Sunday, November 1, 2009

Wills, Society, Sovereignty

Ever been to the National Gallery of Art? Or, if you're on the West Coast, the Getty Museum? Ever heard of the 3,000 libraries set up by Andrew Carnegie? Or the vaccine against Yellow Fever, developed with the assistance of the Rockefeller Foundation? For that matter, do you ever reflect on how Warren Buffet and the Gates family are doing more the the governments of the world to fight the sicknesses which plague the poor world? Have you ever been to, or benifited from, an American university? (Or an Israeli one, for that matter)?

The reason I ask is because all this philanthropy and the many billions of dollars like it is not to be taken for granted. Actually, it's largely an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon; Continental Europe doesn't "do philanthropy" in a similar way; there, the assumption is that Society - meaning, the government, the state - must supply things like universities, libraries, museums and all matter of social programs.Of course, rich people do support all sorts of fine things, but to a more limited degree. In some countries, the idea of an entrepreneur giving away his fortune rather than bequeathing it to his children is downright illegal. The Economist recently wrote about this, in a fascinating column.
Europe’s inheritance laws pit the Anglo-Saxon emphasis on freedom and markets against a continental focus on social “solidarity”, meaning the belief that shielding people from the vagaries of fate is an overriding public interest (even if that sometimes rewards the feckless). It is no coincidence that Europe is equally divided over labour laws that favour competition, versus those that protect workers from the whims of markets and bosses alike.

This can easily be emotional stuff, too. Surely continental inheritance rules trample personal freedom and are blind to individual merit? Surely the Anglo-Saxon way is a hostage to human caprice? Yes, and yes, at least sometimes.

This is the sort of thing that national sovereignty was invented for: to give different societies the ability to create the conditions that best fit their values, and to allow them to change and modify as they decide. Interestingly, Jewish laws of inheritance seem to lean closer to the Anglo-Saxon, free-market, freedom of choice version. The sections that deal with this in Bava Batra - mostly the 8th-9th chapters - detail the laws and practices of wills and inheritance, and rather resemble the Continental laws, but the freedom to dispatch of ones property as one sees fit up until the moment of death is broad, and supersedes all laws of inheritance. Even on ones' deathbed (Shchiv mera) one can hand out ones' property according to any whim. The laws of the State of Israel are roughly similar, whether because of the British influence, inherited from their 1919-1948 Mandate, or because of Jewish tradition, or both.

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