Reason and Prescription – Part 3 (The Primacy of Inheritance)


Chapter 5 of The Great Debate, contains a vicious attack by Thomas Paine against inherited wealth and power.  He argues that a hereditary system is unprincipled – “a mere animal system with no rationale component attached.  Its advocates could never persuade the people to establish such a system were it not already in place (having gotten there illegitimately long ago).”  Paine argues that nations should be rational, not “governed like animals, for the pleasure of their riders”.


The weakness of Paine’s position is that he responds to counter-arguments by simply accusing those that defend inheritance as clothing it in fancy names and alleging contrived dangers to unaided reason.  Logically, arguing that ‘you’re just saying that to defend the existing system’ is fallible reasoning.  Morally, using the term “unaided reason” highlights Paine’s fallacy when he accuses defenders of hereditary aristocracy of being willfully ignorant.   The term unaided reason, used many times in Chapter 5 referring to Paine’s ideas, is telling.


It’s not easy to stake out a wealth and family values position and then erect defenses against it being destroyed or taken away. Most of us would use whatever assets, resources, means or “aid” available in preparing our family’s War Chest for battle.  The most powerful aid to reason (reason itself is certainly important) is Burke’s “wardrobe of a moral imagination” – sentimental attachment, noble obligation towards the past and future, restrained but embraced passion….. chivalry.  It’s Paine who is willfully ignorant of the many aspects of human nature beyond and above reason.  Paine would lose in a Court of Law because he goes out of his way to ignore precedent in favor of “unaided reason”.  Attorneys know, as Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, that a page of history is worth a volume of logic. Inheritance (in all its forms – inherited assets, values, wisdom, customs and mores) is the preeminent component of our Estate Planning War Chest.  Next week, we move on to Chapter 6 of Yuval Levin’s book.


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