Inherited wealth

I have been wresting with the concept of inherited wealth for a while now and have reached some sort of conclusion.

Before I had children I resented the aristocracy for keeping land and assets within their family; why should an accident of birth enable some spoilt brat to have all the privileges in life whilst a more talented and deserving poor boy be left to struggle as best they can to free themselves from the poverty which binds them? (I simplify of course).

Then I had children and wanted the best for them so I asked myself, if I acquired great wealth in my lifetime through my own efforts is it not right that I get to choose what happens to that wealth?

Then I heard a story about Dave Gilmour, the fabulously wealthy guitarist from the band Pink Floyd. In his will, the only thing he is leaving for his son is a house in London. I’m guessing this house is not Buckingham Palace but a sufficient residence to allow his son to live comfortably. Dave Gilmours argument was that he had seen too many people slide into dereliction simply because they had everything on a plate and had no incentive to motivate themselves. It was precisely because he wanted the best for his son, that he denied him the easy option.

This is similar to the song idea of ‘A boy named Sue’ by Johnny Cash where, he explains in the song, the boy was given a girls name so that he would learn to stand up and fight for himself.

So even after having children I still had difficulty with the concept of inherited wealth and it occurred to me to think back to ten thousand years ago and what might have happened then. A successful hunter could only pass on his knowledge and possibly his tools to his son. That was it; no material property as such, just intellectual property. The boy either used this knowledge to develop into a successful hunter or his tribe suffered hunger and death (if there were no other hunters). If the boy was a quick learner, dedicated and therefore ‘deserving’ he would thrive. But if the boy was a dullard with no hunting talent whatsoever, he couldn’t simply assume the title of a hunter within the tribe because his father had been a successful one. He would have to find a niche in the tribe that allowed him to perform whatever task he was best suited for.

I can see how ownership developed with civilisation (someone had to manage the cultivation of the fields so it was only a matter of time before they felt they ‘owned’ the land) but I can see an alternative system. One where you can be rewarded for being resourceful and innovative in your lifetime but ultimately the wealth ends with your death and all you can pass onto your children is your knowledge, attitude, creativity, etc. from which they can fashion their own success. The accumulated wealth of the deceased would go into a community pool of some sort – I haven’t thought about the practicalities of how this would work yet but you can imagine how the entire economic model would change with this concept.

How would you behave if you knew you couldn’t leave anything material to your children; would you work less hard? would you spend more time with your children educating them? would society become more dynamic, innovative, altruistic?

One Response to “Inherited wealth”

  1. Nev says:

    Ah but this doesn’t solve the problem does it? Even if you’ve started from nothing and worked your way up by your own bootstraps, by the time you’re (say) 65, then you’ll have a nice house and money that you will have been spending on your children for at least the last ten years already. They might all be complete undeserving dullards but by the time you die, they’ve already received half of your “inherited” wealth. So, for argument’s sake, it’s not just after death that you shouldn’t be allowed to give your kids an unfair leg up, it’s from the moment they’re born surely? Should you be allowed to buy your kid anything at ALL that ALL the others haven’t got?

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