Ownership and Inheritance

Photo by Maxime Dore   unsplash

Ownership is one of the basic concepts that societies are built on. It’s hard to imagine anything more than a small, isolated, communal tribe without some rules and customs for ownership rights. The native people of Canada shared most of the items in their tribe but still exercised ownership over land usage between tribes. They fought many intertribal wars over land usage with winners repeatedly pushing the losers out of their ancestral lands.

It seems as if humans have an innate need to exercise some degree of ownership and passing that right between generations is expected. Our home, no matter how humble, is our castle. We need the safety and privacy it provides. Our collective territory must be defended lest we lose it to outsiders.

Inheritance is also a basic concept that societies agree on with an important difference from ownership: as inequality grows within a society, members are more willing to put limits on the amount of ownership that can be passed between generations. The heirs of billionaires are expected to forfeit a portion of their inheritance, though they use every legal and not so legal method to avoid it. Societal wellbeing is not enhanced by the inheriting generations becoming rent seekers, living off the demands they can place on the usage of their inheritance by others instead of laboring for their keep. Meritocracy is destroyed when a small group starts with a huge advantage.

Rent seeking is not limited to land usage. It encompasses all assets including money, intellectual property and in the past, slavery. A wealthy person ‘renting’ the usage of their money for a fee as a loan or bond is no different than renting the usage of farmland or a building.

We admire people who through their ingenuity and hard work build an asset during their lifetime and enjoy the benefit of ‘renting’ its use, especially in their old age.

When rent seeking passes a certain level or degree, human nature turns against it. Aristocrats renting their lands to serfs who must toil in subsistence to pay the rent is considered deplorable. Empires using their military might to ‘own’ the produce of a colony by forced exclusive trade is opposed.

Less obvious is the rent seeking demanded by Native people. Yes, I’m going there! Keeping in mind there are many ways of looking at this. It is reasonable to look at our history and see a Native people who mostly ‘lived off the land’. Nature paid the rent. Tribes would use the natural resources in an area and move when they were depleted. They worked hard to hunt and gather but they did little to build the productivity of the land. Population was kept to a level where Nature could continue paying the rent. Natives did not ‘build’ the asset. They simply lived off Nature’s effort. And it worked for millennia until Europeans arrived with their culture of improving the productivity of the land so it could support a larger population and then breeding like flies.

I can see how the early European settlers would claim ownership rights based on the effort they made to farm the land and build their assets. I have less inclination to assign the same degree of ownership rights to the Native rent seekers. Keeping aside the whole argument of environmental degradation from overpopulation, etc. and just focusing on comparing the claims of the two cultural groups, I find similarities between today’s billionaire families insisting they can pass their great wealth to their heirs and the Native people claiming they owned this vast land we call Canada simply because of ancestry. That claim would make each of them exceptionally land rich even if they lived in squalor.

Tax is a payment for the services a society provides including defense against attack from outsiders, internal policing, health and legal structures, etc.

A simple thought experiment I did was to apply our current accepted minimum inheritance tax of 30% to the Native land claims in 1763, the year when British law effectively established the land we call Canada today.

Yes, the Native people never accepted British law and claimed their sovereignty from it. But with the advantage of knowing how the world population evolved to 8 billion today, this land we call Canada would have sooner or later been overrun and claimed by people other than the original Natives and their descendants. Without the technology, hard work and investment of sovereign Canadians to defend and develop it, Canada would not exist. We made Canada and protected it for both us and the original peoples living here even while some Natives continued to claim a different sovereignty.

An argument can be made that Native people refused to participate or were culturally incapable of participating in the building and defending of Canada for most of this history. It’s a complex argument and I encourage discussion in the comment section.

Since a generation can be considered to be 25 years, I wondered … even if it was accepted that the Native people in 1763 ‘owned’ all the vast land we call Canada, would it not be appropriate to have them pay an inheritance tax each generation to help pay for the effort to build and maintain Canada as a sovereign country during the transition to a world with 8 billion people; people who would surely move in and claim the land unless it was continually defended?

This is the way of nature; build and defend your territory or lose it to a stronger outsider. It’s a costly, continuous expense especially as the military and economic capability of the outsiders constantly improves. Inheritance tax is one of many that helps to pay for this ongoing expense.

In my thought experiment, I wondered if a people were unable or unwilling to pay the 30% inheritance tax each generation from the income they generate from their labor, and if they were exceedingly land rich, would it not be appropriate to therefore forfeited 30% of the land as payment for the tax?

If so, what % would they still own today starting with 100% in 1763?

The year 2013 would be the tenth generation and Native land ownership would be 2.8%. The year 2038 will be the eleventh generational inheritance and the ownership would reduce to 1.97%.

Yes, this was a flawed mental exercise with many relevant variables omitted. I submit it only as a way to juxtapose against the current equally flawed meme hoisted, especially on our younger generation, that we non-Native people stole the land from the sovereign Natives and therefore must continually pay billions of dollars in retribution every year.

That makes a mockery of what it means and what is required to maintain sovereignty especially in a world with billions of armed people ready to move in if we falter.

What are your thoughts?


Anand Purohit — Author (xnorbooks.com)

XNOR — a logical function used to express equivalence. Also an entertaining romp through spacetime and eighteen-century colonial history.


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