Gadfly - June 7th, 2006
I think that most people probably agree with the concept of inheritance. The property of the parent goes to the child, etc.
Consider this not so far off scenario:
Person A: Prosperous plantation owner a few hundred years ago. Much of his prosperity comes from his use of slavery.
Person B: Brought from another part of the world and enslaved; forced to work for A.
Slavery is eventually abolished. A's farm continues to prosper even without the free forced labour. He hires poor people from the surrounding area (often the same people) to do the same work for a small pittance in wages. It is perhaps not quite as profitable, but he has enough capital built up that the loss is negligible and easy to recover from. He eventually dies. His children inherit his substantial fortune.
Person B is not so lucky. Although no longer enslaved, he owns nothing but the clothes on his back. He eventually settles down and finds work not dissimilar from his former enslavement, but this time paying a small wage, barely enough to support his meagre existence.
A's one son continues the family business while the other son moves to the city to become a doctor. Medical school is expensive but A's fortune more than provides for tuition. Eventually, these sons marry and have kids. The kids, with their fortunate upbringing, grow up to be similarly successful. The cycle continues.
B's children inherit his poverty but little else. Although they are more or less free to come and go, they are constantly living from hand-to-mouth, happy for what work they can find. Education is scant, when it is available at all. They eventually have children of their own. These children again inherit the poverty of their parents. The cycle continues.
I would argue that the cause of A's fortunes was the exploitation of B. A's capital wealth comes directly from the labour of B.
If one inherits one's wealth based on the exploitation of another's labour, one should also inherit the responsibility for the poverty that was inflicted as a result. It is not so hard to draw a link between slavery then and poverty today. It's certainly not just a coincidence that most of the descendants of the A people are still very wealthy and, similarly, many descendants of B people are still very poor. Yet, how many A people deride the B people for being lazy, criminal, or just plain worthless? There is a feeling that the B people are themselves 100% responsible for the position they're in. I find this to be fallacious reasoning. You cannot erase the context of history where poverty is concerned. If one is willing to inherit the father's wealth, does one not also have a moral responsibility to inherit the cause of that wealth?
(Note: Although I have used slavery as an example, the same model could be used for Industrial Revolution era workers forced off the land during the Enclosure Acts, native North Americans during the "colonisation" of this continent, redistribution of wealth to peasants in Bolivia, etc. I picked slavery both because it was obvious and also because it is quite likely that ancestors of mine did benefit from the slave trade, though I don't know for sure.)
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