Current Philosophy

0022 D.W. Haslett. "Is Inheritance Justified?," Philosophy and Public Affairs 15:2 (Spring 1986), pp. 122-155. ©

No, Haslett contends, inheritance is not justified. He observes that in the United States there is a vast inequality in the distribution of wealth, a distribution far more unequal than that of income. In theory, gift and estate taxes should counteract this inequality, but in fact they fail to do so. Inheritance of wealth, therefore, perpetuates inequity.

Haslett does not demonstrate (although he believes in) the value of capitalism as an economic system. His argument is designed to show, however, that capitalism entails certain ideals with which inheritance is incompatible. Three such ideals are identified.

First, capitalism tries to entice people to be productive by allowing them to benefit from their efforts. Inheritance of wealth clearly contravenes this ideal.

Second, capitalism seeks equality of opportunity, so that those who have the potential to be most productive can in fact succeed. But wealth is opportunity, according to Haslett, and inheritance obviously creates e-normous differences in wealth.

Third, many see freedom as being the most important ideal of capitalism. Freedom, however, can be taken in either a narrow sense, as the absence of coercion; or it can be taken in the broader sense of the opportunity and ability to do what one wants. One is, after all, not free to do something just because nobody is restraining one; means are also required. Temkin argues that inheritance does not particularly support freedom in the narrow sense, and it may in fact diminish such freedom by permitting concentrations of wealth to hinder the healthy functioning of supply and demand. Abolishing inheritance would, he admits, take away the freedom to leave one's wealth to whomever one wishes, but it would support freedom in the broader sense. Given increments in wealth become less advantageous the more one already has; consequently, spreading wealth among more people creates more opportunity, more 'freedom', for those who would benefit than what would be lost by those ■who currently have more than they need.

Haslett proposes that while ordinary small gifts should be allowed, large gifts and bequests should be made illegal. Upon death, a person's estate would pass to the government, which would sell all assets on the open market (although parties named in the will could have first rights to buy items at appraised value). Exceptions are made for inheritance by spouses, orphans and other true dependents, and for charitable organizations, but only the spousal exemption would be unlimited.

In response to anticipated objections, Haslett argues: 1) This is no


violation of property rights; assertion of a right to inheritance -would be begging the question. 2) Milton Friedman and others ■would say that since we inherit physical and other advantages from our parents, why not wealth, too? Haslett points out that one inequality does not justify perpetuating another. 3) It would be difficult to pass and enforce laws against gift-giving, Haslett admits, but not impossible. In any case, public support for non-inheritance ought at least to be encouraged. 4) While the inability to pass wealth to one's children might lessen some people's incentive to work hard, there are other, stronger reasons why people tend to work. Furthermore, those who are now -without the means to get a decent start in life -would have better opportunities and, therefore, more motivation to work hard. 5) Although there could be some adverse effect on saving and investment, Haslett notes that it is the distribution, not the total amount, of wealth that he would alter. In any case, both direct and indirect counter measures are available (at a price). 6) There would be administrative costs and some loss of family farms and businesses. But a~ gain, Haslett believes that these harms can be kept small or be compensated for, and they do not out-weigh the harms of inheritance.