23 January 2014

Inheritance—the ultimate free lunch

Watching Jon Stewart the other night brilliantly satirizing American right-wingers' laments about the poor exploiting social justice programs for a "free lunch," I was disappointed that he failed to mention the greatest free lunch of them all.

Ironically, while "there's no free lunch" is one of our favourite expressions, down through history most land, property and political power has been gained not by merit, not by the sweat of one's brow, but by that magnificent free lunch known as inheritance. The recipients of the great part of society's wealth and power have long been benefactors of nothing more than being born into the right family. In the case of diverse kings, aristocrats, and inheritors of great fortunes the largesse has been more banquet than lunch.

Since the Industrial Revolution, merit has increasingly replaced inheritance as the primary vehicle for obtaining both wealth and power, but the free banquet is still of great importance. Much of this country's asset base continues to lie in the hands of heirs. And even though political power is now gained primarily by merit through the democratic process, wealth has retained much influence. In the United States, great wealth has produce political dynasties such as the Roosevelts, the Kennedys and the Bushes. Power still flows through blood as well as the ballot.

Nor does wealth have to run for office to have its way. Politicians who are not rich often must genuflect to the rich to succeed. One of K.C. Irving's sons once told a premier of New Brunswick, "My father's never lost a New Brunswick election in his life." Old K.C. never ran for office but he was the richest man in the province and that was as good as being premier. And we are all familiar with ambitious British politicians pandering to press lord Rupert Murdoch and American presidential aspirants pandering to Wall Street for the funding without which they would never set foot in the White House.

We are curiously ambivalent about someone getting something for nothing. We don’t approve of it for the poor. If we must provide charity to keep them off the streets, we will, but sparingly and only until we can wean them off of it. We are concerned about the harm that handouts may due to their characters.

Yet we have no concern about the damage that inheritance, the most lavish handout of all, does to the characters of the rich. If we were as concerned about their characters as we are about those of the poor, and if we really believed merit should determine success in gaining either wealth or power, i.e. if we believed people should earn their rewards, we would be more determined to wean the rich off the free banquet than the poor off the free lunch.

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