

    The deciding factor is not the money or its source, it is the person who has received it.

    I also think that you are basing much of your criticism of conservatism on a false premise. Conservatives do not “generally oppose” welfare or social programs – rather, we do oppose expansion of such programs in response to emotional appeals, and in the face of a lack of any evidence they do anything to actually help in the long term.

    When Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton went mano a mano in the 1990’s over welfare, the result was a very successful compromise called “Workfare”. The work requirement was not based on any moral judgment about receiving unearned money – but rather, forcing recipients to acknowledge that the goal of the program was to help them be self sufficient and independent of public assistance. The result was a huge reduction in welfare rolls, along with a concomitant reduction in unemployment. I think that is more closely aligned with the goals of conservatives, rather than simple opposition.

    Similarly, Republicans have traditionally been accused of “blocking Unemployment Extensions”. Taken as a sound byte, which is how so many of us receive the news, one would certainly agree that Republicans and Conservatives on the whole are unfeeling, dispassionate, greedy people, and would agree with your “general opposition” premise. But government doesn’t work that way – and the opposition to unemployment extensions have been based on things like “Where will the money come from?” Budget cuts (which is what the Republicans fought for) or increased borrowing? (which is what the results were). Often – and I’d say even usually – bills are presented in Congress with very lofty titles like “The puppy rescue act” – but that contain completely unrelated and deal-breaking add-ons. Those who oppose the bill based on the add-ons are accused of hating puppies.

    It’s political trickery laced with adept public relations – which is why, when you say, “providing such support is a choice: the citizens have decided that this is what they want. As such, the people have chosen, thus making it a matter of choice.”, I would also disagree wholeheartedly.

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