Inheritance & Welfare

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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35 Comments.

  1. The only point of distinction that is on the face of it logically defensible is this:

    “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.”

    Of course this cuts right to the heart of the taxation system and the easy response is one does not necessarily choose to pay for our military either. However, this would not rebut the arguments of anarcho-capitalists or voluntaryists, therefore a more robust rebuttal addressing their fundamental objections is necessary.

    1. People are free to associate on agreed terms that suit them.

    2. Those agreed terms of association may include joint ventures which those who associate are expected to contribute toward.

    3. If someone refuses to contribute toward the joint ventures they are expected to contribute toward, they can be refused continued association.

    To put this into a real world context, a good example is flatmates cohabiting. The flatmates agree to live together on the basis that they will contribute toward shared expenses such as rubbish bags, cleaning products, phone and internet etc.

    One of the flatmates decides they don’t want to contribute toward the shared expenses and will obtain the above themselves as and when they desire. Now whilst one may say it would be churlish and even unreasonable to kick out that non-contributing flatmate due to their refusal to contribute toward the “joint ventures” of the flat, the flatmates are under no obligation to accommodate the preferences of the other flatmate.

    In this sense a free and democratic society is the same. Whilst one could in principle object to taxation being taken at the point of a gun so to speak, there is no basis in voluntary association principles to object to taxation backed up with the threat of exile.

    Yes it would be unreasonable and could potentially cause harm but let’s not forget that voluntary association principles absolutely allow for unreasonable and harmful courses of action e.g. an employer who fires an employee knowing full well they may starve as a result. There is no obligation to continue an association according to voluntary association principles.

    Therefore, if a free and democratic society decides to have welfare or social security then as long as you choose to continue to associate with that society you are choosing to contribute. If you refuse to contribute then your only right is to cease association entirely as the non-contributing flatmate above can be required to.

    Accordingly, there is no relevant distinction between welfare and unearned inheritances in principle since people do have a choice in a free and democratic society; its just that the alternative may not be pleasant for them.

  2. Karen Lankford

    The notion that recipients of welfare and other social assistance programs have not earned what they receive, and do not therefore deserve it, seems to conflate the notion of value with monetary remuneration. By this logic, children have no value and should not be feed because they have not earned their meals. If society values its members, it seems logical to invest some its resources in retaining what it values. Perhaps the children supported by welfare payments will grow up to contribute to the finances of the state and repay those costs. Perhaps their contributions will not be so easily measured in dollars. They might be good friends and neighbors and contribute to the emotional well being of others. They might call an ambulance for an injured stranger and thus save that persons life. Or else, this might be just one of many investments that does not pay off. Nobody seems to be bothered by the fact that individuals sometimes invest in business ventures that fail and governments often invest in the development of weapons systems that turn out to be impractical. Why is is so troublesome if the state invests in human capital that does not always pay off?

  3. Good points Karen. From a utilitarian standpoint it makes perfect sense to view welfare and unemployment benefits as an investment in human capital which we know won’t always pay off and nor can we reasonably expect it to but will pay off enough to make it on balance worthwhile.

    I think whether we approach this from voluntary association principles, virtue ethics (its virtuous to help those in need), or utilitarianism the conclusion is the same: welfare and social assistance is morally acceptable and is arguably the best course of action for a society to take.

  4. s. wallerstein

    Most of this seems based on the fiction that society is some sort of wonderful community and that those who don’t work are shirking their responsibility to contribute to it.

    In reality, most jobs involved exploited workers slaving away to increase the profits for capitalists, often producing things which pollute the environment, swamp us with plastics, harm our health (cigarettes, junk food, soft drinks, etc.) and in general, contribute nothing to making our world a more peaceful, healthy and rational place.

    Obviously, there are exceptions, but most people are not doctors, nurses, teachers, therapists nor involved in producing goods which others really need.

    So seeing as there is lots of money floating around, I have no problem with people being on welfare. It would be different if most work contributed to making society a better place.

    As for the rich inheriting money, inheritance taxes should be increased. I prefer the frivolous rich such as Paris Hilton (who harms no one) to the rich such as the Koch Brothers who try to buy power in society to support their own class interests.

  5. “However, this would not rebut the arguments of anarcho-capitalists or voluntaryists, therefore a more robust rebuttal addressing their fundamental objections is necessary…”

    You haven’t addressed any of the fundamental objections. Your three propositions aren’t controversial among voluntaryists. They deny that arrangements with the state exemplify freedom of association ie that “social contracts” satisfy the conditions for legitimate contracts. People are free to associate on terms that suit them, but they are not free to impose obligations on third parties who haven’t agreed to anything. Simply asserting that living in a country is like agreeing to share a flat does nothing to address their core arguments.

  6. Can the author of this article recommend a book or an article where the principle argument against welfare has to do with the concept of “earning” or “deserving” assistance?

    Last I checked conservatives weren’t Marxists and acknowledge the idea that one has a right to receive something one hasn’t labored for – which is why they’re in favor of inheritance, gift-giving, and charity.

  7. @ Gene

    “Your three propositions aren’t controversial among voluntaryists.”

    Exactly, they are principles of voluntary association.

    “They deny that arrangements with the state exemplify freedom of association ie that “social contracts” satisfy the conditions for legitimate contracts. People are free to associate on terms that suit them, but they are not free to impose obligations on third parties who haven’t agreed to anything.”

    Why not? You say that they aren’t free but what principle of voluntary association prohibits the imposition of obligations on third parties?

    People are free to say you must do X if you wish to continue to associate with us and they can back that up by simply refusing to allow continued association. There is no obligation to allow third parties to associate on terms that suit them instead.

    It doesn’t matter whether its a social group of friends, flatmates cohabiting or people in a defined geographic region, each collective is free to impose obligations on third parties backed up with refusal to continue to associate with them. If you believe there is a relevant distinction and that this forms the basis for a moral prohibition against one or more of those arrangements then explain why.

    The irony of voluntaryism is they argue that people are not free to have their own arrangements and associate on that basis unless those arrangements fit conform to their narrow and ultimately arbitrary philosophical viewpoint i.e. recognition of individual liberty whilst denying the freedom of individuals acting collectively.

    “Simply asserting that living in a country is like agreeing to share a flat does nothing to address their core arguments.”

    I didn’t simply assert it. I’ve referred to the three propositions which you concede aren’t controversial among voluntaryists and drawn parallels. You haven’t addressed and rebutted the accuracy of my parallels, you’ve just asserted it doesn’t address their core arguments. Please explain.

  8. Just to avoid this descending into a semantics argument, instead of saying they can impose “obligations”, they can make demands and back those demands up with a refusal to continue to associate with the third party.

    Whether those demands amount to “obligations” in any moral sense is irrelevant. Flatmates collectively make demands of individual flatmates and the majority rules. If say 3 out of 4 make a demand and the 4th votes against it then the 4th is free to cease association but his flatmates are not obligated to accommodate his preferences and allow him to continue to associate on terms that suit him. They can refuse continued association.

    The only difference between this and a free and democratic society is the scale and the potential consequences which is irrelevant under voluntary association principles because an employer for example can fire an employee despite the fact they might end up starving or losing their home etc. So it might be churlish and unreasonable but that doesn’t make it wrongful under voluntary association principles.

  9. Naturally, if one accepts that people have a right to receive what is not earned, then they would not oppose welfare on this ground.

    The notion that people should earn assistance is usually more a matter of political ideology than something laid out as an argument in an article or book. However, Google can certainly find them. 🙂

  10. “Naturally, if one accepts that people have a right to receive what is not earned, then they would not oppose welfare on this ground.”

    Precisely, the only objection they could raise in principle is that the giver did not expressly agree to give in which case they must naturally oppose military spending too insofar as people didn’t expressly agree to give their money for that purpose.

    If they are essentially voluntaryist and oppose all taxation without exception on the basis that the giver does not expressly agree then I’d like to know what their reasoning is for accepting the flatmate joint ventures as described above but not a free and democratic society having their own joint ventures.

    The only cogent objection to the current system (as far as I can see) is to the means used to collect that tax. Currently it is backed up with initiated force. But if its simply backed up by refusing to allow those who refuse to contribute to cease association and end up exiled then its not at all obvious how it violates voluntary association principles.

    Hoping Gene will be kind enough to explain.

  11. to continue association* sorry

  12. Chris Yagerlener

    Hi,
    My first post here. I’m not formally trained in Philosophy but really enjoy chewing on it as a past time. I wonder if you (the author of the article) and others might respond to the following:

    In order for you to use the concept of free association to create a link between inheritance and welfare you have to omit an underlying fact. That to provide for welfare an entity (the state) must take or seize (against the will of the provider and under a consequence of punishment if not given) the funds, monies, or gifts to provide these to the welfare recipient. Further you also have to omit the fundamental understanding that if a person gives a gift or inheritance that no force was used. This person freely chose, without the primary of force being a factor, that someone should receive some or all of the products their life on this earth produced.

    By making the association in the manner you have made it, you have excluded the above, and your premise is that a person is NOT entitled to dispense with the product of their life as they see fit.

    I love reading your blog! I may disagree but in my opinion the exercise of my thinking is more important than the disagreement (for now.)

  13. Karen Lankford

    In response to the post above:

    If you are free to leave the country, free to try and change the tax laws through democratic elections, and free to simply not make any money but to instead live by barter, how can taxation be deemed to be forcing someone to pay for something against their will? If a grocery store sells eggs only by the dozen, they are not forcing shoppers against their will to buy more eggs than they need or want if the shopper only wants two. The terms and conditions for living in a nation include buying a package of services at the stipulated rate.

    As for inheritances being purely voluntary gifts of the giver, that argument may be valid for transfers of wealth while the person is alive. However, carrying out a transfer of wealth after the person has died involves the intervention of the government to assure that will is valid and that the resources are distributed to the intended recipients in accordance with the deceased’s wishes. Otherwise anyone could simply move into the deceased’s house and empty their bank accounts. Governmental force is used to establish and assert claims of ownership of both physical and intangible property. Without that force, no person could acquire or hold on to more resources than they could personally protect and defend. If the government deems inherited wealth to not be in the best interest of the country, would the government not be being forced against its will to assist in such a transfer of wealth if it validated such transfer?

  14. “It doesn’t matter whether its a social group of friends, flatmates cohabiting or people in a defined geographic region, each collective is free to impose obligations on third parties backed up with refusal to continue to associate with them.”

    So, for instance, my friends and I can walk around your neighborhood and beat up some hoodlums, then come the end of the month, insist that you pay us $100 for our services. Then when you refuse, we say “well, you don’t have to associate with us, but I’m going to lock you in my basement until you pay up, since those are our terms – otherwise you’re free to go live somewhere else.”

    This, in your sense, satisfies the conditions for “freedom of association?”

  15. “If you are free to leave the country, free to try and change the tax laws through democratic elections, and free to simply not make any money but to instead live by barter, how can taxation be deemed to be forcing someone to pay for something against their will?”

    The ability to flee taxation does not settle the issue of whether or not taxation is coercive, right? That requires an additional argument. I can’t argue that mugging isn’t coercive simply because people are able to avoid the neighborhoods where they occur.

  16. @ Gene

    “So, for instance, my friends and I can walk around your neighborhood and beat up some hoodlums, then come the end of the month, insist that you pay us $100 for our services.”

    Nice straw-man argument. I could leave it there but I’ll dignify it with a full rebuttal in this instance.

    Beating people up involves initiating force against them which violates a principle of voluntary association. You cannot initiate force to make someone use your services.

    I’d like to add what “services” precisely would your friends and you be providing to these hoodlums? This seems like nothing more than simple extortion which I’ve already said above violates voluntary association principles e.g. taking tax at the point of a gun.

    “Then when you refuse, we say “well, you don’t have to associate with us, but I’m going to lock you in my basement until you pay up, since those are our terms – otherwise you’re free to go live somewhere else.”
    This, in your sense, satisfies the conditions for “freedom of association”

    Well clearly you’ve demonstrated the absurdity of such a position and its not a position I’ve advocated at any point. Obviously locking someone up and then telling them they’re free to go live somewhere else absolutely absurd.

    My position is that if you and your friends decide to have joint ventures you can tell other people in the friend group or who wish to associate with that friend group to either contribute or cease association. In principle there’s no reason why a free and democratic society cannot do the same. They can say “we’re spending on X, Y, and Z and you are expected to contribute”. If you refuse to contribute the state is free to tell you to cease association i.e. to exile you. The state does not owe an obligation to keep associating with you on your terms.

    Please stop resorting to straw-man arguments and explain how this violates the principles of voluntary association?

  17. “The ability to flee taxation does not settle the issue of whether or not taxation is coercive, right? That requires an additional argument. I can’t argue that mugging isn’t coercive simply because people are able to avoid the neighborhoods where they occur.”

    No it doesn’t, but that goes to whether the means used to collect that tax are wrong not whether a taxation system is in principle wrong.

    Mugging is wrongful coercion because it involves initiation of force which violates a principle of voluntary association. However, coercion isn’t per se wrong.

    I’ll give you examples again:

    1. Flatmates tell their cohabiting flatmate that he must contribute toward the shared expenses of the flat including rubbish bags, cleaning products, phone and internet or he can find somewhere else to live. That’s coercive but its consistent with voluntary association principles because the flatmates are not obligated to continue association with the other flatmate on terms that suit him.

    2. A private school tells its students they must get certain grades or else they’ll be expelled. That’s coercive but its consistent with voluntary association principles because a private school is not obligated to continue association with the student on terms that suit the students.

    3. Group of friends tell one of their friends he must stop associating with someone they don’t like or he can find another group of friends to hang out with. That’s coercive but its consistent with voluntary association principles because the friends are not obligated to continue association with the other friend on terms that suit him.

    Therefore, coercion is not wrong per se, its only when that coercion involves means such as initiation of force which violate voluntary association principles.

  18. Chris Yagerlener

    I think my attempt to participate in this discussion might be limited by certain things I hold as a matter of objective reality, or rather, as epistemological absolutes.

    @Karen
    Are you asserting that taxation is not done by force? Or are you using it as a premise to qualify your argument? I’ll add that in the grocery store / egg scenario I still maintain the choice to NOT buy. In taxation that choice is removed.

    In your second paragraph you mention force by government in the enforcement of wills (very loose paraphrasing here.) Or more specifically you mention it as the primary mode of enforcement. Again to be clear here I’m referring to inheritances. Every will I’ve seen executed was done AFTER death, and by the executor of the estate. No judges. No juries. No government presence to oversee the execution of the will. I’m excluding scenarios where wills are contested. I think you and I can both agree this exists. I guess my second premise that I consider a matter of objective reality (based on my experience and being limited to non contested wills) is that your argument gathers the force of government into consideration where it deserves none.

  19. I’m sure Karen will have her own response but I’d like to address a couple of your points too Chris.

    “I’ll add that in the grocery store / egg scenario I still maintain the choice to NOT buy. In taxation that choice is removed.”

    In taxation backed up by initiation of force and imprisonment you’re right, the choice is removed. In taxation backed up by the threat of being exiled there is merely a decision by the collective to refuse to associate with those refusing to contribute.

    As I stated above the moral problem seems to be the means not the fact that tax is collected and applied toward joint ventures like the military or social assistance.

    “No government presence to oversee the execution of the will.”

    You’re right there’s no bureaucracy or state intervention in the execution of an uncontested will but in order to stop any person simply waltzing into the dead person’s house and claiming ownership prior to the beneficiaries, there needs to be the threat of coercive force otherwise the beneficiaries would have the sole responsibility for protecting the property against adverse possession.

    Furthermore, just because your experience does not include contested wills does not follow that you can say “I’m excluding scenarios where wills are contested” as though it somehow removes it from the discussion regarding legitimate coercion and force.

    Either you accept that the govt/state is entitled to use coercion and force to protect the property from adverse possession and to adjudicate any disputes when the will is contested or you don’t accept it. You cannot pretend its a non-issue just because it doesn’t form part of your personal experience.

  20. Chris Yagerlener

    Thanks Dan. Not only do I stand corrected regarding the force of government against adverse possession but I agree with it. I am however trying to make sure I understand the contents of the ‘argument box’ (so to speak.) In other words I’m not sure the concept of adverse possession is material in Karen’s attempted support of government seizure of inheritances under the guise of taxation.

    Wow…this gets complicated fast!

  21. Karen Lankford

    I am finding this discussion fascinating.

    I believe that governments, by their very nature, are coercive. I would contend that it is a legitimate use of a government’s coercive force to insist that everyone under its jurisdiction follow a basic set of rules, such as not committing bodily harm or theft against others under its protection. Additional rules are necessary for defining what represents valid ownership and what is theft. Such rules include rules about inheritance. One possible rule could be that all property rights terminate with the death of the owner. Inheritances are possible because the government allows individuals to transfer property after their deaths.

    I also believe that it is a legitimate use of governmental force to insist that everyone contribute towards projects which benefit the whole. This seems particularly just when the majority has agreed to such a proposition by voting in favor of such measures. Allowing each individual to select which governmental actions they wish to support and which they do not would be completely impractical. Budgeting would be all but impossible as individual’s change their minds from year to year. Free riders would take advantage of more civic minded citizens until nonpayment of taxes became the norm.

    Since I have personally lived in 5 different states, each with different taxation policies and different levels of public services, as well as having traveled to several different countries, I do consider that choosing to live in a particular area with a particular set of taxes and public expenditures is a kind of voluntary association. It is not easy to pick up and leave a city, a state, or a country, but it is generally allowed. The fact that people who are unhappy with their taxes supporting unjust wars or welfare payments, do not go someplace else implies that the benefits which they receive by living in the US are worth the costs. The overall quality of life for most people in the US is simply better than that in most countries which do not have all of these government programs. This is due in part to the fact that an individual’s quality of life is affected by the quality of life of others around them. Middle class Americans do not have to worry about kidnapping because the poor in America are not so desperate that they feel they must resort to these kinds of crimes to survive. Americans experience fewer epidemics because everyone has basic sanitation and vaccination programs are subsidized. More people have jobs because there are roads to get them to work and to allow manufactures to get their products to larger markets. Each individual does not benefit, or benefit equally, from each governmental expenditure but the overall package of benefits tends to be a bargain.

  22. So we both agree one can’t provide unsolicited services and threaten to imprison or remove someone from their house unless payments are rendered. That’s extortion. Unfortunately, you immediately reverse your position and claim the state has precisely that right. So it turns out I’m not straw-manning your position. Unless you believe there are important functional which exempt the state from the same moral expectations. Unfortunately, you haven’t mentioned any.

    “My position is that if you and your friends decide to have joint ventures you can tell other people in the friend group or who wish to associate with that friend group to either contribute or cease association.”

    Sure, except I haven’t decided on any joint ventures. I’m simply told that if I don’t pay I’ll be put in a cage and expelled from my house.

    “In principle there’s no reason why a free and democratic society cannot do the same.”

    I suppose there could be such a society, but we aren’t talking about one. There could be a situation in which I agree to pay someone for policing my neighborhood and providing other services – and one in which I agree to certain penalties for not rendering payment. In that case I would have entered into a voluntary, binding contract. But that hasn’t happened. In any case it doesn’t much matter whether the organization is “democratic” or not. It has no bearing on my obligations in respect to that organization.

    “If you refuse to contribute the state is free to tell you to cease association i.e. to exile you.”

    I’m sorry that “i.e.” doesn’t make sense. I have the right to sever ties with you, but I can’t remove you from your property. Those are are completely different things.

  23. “I believe that governments, by their very nature, are coercive. ”

    You’re absolutely right.

    “I would contend that it is a legitimate use of a government’s coercive force to insist that everyone under its jurisdiction follow a basic set of rules, such as not committing bodily harm or theft against others under its protection”

    Sure, but you haven’t argued the claim. There are lots of other things that are, by their nature, coercive – yet their use of force isn’t legitimate. Therefore you must believe there are important differences which makes states an exception to the proscription on coercion. But you haven’t mentioned any.

  24. Chris Yagerlener

    @Karen
    “One possible rule could be that all property rights terminate with the death of the owner.”

    I could never agree with this. How can you value property rights if you think death separates their existence from mans’ right to do what he wishes with them? This means you wholly disagree with the concept of a Will. Is it not inherent that if he owns them (property rights) that he also has final say in how they are disposed? This view point toys with the definition of the word ownership in a weird way. One that I can’t quite put my finger on just yet. I recognize that currently our system of taxation subordinates mans right to do what he wishes with his property to something else. I say ‘something else’ because I’ve heard that ‘something else’ described as a million different things. But that doesn’t mean I agree with it. And it also doesn’t mean that I will personally throw away the manner in which I value mans property rights just because that subjugation exists.

    “Inheritances are possible because the government allows individuals to transfer property after their deaths.”

    Inheritances are not possible because the government allows it. This position distorts a fact. Inheritances are possible because our form of government doesn’t have the right to decree that we have no property rights.

    But, you have clarified your position on government seizure of inheritances and I thank you for it.

  25. On one hand, it would seem that property rights do terminate on death: if there is no longer a person to possess the right, then there would be no right held by that person. This, of course, would assume no post-death existence. If the person persists after death, they would seem to retain their rights (other than a right to life).

    On the other hand, there is an easy enough fix: the dead have no property rights, but while alive they have the right to specify what happens to their property-which is what we, in fact, generally do. This could be seen as analogous to a relay race-the baton being the property that is handed off. When my lap is done, I stop-but the next person gets “ownership” of the baton. When I die, my property is no longer mine, but I hand it off to my successors.

    That said, I do think that death ends property rights here (although ghosts might take issue with this) and I am sympathetic with the idea of taxing inheritances on the condition that the money is used to assist the next generation (spent on K-12 education, food and medical care for children, etc.). However, I am also sympathetic to the idea that property, such as a beloved family camp or family business, be passed on.

  26. “So we both agree one can’t provide unsolicited services and threaten to imprison or remove someone from their house unless payments are rendered. That’s extortion.”

    You can make any threat to coerce or influence another person which is not violative of free association principles. That seems pretty obvious and does not amount to extortion.

    Extortion involves threats to initiate force against someone, such threats being violative of free association principles.

    A group of flatmates can threaten to evict the other flatmate if they don’t contribute toward shared expenses irrespective of the fact that flatmate didn’t enter into a pre-existing agreement to pay toward shared expenses. The threat of eviction is not a threat to initiate force, its a threat to withdraw their privilege to associate and if they try to stay then like a trespasser they can be removed with reactive force under voluntary association principles. Am I right or wrong on the trespasser point?

    “Unfortunately, you immediately reverse your position and claim the state has precisely that right. So it turns out I’m not straw-manning your position. Unless you believe there are important functional which exempt the state from the same moral expectations. Unfortunately, you haven’t mentioned any.”

    The state has the right to exile you in the same way flatmates have the right to evict a flatmate who refuses to contribute.

    I’ll specifically address the point about individual property ownership. You do realize that people can own property in a country but have no right to reside there? The fact that someone legally owns a piece of land does not necessitate that they have a right to residency in a particular state or country.

    I can own property in the UK for example, it does not automatically follow that I have the right to reside and work there though. I need at the very least an entry permit which they don’t have to give me. So I might not be able to access and reside in the property I own, too bad.

    So to draw that back to what we’re discussing: the state/govt threatening to evict you if you refuse to contribute does not violate voluntary association principles because they can decide who is permitted to reside in their jurisdiction. If you refuse to leave you are a trespasser in violation of voluntary association principles and force can be used to remove you.

    To demonstrate the absurdity of the position that property ownership somehow gives a person a right to remain in a jurisdiction, if a person’s student or temporary work visa expires but I have bought a piece of land then the govt/state would be unable to consider me a trespasser and expel me with force. They’d have to let me remain just because I managed to buy some property.

    This doesn’t mean the state/govt can seize your property and nor can the flatmates evicting their flatmate. You must be allowed leave with ownership of your property retained. Unfortunately you cannot remove a piece of land but that’s not society’s problem. You may just have to sell it or be an absentee landlord.

    “Sure, except I haven’t decided on any joint ventures. I’m simply told that if I don’t pay I’ll be put in a cage and expelled from my house.”

    A school can threaten to expel students if they don’t obtain certain grades irrespective of the fact the student is not in a position to enter into a contract with the school accepting this demand.

    As above a group of flatmates can make an ad hoc demand of the other flatmate that they’ll now share expenses for say phone and internet irrespective of the fact that flatmate didn’t enter into a pre-existing agreement to pay toward those shared expenses.

    A person can make an ad hoc demand of his friend that they cease associating with those they dislike backed up by a threat to cease association with his friend irrespective of the fact they may never have agreed not to associate with people the other dislikes.

    So there’s no requirement for someone to enter into a pre-existing agreement with another prior to being able to threaten them with certain consequences as long as the threat does not include the threat to initiate force.

    So I’d agree you cannot threaten to imprison someone or physically harm them but you can definitely threaten to exile or evict them because they have no pre-existing right to remain within a jurisdiction under voluntary association principles. They just have to be allowed to continue to own their property.

    “There could be a situation in which I agree to pay someone for policing my neighborhood and providing other services – and one in which I agree to certain penalties for not rendering payment. In that case I would have entered into a voluntary, binding contract. But that hasn’t happened. In any case it doesn’t much matter whether the organization is “democratic” or not. It has no bearing on my obligations in respect to that organization.”

    You’re arguing that there needs to be some form of pre-existing arrangement whereby all people expected to contribute have expressly agreed to the provision of those particular services or joint ventures.

    That’s clearly not the case as the flatmate example shows. The flatmates can just come to a new arrangement around what services will be provided or joint ventures paid for and can back up their demands with threats to evict the flatmate who refuses to contribute.

    Also note that I’ve never said you have an obligation in any moral sense to contribute. You don’t have an obligation unless you entered into a pre-existing agreement but that doesn’t mean anyone owes an obligation to you to allow you to continue associating on your terms.

    “I’m sorry that “i.e.” doesn’t make sense. I have the right to sever ties with you, but I can’t remove you from your property. Those are are completely different things.”

    Actually what doesn’t make sense is how property ownership exempts you from being expelled for a jurisdiction as I explain above.

    It would necessarily follow from your logic that a person on an expired student visa or temporary work visa could point to a property they own and tell the govt/state that they cannot be expelled due to their property ownership. It would also mean those who wouldn’t even get an entry permit could argue that they must be allowed in to access their property.

    Clearly property ownership does not give you the right to reside in a particular jurisdiction.

  27. Chris Yagerlener

    @Mike
    I need to improve on my transition from literal to philosophical to anecdotal to etc etc. I cannot read your reply about how there can be no property rights possessed by a dead person and not agree. Especially when considered through a literal lens. That’s lunacy. However I’m not sure the argument FOR property rights shouldn’t be extended to the concept of being possessed post death, because if the interpretation is literal and stops at death, then there’s no reason to even discuss a Will or the purpose of one, and then we are left with Karen’s assertions. Your assertion seems to ride a fence where the fence is a condition that only pushes away the literal (not eliminating it.) In your example when you hand off your baton to your successor, you imply a right to do so. If Karen’s assertion holds as both literal and true, the baton simply drops to the ground (where the ground is the government.) And in this way I cannot agree.

  28. “I believe that governments, by their very nature, are coercive.”

    I believe many voluntary associations are by their very nature coercive.

    A private school is by its nature coercive. The students can’t contract with the school yet they are told how they must behave, they are told what they must do or not do in order to avoid expulsion.

    They have no negotiating or bargaining position yet we accept that the school nonetheless may coerce them provided they don’t violate voluntary association principles by threatening to initiate force.

    If we accept the legitimacy sort of blatant coercion then we must accept the legitimacy of a free and democratic society where voters have a say over the rules they are expected to abide by and the services they contribute toward even though at an individual level they cannot refuse to contribute.

    The only issue under voluntary association principles is threats to initiate force if there is a refusal to contribute, hence I advocate exile.

  29. @ Chris

    “I could never agree with this. How can you value property rights if you think death separates their existence from mans’ right to do what he wishes with them?”

    It would only matter if there was in fact an afterlife because once the person is dead it no longer matters how their property is dealt with since its not possible to harm them any more.

    “This means you wholly disagree with the concept of a Will. Is it not inherent that if he owns them (property rights) that he also has final say in how they are disposed?”

    Having said the above I don’t actually disagree with the concept of a will or that we should respect it but I come to that conclusion for a very different reason to what you propose.

    I disagree that once a person is dead that their wishes matter. As I said above they don’t unless there’s an afterlife since its not possible to harm them any more.

    They have the only legitimate say in how its disposed of whilst they’re alive of course but that’s because its still in their ownership. Upon death they no longer have ownership.

    How then could I support a will? Its because whilst someone is alive its important to them that they truly believe their wishes will be respected when they’re dead so if we habitually failed to adhere to the written will then it might unduly harm those who are living.

    But as their ownership rights have ceased upon death we can appropriate it to the extent that it does not cause undue harm to those still living who want their will respected.

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  33. Karen Lankford

    I would like to go back to the question about what it means to legitimately own something. Let us do a thought experiment. You leave for vacation for a week and come back to find your house occupied by a family of Native Americans. They claim that the property is their by ancestral rights and they are reclaiming what was theirs. You present evidence from property records that you have bought the house and land, but they claim that the property was first stolen form them and that you cannot claim to own property by paying the thief. Or again imagine the same situation occurs after you died and your heirs attempt to claim your house. By what argument and by what means do you assert your claim to the property? In both cases, the arguments and means are both the legal system. You use the coercive powers of the state to assert one type of claim over another.

    We tend to think that the set of rules that we are accustomed to are the right ones, but they are not the only possible rules, and people have not always used the same set of rules. In hunter gatherer societies, the property of the deceased was either destroyed to keep their ghosts away or distributed to whichever members of the band the leader thought to be most suitable. In most early agrarian societies, land and other property passed into the hands of forced heirs. In some cases all children inherited equally. In some cases only the sons or only the daughters inherited. In other cases, the oldest son or daughter inherited everything. The spouse sometimes had no claim on the property at all. It is only a relatively recent development that individuals have been allowed to choose and specify who should receive their property after their deaths. Even so, the written wishes of the diseased can be contested. Other individuals may present evidence of verbal promises made, changes of mind after the will was written, or undo influence by the claimants.

    Furthermore, even during one’s life, property rights have rarely been considered absolute. Animals for example have usually been allowed to be seized by the state if they were not being properly fed and cared for. Buildings that are falling apart may be seized by the state and torn down or renovated. The state can use the power of eminent domain to force the owner to sell a piece of property for a road or the building of a school or other public building. In the pre Civil War south, most states did not allow slave owners to free their slaves either during their lives or in their wills. It was considered the equivalent of letting a tiger free to wander the streets. Our modern concept of property inheritance being determined by the wishes of the diseased is therefore a product of our culture and it occurs only because the force of the state enforces this kind of claim.

    The next question basically involves whether the coercive power of the state can be used to collect taxes of any sort. If individuals and organizations are allowed to spend their own money as they wish, then it would be difficult to argue that the state cannot spend its money according to the wishes of the citizens who are essentially the owners of the country. If the money legitimately belongs to the government, it can spend that money on defense, or space exploration, or roads, or social welfare benefits. It would be hard to argue that a democratic government has the right to levy taxes on its citizens, but it does not have the right to spend those taxes as the citizens direct.

    So does the state have the power to tax its population? And if governments do not have a legitimate power to impose taxes, how are they supposed to function? Voluntary payments to the state will only get you so far. Human nature is such that people will tend to try and get as much benefit as they can with as little payment as possible, and no payment at all if they can get away with it. Furthermore, if only some people paid into the salaries of government officials, such officials would be beholden to those few people rather than the population as a whole. The system would devolve into one or more private armies in the hands of a few powerful families or syndicates. The rights of the rest of the population could not expect to be respected. This is in fact what has happened in countries such as Kenya where the poor essentially have no property rights and no police protection. Only those who can pay a police officer or a government official can prevent others from seizing their property.

    It seems to me that whether inherited wealth or welfare payments are good things is a distinct question from whether or not coercion is involved. State coercions is always involved in imposing a set of rules on society, whether it is saying that one person owns a particular piece of property and anyone else trying to take it without their permission will be punished, or if it is saying that everyone must pay such and such taxes or else they will be punished by imprisonment or seizing of property.

  34. Interesting article and commentary. You might wish to explore a new theory called Dual Morality. It steps back and attempts to explain the origins and instinctive roots of conservatism and liberalism. It demonstrates how both are linked to concepts like pleasure and happiness, personality and character, society and culture, etc. Rather than argue which outlook is most correct, it explains the biological origins behind why we hold these dual-variations as “truths” or “feelings” in the first place. It is put forward in a book titled: Our Human Herds

  35. Welfare recipients are consumers of food, electricity, shelter and clothing and medical care and many other government services. Needless to say what class of society this fattens.

    Many big and small companies owe their continued existence and hopes for the future on these armies of welfare recipients. Especially those paid handsomely to process and help the welfare recipient find their financial autonomy. How can their hearts possibly side with strategies that could potentially put them out of work?

    In the question of comparing welfare to inheritance we can ask which of those two can be cancelled without critically damaging
    the status quo social order. Welfare is just one more cog in the gears that drive our consumerist society.

    The welfare recipient is a client first, even our governments calls them their clients. The industrialization of poverty.

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