Spending our children’s inheritance

Edmund Burke

One of the gems in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France is his description of the tradition threatened by the social engineering of the French Revolution as an “entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity.” The analogy is to a form of property ownership in which a person inherits subject to the condition that the property is passed along without diminution to the next heir.

This concept has an echo in the Preamble to the Constitution which includes among the purposes of ratification that the States might “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” “Secure” is an action verb here. Noah Webster’s dictionary (1828) defines “secured” as: “Effectually guarded or protected; made certain; put beyond hazard; effectually confined; made fast.”

A recent study in the Journal of Political Economy provides an interesting take on inheritance. It found that only a small part of the correlation between the incomes of fathers and the incomes of sons can be explained by financial factors. The inheritance is more an inheritance of “human capital” — skills, knowledge, capacity, personality traits, etc.

The Framers and those of their generation recognized themselves as possessors of “blessings of liberty” (the use of “blessings” is worth noting as well) that should be guarded so that they could be enjoyed not by themselves alone but for a very specific group, their “posterity.” They had an inheritance and accepted the obligation to pass it on, undiminished, to their children.

By contrast, an important segment of policymakers seems to take their guidance not from the Framers but from the bumper sticker that says: “We’re spending our children’s inheritance.”

An increasing segment of the population is even delegating the business of creating posterity to others, as a story on the Weekly Standard site notes.

Without significant effort at fiscal and moral discipline, the liberty our children are likely to inherit will be significantly diminished, most obviously by debt obligations caused by profligate spending. Perhaps even worse, that inheritance could be blighted by the loss of core ideals of marriage and family, the very institutions that have the capacity for transmitting the human and social capital necessary to enjoy and preserve liberty.

It is hard to imagine any more important duty than to preserve for our children what we inherited from our ancestors. It’s a task at which we cannot afford to fail.

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