Starting Point

Where do we start, if we want to make a better world?

In one way the answer’s easy: with the one we’ve got, of course; the one we’ve been left by our forebears – the one we’ve inherited.

It’s easy to overlook the importance of inheritance. Our lives tend to be dominated by concerns of the moment and, to a large extent, we have no choice but to take the world as we find it. Our worldview is shaped by the world we’re born into and, by the time we’ve developed the mental tools to question it, we are so embroiled in it that questioning too deeply means digging down into the foundations of our lives.

Most of us hope to leave our affairs in good order, of course, but … life is short and what happens once we’re gone can always be sorted out by the next generation. And so it goes on. We sort through what the previous generation left, balancing our respect for those who’ve gone with our own desire to get on with our own lives unburdened by the past. But at some point we let go and simply discard what we cannot face sorting out.

But law doesn’t get discarded. Law persists until it is reformed. And our world is shaped by it.

Of course, as a society, we recognise that it’s unfair that some people inherit great wealth while others inherit nothing and we levy taxes to mitigate that unfairness. But is that enough? Can we really build a stable, healthy society by piling up layers of new law to mitigate the ill effects of older ones? Wouldn’t it be better to ensure that fundamental laws operate fairly?

There are significant political barriers to reforming inheritance law, not least because it’s something we’ve all grown up with, something which seeps into our consciousness in childhood. The young hero struggling to claim the inheritance which an evil relative has cheated him of is a staple of children’s stories, and there is an undeniable rightness about the young inheriting what their parents have left.

That cultural background creates a resistance to reforming inheritance law because those who currently stand to inherit will lose out. But that same narrative can be turned round and used to support reform. Doesn’t everybody have a right to inherit a fair share of the world’s natural resources? And haven’t most people been cheated of that right?

It’s over ten years since I first wrote about a Birthright in Law and, ever since, I’ve been looking for the most effective way to frame the argument. Since then I’ve posted in various places on the internet, developing the argument that everyone should inherit a fair share of the nation’s natural resources.

When I started writing about the issue I couldn’t envisage a direct political solution but I felt that it might be possible to create pressure for reform through the courts. I’m more hopeful now that a purely political route to reform might be found but it will depend on thorough analysis of principles and having proposals for reform which respect how central the issue is to how our society operates. I’ll be writing more here in the next few days and weeks on how the law came to be what it is and what steps could be taken to reform it fundamentally with a minimum of disruption.

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