The Morality of Inheritance

On 10 June, Professor Pierre de Vos, the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance at the University of Cape Town, published a blog post titled Privilege and Inheritance: Time to Disrupt Intergeneration Transfers of Wealth. It garnered a lot of negative attention and, naturally, the streets of Twitter are where the bulk of the (t)war of words took place.

Political commentator Max du Preez tweeted a link to prof de Vos’s blog post, which incited economist Magnus Heystek to quote du Preez’ tweet with a caption asking if all wealth is the result of privilege and not hard work, and also stating that he rejects the idea with the contempt it deserves.

This tweet by Heystek, in turn, incited Prof de Vos to respond by asking Heystek, whether, if he values hard work, he could make an argument as to why it is “morally just for people to inherit something they’ve not done anything to earn?”

The professor’s request for a moral argument in favour of inheritance deserves to be dignified with a response.

My response will not touch on the economic issues pertaining to an inheritance tax because this has already been done in An open letter to Professor Pierre de Vos, a respectful, well-reasoned counter-argument constructed by Deon Gouws, to which Prof de Vos himself gave credit.

The notion that one should not receive anything without working for it seems to be the knee-jerk response that most people had to Prof de Vos’s suggestion. Yet, somehow, the notion that it is inherently immoral to receive something which you did not work for does not hold up to scrutiny.

Those who are regular travelers on William Nicol Road through Bryanston, especially where it intersects with Main Road in the north, would be familiar with the sad sight of black mothers sitting at the base of traffic lights with their toddlers or infants, asking for assistance. It is difficult not to help the mother by giving her some money, or perhaps something to eat or drink. Surely none of de Vos’s detractors would argue that the interaction which just occurred, where a person who did not ‘work’ for something but received it anyway out of the goodness of someone else’s heart, was immoral in any way.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]What matters is not whether you worked for something you possess. What matters is whether the means by which you attained possession were peaceful. [/perfectpullquote]

The “earn what you get” counterargument is thus flawed. In fact, it bolsters the argument against inheritance if it were assumed to be a principle that should apply universally. It seems that many of Prof de Vos’s detractors are blissfully unaware of their hypocrisy, as Prof de Vos also pointed out. It is not a principle. It is a purely contextual rule of thumb (at best) that people try to pass off as some sort of golden rule. If it is inherently immoral to get something without giving something first, something as simple as receiving birthday gifts should be considered morally dubious. The whole act of giving without getting something in return would have to be thrown out the window because the receiver would be in the wrong. An absurd notion.

The issue, however, is that Prof de Vos himself seems to subscribe to the type of reasoning that his detractors employ. While his use of the same argument might be less hypocritical and more coherent than that of his detractors, Prof de Vos argues that “Intergenerational inheritance benefits individuals who, through no effort of their own, happen to have been born to parents who have amassed some wealth. These parents, in turn, may well have inherited from their parents, also through no effort of their own. There is a double injustice here… (my italics)”

Prof de Vos also tries to argue for “work for what you own” as an acontextual principle, barring any misinterpretation of him on my part. To quote him further:

“But I would argue that the unchecked transfer of wealth between generations is an injustice in and of itself and that it should be corrected, even when this is unrelated to white privilege (my italics).”

This argument is flawed. One can value hard work and the fruits thereof whilst simultaneously believing that, in a plethora of instances, there is absolutely nothing wrong with receiving something that you yourself have not worked for. Inheritance is one of those instances.

What matters is not whether you worked for something you possess. What matters is whether the means by which you attained possession were peaceful. Receiving through generous giving on the part of someone else is as legitimate a manner of acquiring property as working for it because there is no victim. It should be considered arbitrary to make a distinction between whether money is given to a loved one whilst they are still alive, or whether they receive it after the initial owner has passed away.

Whilst the law itself distinguishes between donations, gifts, and inheritance, and taxes certain donations whilst neither taxing inheritance nor gifts, such positivist distinctions are beside the point. These actions are inherently peaceful acts of giving (not exchange), and I believe that none of them should be taxed, granted they are made in good faith.

Of course, one can also not assume that all white wealth is the result of the violence meted out against black people by the Apartheid state, as this is simply an ecological fallacy at best.

Most people are not criminals and earn the fruits of their labour in an honest manner. I think we can all agree that they should be able to give those fruits to whomever they prefer, whether it be through economic exchange, gift-giving, donating money to a charity or a homeless person, or bequeathing it to a loved one. If the intention to transfer ownership of property is stated clearly, such intention should be respected regardless of whether the initial owner is still with us or not. Being on the receiving end of giving, whether large or small, is no basis for moral condemnation.

Jacques Jonker is an Economic and Legal Analyst at the Free Market Foundation. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.

Photo by Shawnee D on Unsplash.