25 June 2007

Inheritance (2)

Is it fair for a person’s chances in life to be affected by the receipt of a capital sum from another individual? We could ask the same question about innate ability: is it fair for a person to have a better chance of a high income because of genetic characteristic they did nothing to deserve? It has been argued that it is not. Of course, it is harder to stop people benefiting from their abilities than to stop them benefiting from inheritance.

This raises the question of what exactly is fair, and what is deserved. The philosopher John Rawls thought that, given a choice of different possible reward systems behind a ‘veil of ignorance’, people would opt for a system which permitted rewards to ability and effort only to the extent that the position of the worst off would be maximised. Rawls proposed that this hypothetical choice should be used to define what is ‘fair’. This is usually taken to mean, permitting a certain amount of competition, with higher ability and/or greater effort tending to yield higher rewards, but also a good deal of redistribution back down towards the poorest.

It has been pointed out that Rawls’s solution depends on assuming a particular attitude to risk: that of not being willing to gamble to any extent on a high variance of possible outcomes. If correct, what does it tell us about inheritance? Assuming a Rawlsian system allows for savings, it is not clear that an individual behind the veil of ignorance would necessarily insist on capital gifts being taxed, since such gifts do not themselves result in greater divergence of outcomes between individuals in the way that free market competition does.

If we say inheritance or ability are not morally deserved, then that leaves the question of what is. Although we might want to say that effort is more deserving of reward than ability, because it is more under the control of the individual, we could make similar objections as with ability. If A makes more effort than B, is it not because A benefits from conditions which make it easier for him to try harder, e.g. a more supportive upbringing, a higher level of self-confidence, or a greater innate capacity for making efforts?

Other articles
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on egalitarianism
Wikipedia on John Rawls

18 June 2007

Inheritance (1)

The phenomenon of wealth that is acquired from a relative appears to have few sympathisers. Even pro-market supporters often have little time for it. Socialists tend to be scathing about it. Anthony Giddens, for example, argues that inherited capital "violates reciprocity”. The recent e-petition against inheritance tax argued it was “double taxation”, but provided no economic arguments in favour of transfers per se.

The logic behind such disapproval relative to other market phenomena is based on the idea that entrepreneurial capital is “earned” and therefore more “deserved”, while capital which someone gave you is not earned at all. However, it is not clear that the logic for this distinction is sound.

Take the case of a self-made millionaire giving capital to an individual who is not a relative, e.g. an artist or composer. This is no less a “market” phenomenon than any other. The millionaire buyer wants something (e.g. a cultural product, whether or not he gets a proprietorial stake in it) in return for his money. The distinguishing feature is that the number of buyers responsible for generating the capital accumulation is one, rather than being in the thousands or millions.

Where the recipient is a family member, it is possible to extend this logic. The millionaire expects to get some benefit, e.g. some kind of quasi-immortality. Rather than a million people paying for (say) astronomical bodies to be named after them and making the supplier of this service wealthy, we have one person “paying” his or her son or daughter to do something with the money which will promote the family name or the memory of the donor. Why is the latter thought to be less tolerable than the former?

Other articles
Anthony Giddens on inheritance tax
Stumbling & Mumbling on hating the rich
Our Word is our Weapon on inequality
Stumbling & Mumbling on slavery and inheritance
e-petition against inheritance tax

11 June 2007


There is some concern over the level of abortions in this country. Three years ago a report showed that over 20 per cent of pregnancies are being terminated. Recently there have been plans to lower the current time limit from 24 weeks, possibly to 20.

Abortion is an extremely emotive topic. A person's attitudes to it are often said to depend on his or her "value system". As with most emotive debates, attitudes may depend more on emotions - and particularly on strong feelings of horror or rejection - than on logic or religious doctrine. However, one should not assume that an attitude based on emotion is necessarily less justified than one based on analysis.

Those who are strongly "pro-choice" may perceive the horror of a woman having a very strong need or desire not to bear a child, while being unable to do so because of some illegality or social taboo. Those who are strongly "pro-life" may perceive the horror of a foetus being aborted without sufficient recognition that this may be different from killing an individual human only by a matter of degree.

One problem with abortion debates is that they tend to focus on hard legalities (pro-lifers want more restrictions, pro-choicers want fewer) while ignoring a whole range of factors which determine how much and how readily abortion is practised. One factor often ignored is that medicine is largely controlled by professional bodies and the government. This leads to the following points.

1) Whether a woman has an abortion will often depend to some extent on the views of the practitioner advising her, which in turn will reflect the attitudes of government and the medical profession.

2) The "privacy" issue (a woman's right to decide about her own body) is more complicated if "right" means claim on state medicine as opposed to liberty not to be legally prevented.

Is it possible that some women are being advised to terminate - and do so - when this is not an option they would ultimately have chosen if they had been freer to decide for themselves?

Other articles
Telegraph on Catholic Cardinals putting pressure on MPs
Telegraph on doctors refusing to carry out abortions
Nadine Dorries MP in support of Cardinals (see 4 and 5 June)
Not Saussure on Nadine Dorries
Devil's Kitchen on Nadine Dorries
Ministry of Truth on Nadine Dorries
The Times on abortion and Hollywood

4 June 2007


An issue closely related to transparency is that of democratic participation. It has often been argued that voters need to become more involved in deciding issues which matter to them. This philosophy is behind the recent trend for more consultations.

There is also a movement to make democracy more devolved, and allow for more voting about local issues at a local level, which is currently receiving exposure in the Daily Telegraph. As with transparency, however, is it necessarily helpful to the effectiveness of democracy to have more participation? Or is there a risk that, by trying to make people be more involved, the effect is to favour the interests of more politically-minded voters?

This comment from US citizen Ron Craig may give food for thought:

"The idea of public referenda doesn’t actually work in practice. Take the experience here in California. With each and every election we are bombarded with countless ‘propositions’ to vote on. What on the face of it looks like the ultimate democratic action ends up being taken over by vested interests and their apologists, who fill the airwaves with, dare I say it, lies to support their ‘for’ and ‘against’ cases. The end result is that the average voter probably makes their decision based on which commercials they watch."

Other articles
Ben Fenton on freedom of information
Adam Smith Institute on direct democracy
Zac Goldsmith on local referenda
Tim Worstall on Zac Goldsmith
Antony Jay on localisation
Bruno Kaufmann on direct democracy in Switzerland
Stumbling & Mumbling on demand-revealing referenda