The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter VII


§4. The restrictions on free bequest, which the discussion in the preceding section has led me to propose, are such as English legislation has long recognised as expedient. But limitations of a much more sweeping kind have often been recommended by thinkers who would have shrunk from interference with any other of the rights commonly included in our conception of the right of property; and, in particular, by the influential utilitarian writers on whose work the present treatise is chiefly based. In 1793--5, Bentham proposed---in connection with an ``extension of the law of escheat'', of which I will presently speak---that, in case of failure of near relations, the power of bequest should only extend to half the testator's property. Half a century later J. S. Mill stated that were he ``framing a code of laws according to what seems best in itself'', he would ``prefer to restrict not what any one might bequeath, but what any one should be permitted to acquire, by bequest or inheritance. Each person should have power to dispose by will of his or her whole property; but not to lavish it in enriching some one individual''---even a near relation---``beyond a certain maximum, which should be fixed sufficiently high to afford the means of comfortable independence''. It appears to me, however, that any interference with free bequest, so serious as that contemplated in either of these proposals, would dangerously diminish the motives to industry, and---what is here, perhaps, more important---thrift in the latter part of the lives of the persons who came under the restrictions. Moreover, any interference running strongly counter to the natural inclinations of such persons would be likely to be extensively evaded by donation before death. Probably all that can be safely attempted in the way of limiting bequests in the interest of the community---beyond the regulations proposed in the preceding paragraph---is a tax on inheritance, considerably increased when bequests are received by others than near relations.

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