Bryan Caplan  

The Freedom to Disown

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[Warning: Downton Abbey spoiler near the end.]

Once your children come of age, you are free to disown them.  A parent can financially and emotionally cut off his own children with legal impunity.  The children have the same right, but since the parents are usually richer and die sooner, children are largely limited to cutting the emotional cord.  People are just as free to disown more distant relatives, friends, and romantic partners.

Disownment is a powerful threat to hang over others' heads.  The stereotypical case is a wealthy parent saying, "You'll do what I say, or I'll cut you off without a dime."  But the flip side - a grateless child vowing, "I'll never talk to you again unless you do this for me," is also common.  When you're on the receiving end of such threats, it certainly feels coercive.  This is especially true when others take the disowner's side against you because you're out of step with prevailing mores.

Almost everyone thinks that it's wrong to disown lightly.  This norm is strongest for parents and children; the idea of cutting off one's (adult) children or parents without mighty cause horrifies most of us.  Most people would probably go further and say that disowning others  - or just threatening to do so - is wrong even if you have a pretty good reason.  If you know for a fact that your son shouldn't marry his girlfriend, you still probably shouldn't threaten, "I'll disown you unless you break off the engagement."  Actually carry out such a threat would be even worse.

Despite everything I've said, though, almost everyone also has one very libertarian intuition on this subject.  Namely: People have a right to disown.  Passing a law saying, "You have to stay in touch with your parents" or "You can't disinherit your kids" just seems tyrannical.  And the reason isn't that such laws would be hard to enforce.  What could be easier than regulating bequests, or giving grandparents the right to sue their kids for visitation with their grandkids?  The reason, rather, is that disowning is not "coercive" in a morally relevant sense.  Why not?  Because the disownee can't justly claim to own the esteem or riches of the disowner, even if the disownee's life will be very hard without that esteem and riches.

What do we learn from this?  Most obviously, this is yet another piece of evidence that common sense morality is extremely libertarian.  (See here, here, and here for earlier examples).  A deeper lesson, though, is that libertarians are too quick to condemn traditional societies as "coercive."  All were to some degree, of course - just as all actual non-traditional societies are coercive to some degree.  But how important was legal pressure relative to the threat to disown?  In my judgment, the threat to disown was usually more important - which in turn requires libertarians to at least tone down their condemnation.

Just to jog your intuitions, consider the show Downton Abbey, set in England in the 1910s and 1920s.  Aristocratic daughter Sybil shocks her wealthy parents by deciding to marry her chauffeur.  Sybil's father, Lord Grantham, keeps telling her that he won't allow the marriage. 

Sybil could easily have played the victim, dumped the chauffeur, and whined about "coercion."  But she doesn't.   She knows that she's legally free to marry any man she wants, and that her family is legally free to utterly disown her.  So Sybil tells her father that she's willing to give up the family's approval and money, and marries her chauffeur. 

Is Sybil's choice an easy one?  Of course not.  But her "merely" legal right to marry whoever she wants still has great moral significance.  It means that neither she nor anyone else in her position can reasonably claim to be a slave.  It also means if the law were to tilt the scales further in Sybil's favor, it wouldn't be preventing coercion, but inflicting it.


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COMMENTS (21 to date)
Fazal Majid writes:

That is far from a universal rule. Under the French monarchy, only eldest sons could inherit. The French Revolution abolished that, and to make sure that peasants could not find a loophole to keep their lands undivided by disowning all but the eldest child, they made it illegal to disown - all children have by law to get an equal inheritance. That law is still on the books.

Saturos writes:

In a society where women are systematically denied social, political and economic access, the threat to disown may be more coercive than Bryan allows.

Dan Hill writes:

To add to the other examples given in order to reinforce that the right to disown is far from universal, when my lebanese father-in-law died the bulk of his estate (80% I think) was distributed in portions defined in law as mandatory to his wife and children.

andy writes:

I am not 100% sure but I have a feeling that in most European countries you don't have a right to 'disown' your children. And I remember reading and article about Germany where it is possible to retroactively dismiss money transfers of the deceased if they would break the 'right' of the child to parents money...

Greg G writes:

Different cultures vary on what they expect of individuals in problems like this one.

The more foundational principle is that acting responsibly sometimes involves not doing things you technically have a right to do.

We care about a number of different values and some of those values conflict with each other. This is why general principles often fail to easily resolve specific cases.

david writes:
Passing a law saying, "You have to stay in touch with your parents" or "You can't disinherit your kids" just seems tyrannical.

Not in East Asian societies, though...?

david writes:

My comment re: Singapore still appears to be in the spam-filter, but given China and France above it might be better said that Bryan Caplan's moral intuition is instinctively libertarian.

[Gee, it was only held up for an hour or less. Sometimes it takes me an hour, or even two or three hours, to get to the spam with a quick look-through. I usually find most legit comments right away. Or, we find them on a more thorough spam look-through every 24 hours. I guess under one hour was pretty quick, eh? If that's not fast enough for you, please let us know: webmaster@econlib.org --Econlib Ed.]

rpl writes:

@david,

Is that moral intuition really idiosyncratic to Bryan? It seems to line up closely with the prevailing American mores. Even the people citing China and France as counterexamples don't seem to be trying to defend those practices as right. Perhaps China and France simply passed bad laws, or perhaps the laws have some ulterior motive.

Thomas writes:

I can confirm that Ireland requires that a spouse must inherit at least 1/3 (if there are children) to 1/2 (if there are not). Also, a court can change the will if a parent has "failed in his or her moral obligation to a particular child" by not recognizing them adequately in the will. Courts have clarified that "child" in this context means offspring of any age. In discussions about this, I've learned that the cultural moral instinct there is strongly in favor of the law, and not at all libertarian.

david writes:

Caplan desires to cite the existing legal freedom to do whatever as support for a hypothetical prevailing moral order, so I see no reason why one cannot argue the same using other legal frameworks.

Regardless, the US also has such laws at the state level, and these laws have been ruled constitutional; they are merely less enforced. As the linked article notes, what eroded these laws was the creation of Social Security.

If you fancy a defense, here is one: it is not obviously more ethical to tax the younger generation in general to support the older than to tax the younger generation in particular. Supposing that one does accept the necessity of elder support, but desires to abandon a social-security model, parental-support laws do become appealing.

Of course this presumes relatively low intergenerational income mobility, so that children are not potentially much poorer than expected. Your society is relatively mobile; hence the American mores.

ivvenalis writes:

Well, social norms were often enforced socially rather than by legal coercion in traditional society, at least Anglo-Saxon ones (I think that e.g. the French had different ideas). The English have always been legally permitted to marry and bequeath however they pleased. Tacitus noted the same thing among the Germanic tribesmen who lived on the Empire's northern border, so clearly this had been going on a while.

As suggested by Fazal Majid's post referring to the French revolutionaries, an important function of the progressive nanny state is to interfere with the natural emergence of traditional norms. A truly libertarian society would (and, well, did) look more like traditional society because there wouldn't be a powerful state frantically trying to counteract the formation of retrograde norms.

Scott Scheule writes:

One should be careful in projecting the morality one discovers on personal recollection onto the populace as a whole.

Glen Smith writes:

The very fact that the counter examples people gave are laws passed by government makes it clear that the right to disown is a universal principal because if it was not, there would not have to be a positivist law to prevent such actions.

Alex Godofsky writes:

Uh, Glen, your argument applies equally to murder.

Nicholas Weininger writes:

To be a bit more charitable than some others here, I think it's true that the common-sense morality of modernist cosmopolites is extremely libertarian. The problem (and it really is a huge problem, among the biggest of our age) is that most people are not modernist cosmopolites. It's easy to forget this when one lives, as Bryan does and as I do, in a "Beautiful Bubble": http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2012/03/my_beautiful_bu.html

It's a worthwhile project in itself to convince one's fellow modernist cosmopolites that they ought to be libertarians. But let's not fool ourselves about the limitations of the project.

rpl writes:
Regardless, the US also has such laws at the state level, and these laws have been ruled constitutional; they are merely less enforced. As the linked article notes, what eroded these laws was the creation of Social Security.
The fact that the laws are practically unenforced suggests that social mores are against them. People tend to get pretty agitated when laws they actually care about get ignored. The connection to social security is poorly established. The article notes that 11 of the 28 states that have such laws have "never used them," which I presume includes the time prior to the enactment of social security. Again, that suggests that whatever the law may say, prevailing social mores hold that supporting one's elders, though praiseworthy, is voluntary, and that they have so held for a long time.

Is the public's stand on this seriously under dispute? I doubt very much you'd have to confine yourself to Bryan's "bubble" to find widespread opposition to these laws. Is there reason to believe that the public silently supports greater enforcement of these seemingly archaic laws? If so, then why aren't they more vocal about it?

By the way, none of this even touches the inheritance side of the question. I think you'd find even less support for those laws.

As for whether supporting one's elders should be legally mandated, one of the comments on that very article you linked to offers some potent criticism of the idea. Namely, it seems unjust to impose a duty to care for one's parents without granting some authority over their spending prior to the period of dependency. If a child is to be expected to pay for his parents' upkeep, then he ought to be able to rein in their spending before they blow through their savings, oughtn't he? Another criticism was that such laws are ripe for abuse by insurers and service providers, who could use them to rack up huge bills without the consent of the patient's children and then use those laws to go after the children for payment.

Interestingly, there is one area in which we do limit people's freedom to disown, and that is where spouses are concerned. You can't simply "cut off" your spouse, and you generally can't designate someone other than your spouse as a primary beneficiary of an insurance policy or a retirement account without their written consent. I think this also reflects a social attitude that the spousal relationship is different from and carries more responsibility than an ordinary family relationship.

John Fast writes:

I have met some (thankfully rare) folks who were so authoritarian that when push came to shove they said they favored laws to prevent people from disowning their relatives -- cutting off money and/or contact.

I have to admire their consistency, even as I despise their (lack of) ethics.

Steve Sailer writes:

The existence of Downton Abbey as a family home depends upon aristocratic control of Parliament and the Army, via noblesse oblige. The need to expand the Army to fight Total Wars in 1914 and 1939 doomed, via much higher taxes, most of the stately homes of England into conversion to tourist attractions, corporate conference centers and the like.

Ari T writes:

John Fast,

Here where I live (in Finland) I think its practically impossible to disown own spouse (from inheritance post mortem). Most people don't see a big problem with it. After all, marriage is voluntary, and costly for both.

Maurizio writes:

Under the Italian law you can't disinherit your son. He is legally entitled to at least half of what you own after your death. And this law exists because most people in Italy feel that children have a natural right to the parent's stuff. Shocking, yes.

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