Inheritance laws state that in the case of death, material property ownership is passed to next of kin, or distributed based on the documented will of the deceased, with only some tax going to the state.

Why do democratic societies make such laws, as opposed to making such private property owned by the state, to be redistributed? Assuming that 20% of the population own 80% of the available values (or similar distributions), the majority in the population would seem to benefit from redistribution over inheritance.

I mean apart from political realism, what fundamental philosophic basis exists to justify passing on ownership to another person at the time if death?

I assume ownership itself is a necessity in a world in which members of society compete for exclusive control over resources. The concept of ownership settles any disputes over such control in a civil way. But the transfer of ownership to next of kin seems like some game theoretic oddity where the majority looses based on the decision on the majority.

  • 1
    1) Because the people again and again don't vote for either parties that propose such laws or vote even directly against these laws (see switzerland for example). 2) Because before such a law gets passed, your top 20% will leave for another country and you thereby lose the ability to tax them at all. 3) Because they would spend it before it gets redistributed to random people. 4) Because on some views of property and rights, it's just theirs and it would be theft to take it from them.
    – Lukas
    Jan 22, 2018 at 11:01
  • Yes the monied class can control the narrative, the media space, and in a democracy people are easily fooled. But history shows that at the height of the foolishness and decadence, there is often a turn, so I don't worry too much.
    – Gordon
    Jan 22, 2018 at 14:20
  • I should also mention that the very success of the central banks in their efforts to ameliorate the effects of the 2007-08 crash, has created a huge moral hazard. But the solution may not be redistribution per se. I don't believe in breaks in history, but I suspect we will see something relatively new this century, and we are in the midst working it out right now.
    – Gordon
    Jan 22, 2018 at 14:49
  • "owned by the state, to be redistributed" to whom??? And how do you prevent corruption? Bottom line: this is a very poorly thought out question.
    – RonJohn
    Aug 14, 2023 at 0:29

2 Answers 2


I don't think this is an ethical issue, I think it is a psychological one, and at root it is strategic rather than moral.

Democratic societies, more properly Liberal Democracies (as other kinds of cultures also vote), are generally Capitalist in orientation. Capitalism hopes to encourage excess production by leveraging basic human psychology.

Many people genuinely cannot be adequately motivated to contribute at the levels we expect them to out of concern entirely for themselves, or for some more abstract goal. But there is still a basic human drive to provide for and take care of others to whom one has a strong emotional connection. If most of our property did not go to those people either in life or upon death, I think the Capitalist threads in our cultures would have problems focusing workers who are basically pro-social, but not extremely broad in vision.

Since Liberalism is often in origin Christian, mutual support and giving is the dominant family morality, as contrasted with filial piety, religious obligation, patriarchal loyalty, or name honor. This compulsion to have someone to support, or with whom to pool resources in mutual support, runs so deep that our traditions have mechanisms for replacing families as objects for this attachment when children do not fit into them well. For instance, religious orders or communes construct 'families by intention', which often usurp those sentiments and inherit in place of the next of kin.

So without inheritance of some sort, individuals would simply arranged to give away their property before death, which would be a messier version of exactly the same system, since they might miscalculate and leave themselves destitute in old age. In less options-oriented societies, the elderly traditionally do this on purpose, becoming dependent upon their children in old age on purpose.

Since Liberal Democracies also believe in relative freedom of movement, if we don't make some sane solution easy, the successful would take their property with them into a similar society more conducive to their notions of propriety.


Ideas about what it's proper, fair or reasonable to inherit vary over time. It was once widely thought that the inheritance of political power was the right order of things; monarchists still do. If we have revised our ideas about the inheritance of political power, perhaps it's time to put the inheritance of property, a form of economic power, under the spotlight.

Two grounds suggest themselves on which the inheritance of private property should be either abolished or severely restricted. One is that of freedom, the other that of equal opportunity.

If we abolish the inheritance of private property then we do restrict freedom in two ways : we restrict the freedom of the property owner to do what he or she wants - to allocate his or her property after death. And a person who was due to inherit would have less freedom to do what they want since they would forfeit options they would have had if they had inherited. No property inherited, no windfall resources and less freedom to do what they want.

But would there be a net gain in freedom overall ? Arguably yes. If I have £5 billion, then the 5 billionth £1 has less utility to me that than the first. It would have more utility if given to the needy. Therefore unless my erstwhile inheritor is among the needy, the 5 billionth £1 would have more utility if it went to the needy. In possession of more utility the needy would have more freedom to do what they want. The same would be true of the 5 billionth-minus-1 £1. And so on back : in this way the entire property would create more freedom if distributed to the needy than if dropped into the lap of an inheritor.

As for equality of opportunity the case is even clearer. No-one would have the greater opportunity that comes from inherited wealth. Joe Blow whose parents have no property to leave would have no less opportunity than Harry Flashman whose parents have plenty.

Doubtless there will be counter-arguments aplenty but that's part of the point of this site.

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