Are You Against Inheritances?

Let’s not pretend to be pseudo-gnostics, disdaining matter, value or family. Inheritances can be important things.

Inheritance (photo: Nattanan Kanchanaprat / Pixabay/CC0)

Overheard in conversation from two millennials passing by on a hike in the Skyview Meadows Virginia State Park recently: “I am increasingly morally against inheritances.”

That remark started me thinking, both about what generated that young man’s remark and, as Ebenezer Scrooge (in his George C. Scott incarnation) put it to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come: “Why was I privy to that conversation?”

Of course, I don’t know why this particular young man felt it necessary to tell the young woman strolling with him about his “moral” opposition to inheritances. Once upon a time, a young man’s stock with a young lady might have risen if he could already demonstrate some financial stability for the future. That said, the fact that he accentuated he was “morally against” inheritances set me to thinking otherwise than he was a secure young man who felt compelled to engage in virtue-signaling about his indifference to matters material. 

Perhaps somebody in his family had passed away and left behind bequests that, instead of the assets being split among the heirs rather split the heirs over the assets. It’s not uncommon, after all, especially when real estate is concerned. If somebody leaves three kids $30,000, it’s easy to split it three ways. If somebody leaves three kids the family house, Johnny can’t take the living room, Mary the dining room, Joe the bedrooms, and everybody enjoys joint visitation rights to the kitchen and bathroom. 

Yes, sometimes inheritances can cause permanent rifts in families. But abusus non tollit usum — because something can go wrong doesn’t mean that the thing itself is wrong. So, unless what the parents multiplied has the children unsuccessfully divided (or his quotient and remainder were not to his liking), why might this young man be “morally against” inheritances?

Well, I thought about it, and share those thoughts.

One reason some people “morally” oppose inheritances is the idea that wealth — especially large sums of it — ought not to be passed down from generation to generation, lest they create a de facto wealth class. To combat that phenomenon, “progressives” claim the power to “redistribute” income, usually through manipulating of the tax code, by imposing “inheritance taxes,” estate taxes, or capital gains taxes on such wealth.

Well, one’s first line of interest is one’s family, not one’s state. This is not necessarily a vast plutocratic conspiracy. From time immemorial, parents have striven to ensure that the “next generation” is better off than they were. It’s natural and normal. If, at one time, it meant maybe starting the kids off with their own few acres, in our market capitalist economy today it means leaving them money. An inheritance.

It’s part of the step in psychological maturity that Erik Erickson calls “generativity” — taking care of the generation to come, the generation for whose very existence one has been responsible. Wanting one’s kids to have a better start in life is laudable.

I fear that my young man has a skewed sense of “communitarianism.” Somewhere he may think that serving the “common good” of society means redistributing wealth. But the first and natural community that human beings form is the family yet — in American culture — family is increasingly rent from kinship and, paradoxically, reduced to an amalgam of individuals who “choose” relationships among themselves. It’s already apparent in the effort to undermine the biological and genetic basis of parenthood.

Perhaps my young man has overdosed on too much Star Trek where, in theory, money is superfluous (at least vis-à-vis the necessities of life). I’ll defer to my successors in moral theology in the 24th century how to address that question, but it is certainly not a question in our day.

My young man perhaps already feels the burdens of debt. Many young people graduate college with huge financial burdens, and some politicians pander for votes by promising to abolish student debt and/or create “free” college. 

Do we do anyone a service by inculcating a culture where “debt” is seen as something arbitrary and, therefore, cancellable at whim? Debts are not incurred automatically. I have to want to incur them. True, I may want something (like a college education) that has a price tag but not the price tag. That’s kind of like saying “I want to walk off cliffs but I object to gravity.” In this world, goods have value for which some exchange by somebody has to be made. The proliferation of federal financial aid in the 1970s helped nourish the idea of “something for nothing” and, in response, institutions of higher education generally ramped up prices without regard to the rate of inflation. Is the solution to our dilemma not to be found, then, in disabusing people of the idea of “something for nothing” rather than seeing how to shift something that inherently costs something from the immediate beneficiary to amorphous “society?”

(I’ll admit that a case might be made for cancelling student debt in a manner more friendly towards Catholic priorities and without fostering the idea that there’s “something for nothing” on whose costs you can renege — see here — but that’s a topic for another essay).

One would think that, facing debt, my young man might actually hope for some loving and terminal Uncle Joe who included a sizeable bequest for him in his will. I fear that, facing debt, he decided that money is the culprit (just like bad old gravity made him go “ba-boom”).

Money — including money from inheritances — is a means. It can be used to ends good and ends evil. But, in itself, it is neutral and in the material world which that spiritual-corporeal creature called man inhabits, it can help regulate the fair division of material goods. Material goods, after all, differ from spiritual ones in one important respect: they diminish as shared. I can love John and Mary and then include James without taking anything from the other two. But if I want to share my eight-slice pizza among them, everybody’s going to get a little less. When it comes to exchange, respect for the person means an equitable exchange of goods, which money facilitates. 

So let’s not pretend to be pseudo-gnostics, disdaining matter, value or family. Inheritances can be important things.