Inheritance, Capitalism & Freedom
Tibor R. Machan
Few things invigorate critics of free market capitalism as much as inherited wealth. Quite a few defenders of this system tend to stress its supposed reward of hard work, ingenuity, industriousness, thrift and diligence – all virtues one can hardly argue with and which, if one practices them, seem to justify holding on to the often resulting wealth. So, critics focus on inheritance, a species of good luck, which those who benefit from it cannot easily be said to deserve.
And it is true enough – notoriously many beneficiaries of inherited wealth seem to be quite undeserving. They often waste their inheritance away rather rapidly; if not, they do nothing much creative or productive with it; often they spend it on projects that actually turn out to be out and out hostile to the very system that made making the wealth possible in the first place (just take notice of the many rich kids of industrialists who decided to fund collectivist think tanks, magazines, and activism). So, if this result can be associated with free market capitalism, how could any right-minded person defend the system?
The guilt by association ploy does seem to work because even among the most sophisticated critics of capitalism the ultimate ammunition is the view that even those who practice diligence, thrift, industry and other virtues merely inherited their traits of character and thus do not deserve the rewards, after all, contrary to what common sense would suggest.
Now there is a very serious confusion afoot in all this and once noted it should disabuse critics of the idea that inherited wealth and its misuses amount to any liability for freedom and capitalism.
To begin with, we do in fact inherit many of our assets and do not earn them – our good looks and health, if we have them; our talents; even much of what constitutes our personality, something that often helps us make our way to a certain measure of success in our lives. And in each of these cases we can both build on what we have inherited or waste it away good and hard. But none of that makes these assets anyone else’s to take away from one! That would be enslavement, actually, or at least expropriation.
The point is that we all come into life with some assets and some liabilities. That we do or do not have these is something over which we have no control. However, once we find ourselves with them, they are up to us to handle. Inherited wealth is among such assets, yes, and how we make use of it will be our test of character (which, contrary to what some claim, is not inherited but the result of cultivation, attention, self-discipline and thus very much the source of just deserts). So are talent, and beauty and good health, as well as their opposites.
Now, where the free society, with its corresponding free market economy, comes into the picture is in enabling us to handle these to the best of our ability and willingness. It is only in a free society that the moral fiber of human beings can be effectuated, made to count for something. So, yes, your parents left you with something very valuable – an estate, a business, a bunch of stocks and bonds or cash. But whether you do right or wrong by these is in your hands in a bona fide free society. And that is true even if you were just born pretty or witty or otherwise appealing to the rest of us so we will through money at you to gain your services on magazines covers or in comedy clubs. There is, in another words, no end of uneven starts in life – that’s why it is utterly silly to complain that life’s unfair. That is just the way it is, much like the weather.
Luck, in the way of good looks, talents, inheritance and the rest is one of the factors with which life confronts us and we then are tested by how we handle it all. One may hope that those who botch up their good fortune will learn and if not will suffer properly. It would be wrong, however, to sic the government on those who were chosen either by their ancestors or genes or some other factors not under their control to benefit at the starting point.
One more point about inheritance. Unlike good looks and health, inheritance often comes with conditions. You get to enjoy your parents’ estate, provided you carry out some of their wishes – support wild life preservation or the local little league or a fine political cause. One sign of lack of good grace is when those who inherit wealth with such strings initially accept it all but then try to weasel out of the commitment and try to treat it as if they had earned it on their own, free and clear. That again is a character tester – and again one can only hope that others will make careful note it and the deed will go un-rewarded in the end.
To some extent all assets that aren’t earned come with certain provisos. Someone with a great voice might like to have inherited the physique of an athlete, instead. And those with such a fate may wish to fight it, too. Alas, they will usually fail – had they only been content with what they were born with, their happiness, besides their good fortune, might also have been enhanced.