What About Inheritances?

Although Christians have a good bit of teaching from Jesus about money, there’s not much explicitly about inheritances. However, Jesus reportedly taught that “from everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.” And it’s pretty clear that he exalted the values of compassion and justice in the face of human need. 

Recently multi-billionaire Warren Buffett made news when he announced his decision to give away the bulk of his estate, not leaving it to his children. Buffett is widely regarded as a financial genius. But nothing he’s done elevates his stature more in my view than his wise decision to channel his wealth to charitable causes. For one thing, this decision bespeaks compassion. For another, Buffett’s decision recognizes the fundamental injustice of large inheritances. Wealth, he observes, should not depend on the womb in which one happens to have been born. Invoking the views of another great philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, Buffett states that people of wealth are obliged to give back what they have gained from society. In Carnegie’s words, “He who dies rich, dies disgraced.”

Buffett is hardly leaving his children destitute! It seems appropriate to pass on modest amounts of wealth to help protect one’s heirs from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But it seems obscene to pass on more wealth than anyone could possibly need to sustain a modest existence, especially in a world where multitudes struggle daily to survive. This is a question of justice, a central value in most of the major religious traditions. It is simply not right for a few people to inherit great riches while most people struggle and die on the margins.

There is also another issue here. Vast aggregations of wealth translate into vast concentrations of power. Anyone who cares about the maintenance of democratic values and practices must regard equal opportunity as more than a slogan. But equal opportunity becomes a total sham with the entrenchment of an economic power elite. Money buys all kinds of things, including political favors and preferential treatment. Democracies basically have two ways to avoid the corruptions of the political system by wealth. One is to encourage the sort of philanthropy exemplified by Buffett. The other is to impose very high inheritance taxes on great wealth. The creation of family dynasties based on wealth signals a grievous failure of democracy, as well as a failure of justice and compassion.

Copyright 2006 by Byron C. Bangert