This section is from the "The Science Of Wealth" book, by Amasa Walker.
Men die, and the property they have acquired or held during their lives must pass into the possession of others. May the person who is about to leave the world say to whom his wealth shall immediately descend? May he go farther, and say to whom it shall descend for all coming time? May he go farther still, and determine what specific use shall be made of his wealth for ever? Or shall the laws of the State decide the questions, — to whom, for what purposes, and for how long, the wealth of deceased persons shall descend? Does the world and its wealth belong to the living or the dead, or to both in common? If to both, what portion should belong to each? If the dead are allowed to control a part, why not all? Which party, the living or the dead, will most intelligently decide how wealth can be advantageously employed in production, or in any other mode, for the benefit of the living?
These are the points involved in the subject of Inheritance and the testamentary disposal of property, and are important in an economical point of view, irrespective of all other considerations. These questions have been practically decided by the laws and institutions of society in different ages and countries. Governments have always interfered in regard to the estates of deceased persons, to such an extent as to prescribe limitations and conditions. So far as these have been in harmony with instincts of humanity, and the laws of value, they have been beneficent in their operation. But all the wealth, all the institutions, all the interests of society, should ever be regarded as fully under the control of the existing generation of men. This should be a fundamental principle in civil polity; and, if law may interfere in this matter at all, it may do so to any extent the public interest shall demand.
Mr. McCulloch,* in his "Principles of Political Economy" (page 267), says: " Every man should have such a reasonable power over the disposal of his property as may be necessary to excite his industry, and to inspire him with a desire of accumulating. But if, in order to carry this principle to the furthest extent, individuals are allowed to chalk out an endless series of heirs, and to prescribe the conditions under which they shall successively hold the property, it would be taken entirely out of the market; it might be prevented from ever coming into the hands of those who would turn it to the best account; and it could neither be farmed nor managed in any way, however advantageous, that happened to be inconsistent with the will."
* Author of the" Commercial Dictionary," and one of the best writers of his time upon Political Economy.
Mr. McCulloch here recognizes the correct principle; viz., that the interests of those who are laboring and suffering now, are paramount to the whims and caprices of those who have passed from the stage of action; in other words, that the earth belongs to the living, and not to the dead. To exhibit the enormous abuses and perversions to which these mortmain holdings must lead, we need only refer to the old countries of Europe, England especially, where millions on millions of wealth are held and used, not for the purposes originally intended, but often for the very opposite. Many of the objects for which benefactions are thus made, become obsolete or absurd; yet the property must be held and misused, if really used at all.
It has been said, that nothing is more unwise than to attempt to bind posterity with parchment; and, the more enlightened the public mind becomes, the more apparent will be the utter folly of allowing the past to govern the present.
Yet the author just quoted, advocates, with the most surprising inconsistency, the lawsof primogeniture, and makes an argument, though a very weak one, in favor of giving the whole estate to the oldest son!—an illustration of what has too often been found in the writings of English economists, who seem generally to assume, in advance, that the laws and institutions of their own country are right, and therefore the laws of wealth must be made to appear in conformity with them. Mr. McCulloch would probably never have been made a public officer, and held a lucrative position under government, if he had taught the opposite doctrine.
In some countries, the laws have not only provided for the manner in which wealth may be disposed of by testamentary provisions, but have often ordained that certain estates shall be inalienable. Thus, the landed property of a people, seized by violence, has been made a perpetual inheritance to the favored parties and their descendants for ever. This class of persons has often been invested with the powers of government; and class legislation has strengthened and increased what force or fraud had achieved.
So far as a class, more or less strictly limited, or highly distinguished, reaches a position of property or influence by moral perfections, by high intellectual endowments, or by successful business operations, agreeably to the laws of wealth, and under the test of ordinary competition, it is not taken out of the principles heretofore laid down. But so far as it has been placed arbitrarily in the possession of large properties, and is maintained so by thwarting the action of natural laws, it is by that removed from the primitive rule of distribution, and requires to be separately considered. We shall regard it only from an economical point of view.
The nobilities of the world have, in fact, been formed off-hand, generally out of the personal favorites of the monarch, or distinguished soldiers, by the grant of large privileges' and valuable estates. Would this perpetuate a nobility? On the one hand, we have the argument, a priori, that the possession of wealth tends to secure its own continuance, both because possession is nine-tenths of all the points, and because the vis inertice is against a change; that the family which has property to-day has a better chance, other things equal, to have it next year or next century, than those who have it not. But other things are far from equal, which introduces the argument from experience; viz., that estates tend to go out of the hands of any special class. The forces that scatter are stronger than those that hold together. Outside is a hostility to the individual appropriation, that never ceases, arising out of the desires of the entire community for that particular property. There is not a sentient being who has not the instincts that would impel him to seize it if he could. Within, to hold the gates against the assault of the whole world, is the solitary possessor. His strength must some time fail; his vigilance, some time relax.
Such, in a figure, is the tendency of wealth to scatter. By an order of things in which we can seem to see great benevolence, no family or class can secure the integrity of its estate. Otherwise, property would tend to aggregate itself, so as to crush competition, and leave the greater part of the world destitute. As it is, the foolish son dissipates the gatherings of the wise father, and alienates the lands that have been annexed, acre after acre, by prudence and frugality. A single break in the succession of industry and economy will scatter the accumulations of ages. This liability of the rich is the property of the poor. Just as surely as the lapse of ages wears down the craggy mountain-tops, to form the soil of the humble valleys, so surely do aggregations of wealth gravitate every hour to the general level.
To contravene this provision of nature, the law of the land often shuts in these estates by arbitrary enactment or judicial interpretation, and so keeps out the busy, unrelenting competition, which otherwise would, sooner or later, bring the proudest structure to the ground. All such legal arrangements may be summed up in —