Why do we permit this? The transfer of wealth between generations is an injustice: it is a reward for no work, and a form of access to privileges that are otherwise beyond reach. Professor Thomas Piketty, in his new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, makes the argument that, after a social-democratic blip in the middle of the last century, inheritance is once again becoming the key route to wealth. Piketty argues that if wealth is concentrated and the return on capital is higher than the economy’s growth rate, inherited wealth will grow more rapidly than that stemming from work. This returns us to the terrain of Balzac and Austen, where the road to financial security is to target those who already possess wealth and, where possible, marry them. The data Piketty analyses – a huge and comprehensive set – suggests that the proportion of people receiving a sum in inheritance larger than the lifetime earnings of the bottom 50% is set to return to 19th-century levels in the next couple of decades. Pleasant news for our neo-Victorian government; less pleasant for the rest of us, and a disaster for anyone who cares about inequality.
It is difficult to justify inherited wealth from anything other than a class-partisan position. It is the point where the already threadbare veil of “meritocracy” falls off to reveal a fiscal system designed to reward already concentrated pots of wealth. Far from a Keynesian “euthanasia of the rentier”, we are seeing the triumph of a rentier economy: in such conditions, rather than further accumulation by the sons and daughters of the wealthy, we should instead demand an end to inherited wealth entirely.
Yes, inherited wealth brings freedom to a life. Which is why we should be working towards everyone being able to inherit it, not none. For the desirable outcome is where all have that freedom to do as they wish, not none.