1491 and 1493


It is essential to the American myth that North America was wilderness when the European colonists began to arrive. Sure, there were people, but they weren’t ‘civilized’ and therefore didn’t count; they could be brushed aside.

Charles C. Mann’s 1491 [amazon] and its sequel 1493 [amazon] oppose that myth. He can only hint at the complexity of the politics of the era but it’s overwhelming. Of course it is, it’s people doing the things people do.

Mann invites us to an imaginary flyover of all the civilizations that are flourishing and dying in the Americas prior to Columbus:

By the early 1990s Folan’s team had learned that this long-ignored place covered as much as twenty-five square miles and had thousands of buildings and dozens of reservoirs and canals. It was the biggest-ever Maya polity. Researchers cleaned and photographed its hundred-plus monuments – and just in time, for epigraphers (scholars of ancient writing) had in the meantime deciphered Maya heiroglyphics. In 1994 they identified the city-state’s ancient name: Kaan, the Kingdom of the Snake. Six years later they discovered that Kaan was the focus of a devastating war that convulsed the Maya city-state for more than a century. And Kaan is just one of the score of Maya settlements that in the last few decades have been investigated for the first time.

A collection of about five dozen kingdoms and city-states in a network of alliances and feuds as convoluted as those of seventeenth century Germany, the Maya realm was home to one of the world’s most intellectually sophisticated cultures. About a century before our imagined surveillance tour, though, the Maya heartland entered a kind of Dark Ages. Many of the greatest cities emptied, as did much of the countryside around them.

Incredibly, some of the last inscriptions are gibberish, as if scribes had lost the knowledge of writing and were reduced to meaningless imitation of their ancestors. By the time of our overflight half or more of what had once been the flourishing land of the Maya was abandoned.

Some natural scientists attribute this collapse, close in time to that of Wari and Tiwanaku, to a massive drought. The Maya, packed by the millions into land poorly suited for intensive farming, were dangerously close to surpassing the capacity of their ecosystems. The drought, possibly caused by a mega-Nino, pushed the society, already so close to the edge, over the cliff.

Such scenarios resonate with contemporary ecological fears, helping to make them more popular outside the academy. Within the academy, skepticism is more common. The archeological record shows that southern Yucatan was abandoned, while Maya cities in the northern part of the peninsula soldiered on or even grew. Particularly, the abandoned land was the wettest – with its rivers, lakes, and rainforest, it should have been the best place to wait out a drought. Conversely, northern Yucatan was dry and rocky. The question is why people would have fled from drought to lands that would have been even more badly affected.

And what of the rest of Mesoamerica? As the flight continues north, look west, at the hills of what are now the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Guerrero. Here are the quarrelsome city-states of the Nudzahui (Mixtec), finally overwhelming the Zapotec, their ancient rivals based in the valley city of Monte Alban. Further north, expanding their empire in a hot-brained hurry, are the Toltec, sweeping in every direction from the mile-high basin that today houses Mexico City. As is often the case, the Toltec’s rapid military success led to political strife. A Shakespearean struggle at the top, complete with accusations of drunkenness and incest, forced out the long-ruling king, Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, in (probably) 987AD. He fled with boatloads of loyalists to the Yucatan Peninsula, promising to return. By the time of our plane trip, Quetzalcoatl had apparently conquered the Mayan city of Chichen Itza and was rebuilding it in his own Toltec image. (Prominent archeologists disagree with eachother about these events, but the murals and embossed plates at Chichen Itza that depict a Toltec army bloodily destroying a Maya force are hard to dismiss.)

Continue the flight to what is now the U.S. Southwest, past desert farms and cliff dwellings, to the Mississippian societies in the Midwest. Not long ago archeologists with new techniques unraveled the tragedy of Cahokia, near modern St. Louis, which was once the greatest population center north of the Rio Grande. Construction began around 1000AD on an earthen structure that would eventually cover fifteen acres and rise to a height of about a hundred feet, higher than anything around it for miles. Atop the mound was the temple for the divine kings, who arranged for the weather to favor agriculture. As if to lend them support, fields of maize rippled out from the mound almost as far as the eye could see. Despite this apparent evidence of their power, Cahokia’s rulers were setting themselves up for future trouble. By mining the forests upstream for firewood and floating the logs down to the city, they were removing ground cover and increasing the likelihood of catastrophic floods. When these came, as they later did, kings who gained their legitimacy from their claims to control the weather would face angry questioning from their subjects.

Continue north, to the least settled land, the realm of hunters and gatherers. Portrayed in countless U.S. history books and Hollywood westerns, the Indians of the Great Plains are the most familiar to non-scholars. Demographically speaking, they lived in the hinterlands, remote and thinly settled; their lives were as far from Wari and Toltec lords as the nomads of Siberia were from the grandees of Beiling. Their material cultures were simpler, too – no writing, no stone plazas, no massive temples – though Plains groups did leave behind about fifty rings of rock that are reminiscent of Stonehenge. The relative lack of material goods has led some to regard these groups as exemplifying an ethic of living lightly on the land. Perhaps, but North America was a busy, talkative place. By 1000AD trade relationships had covered the continent for more than a thousand years. Mother of pearl from the Gulf of Mexico has been found in Manitoba and Lake Superior copper in Louisiana.

It serves the mythology that Columbus and the later European settlers arrived to a land that was mostly empty, or filled with low-tech savages. When I was growing up, I was skeeved out by stories of the Maya cutting out people’s hearts, but it didn’t take me long to realize that wasn’t much different from the christians setting people on fire over details of doctrine, or invading the Middle East, or eating god-canapes of transubstantiated divinity.

This is a good book to have in the back of your mind, in case you ever encounter someone who has swallowed the cultural mythology that the Americas were thinly-populated wastelands full of savages. In fact, it sounds, to me, like it was savages all the way down. Mann does a good job of framing the discussion in that direction:

This variant of Holmberg’s mistake dates back to the Pilgrims themselves, who ascribed the lack of effective native resistance to the will of God. “Divine providence,” the colonist Daniel Gookin wrote, favored “the quiet and peaceable settlement of the English.” Later writers tended to attribute European success not to European deities but to European technology. In a contest where only one side had rifles and cannons, historians said, the other side’s motives were irrelevant. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Indians of the Northeast were thought of as rapidly fading background details in the saga of the United States – “Marginal people who were losers in the end,” as James Axtell of the College of William and Mary dryly put it in an interview. Vietnam War-era denunciations of the Pilgrims as imperialist or racist simply replicated the error in a new form. Whether the cause was the Pilgrim god, Pilgrim guns, or Pilgrim greed, native losses were foreordained; Indians could not have stopped colonization, in this view, and they hardly tried.

Mann’s view of the Indians’ reactions to the European invasion makes more sense – he explains that they were intelligent, rational people who had significant politics. They attempted to use the Europeans, and the Europeans to use them, and the end result was that “divide, and rule” coupled with technology (which was carefully controlled) won out. As someone who grew up indoctrinated with the myth of the dumb savage, I find myself cringing at the description of Indians who were content to trade for beads and glass – of course they were – but much as part of a process of opening trade with an aim toward getting military technology. They were not dumb savages at all. In fact the Indians viewed them as ignorant savages who were ugly, dressed badly for the climate, and smelled terrible.

I found the second book by Mann to be equally interesting; he frames out the effect of American diseases on the European settlers, and why malaria had such an influence on the rise of slavery: black slaves from Africa could survive malaria better than the European settlers, who died in huge numbers. The Africans’ good luck was their bad luck.

The obvious thing to do is to read both books back-to-back. Mann’s writing is fluid and light, it’s very readable.

------ divider ------

Obviously, this posting is timed for Columbus day. I don’t think there’s much worth saying about that other than “why do people still celebrate Columbus day?”

BTW, I know that some of the names like Yucatan and Chichen Itza are supposed to have various accents on them. Unfortunately, the WordPress instance FTB is running has a Latin/UTF-8 encoding configuration problem that I can’t fix (and am not included to understand) so – sometimes accents get turned into weird garbage and I leave them out.

Comments

  1. kestrel says

    Very timely book reviews.This is a holiday I ignore, because yeah, not much to celebrate. The books sound fascinating, I’ll try and find them to read them.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Both excellent books, yet both introductory summaries begging for more detailed exploration.

    … thinly-populated wastelands …

    Which a generation or so before had been moderately well-populated agroforestry domains. Mann – and his numerous sources – argue that European diseases, traveling farther and faster than any individual, devastated perhaps 90% of American numbers long before they had a chance to see a pale face, leaving a shattered and disorganized remnant to face the muskets and steel.

    Of particular modern relevance: the hypothesis that, as the woods reclaimed huge swaths of previously cultivated areas, they absorbed enough carbon from the atmosphere to induce the “Little Ice Age” of the early modern era. Herein lies the one error I found in 1491, since that “Little Ice Age” began (at least in northern Europe) decades before the birth of Columbus – but a bit of thought reminded me that the demographic effects of the Black Death across Eurasia (and its unknown but nonzero impact on Africa) obviously had the same results in the “Old World”.

  3. lumipuna says

    I thought the main driver for Atlantic slave trade was chronic lack of workforce in plantation colonies. That would be because the local native populations (which were initially more or less enslaved) were constantly decimated by Old World diseases and thus couldn’t cultivate all the fertile land their ancestors had cleared. In addition, not many Europeans, even poor ones, were willing the settle across the pond until 18th/19th century.

    I can see how Africans were favored as slaves over Europeans because of their better disease resistance – and also because enslaving white people was becoming unfashionable by colonial times.

  4. says

    Don’t underestimate the effects of disease, especially the virgin field epidemics. People who were recovering would die from lack of food and water becaue everyone else was sick.
    Cortez won in the end because of an epidemic.

  5. says

    lumipuna@#3:
    I thought the main driver for Atlantic slave trade was chronic lack of workforce in plantation colonies. That would be because the local native populations (which were initially more or less enslaved) were constantly decimated by Old World diseases and thus couldn’t cultivate all the fertile land their ancestors had cleared. In addition, not many Europeans, even poor ones, were willing the settle across the pond until 18th/19th century.

    With all these things, it’s complicated. There was a chronic lack of workforce because, in part, going to the colonies was a form of banishment and after the first flush of colonists absorbed the people who wanted to move then disease killed a tremendous number of them. So, there were multiple downward pressures on colonial population, which combined served to make slavery seem like a better idea. Disease resistance was definitely a part; but it was all connected around – as you say – chronic lack of workforce.

  6. says

    robertbaden@#4:
    Don’t underestimate the effects of disease, especially the virgin field epidemics. People who were recovering would die from lack of food and water becaue everyone else was sick.
    Cortez won in the end because of an epidemic.

    Yes, it cut both ways – the colonists were devastated by things they had no resistance to, and they brought things that the inhabitants had no resistance too. In a sense it was accidentally asymmetrical warfare.

  7. lumipuna says

    the hypothesis that, as the woods reclaimed huge swaths of previously cultivated areas

    I’ve seen someone (sorry, no citation) suggest that this also happened in tropical Africa during the heyday of Atlantic slave trade. There was so much demand for slaves that people increasingly worked as warriors, raiding slaves and trying to protect their families from other raiders. Other economic activities, like farming, were suppressed by constant slave raids, and population declined much more than the number of exported slaves would suggest.

  8. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#2:
    Of particular modern relevance: the hypothesis that, as the woods reclaimed huge swaths of previously cultivated areas, they absorbed enough carbon from the atmosphere to induce the “Little Ice Age” of the early modern era. Herein lies the one error I found in 1491, since that “Little Ice Age” began (at least in northern Europe) decades before the birth of Columbus – but a bit of thought reminded me that the demographic effects of the Black Death across Eurasia (and its unknown but nonzero impact on Africa) obviously had the same results in the “Old World”.

    Mann also notes that the reason the northeast coast was not built up and populated was because it had been under a mile of ice until “relatively” recently.

    In a related cheerful note: scientists are beginning to worry that temperature change could affect CO2 retention by soil bacteria, with the potential for releasing as much greenhouse gas as we’ve already released. [nature]

  9. Owlmirror says

    Yucatán=Yucatán
    Chichén Itzá=Chichén Itzá

    Niño = Niño

    HTML entities

    (“mega-Niño” was confusing at first; I would have suggested “large El Niño event” — although, actually, what does “large” mean? Wouldn’t “prolonged” be more accurate?)

  10. says

    Owlmirror@#10:
    Yucatán=Yucatán
    Chichén Itzá=Chichén Itzá
    Niño = Niño

    Yes, WordPress is loathsome and using letter encodings was a bad idea back when it was SGML… (BTW, it has caused huge security problems, since “what you see is what you get” ought to apply to URLs, transaction amounts, etc. But it doesn’t always.)
    Naturally, when I quoted your comment it repeated the encoding. Damme I loathe me this shittio.

    (“mega-Niño” was confusing at first; I would have suggested “large El Niño event” — although, actually, what does “large” mean? Wouldn’t “prolonged” be more accurate?)

    I agree. I was surprised he didn’t just stick with something like “prolonged drought” but that’s writing. If I wrote half as well as Mann, I’d be a writer!

  11. springa73 says

    1491 and 1493 are indeed very good books. I don’t think that anyone today who is reasonably well-educated about the colonial Americas can seriously argue that Europeans had superior genes or intelligence. Stronger immune systems, probably, but that applied to most of the inhabitants of the “old world”. One reason was probably that many diseases that afflicted Eurasia and Africa were originally diseases of domesticated animals such as sheep and cattle, which transferred to humans. Native Americans had some domesticated animals, like dogs, turkeys, and llamas, but fewer than the people of the old world, thus fewer diseases picked up from animals. In addition, some other old world diseases such as malaria, which did not come from domesticated animals, never made it to the Americas with the early waves of human migration because the earliest immigrants came from cold climates where these diseases could not survive. It was only when European ships opened direct contact between the warmer zones of “old” and “new” worlds that these diseases could spread.

    For thousands of years the people in the Americas were on the whole healthier and afflicted with fewer diseases than those of Africa or Eurasia. Tragically, this blessing turned into a curse when they were hit with diseases from those continents that they had no resistance to.

  12. says

    I wasn’t aware that there really are any reasonably educated people who believe that Americas were thinly-populated wastelands full of savages. That would be akin to believing that Earth is flat. Claiming that there weren’t any advanced civilizations in America leaves you with the impossible task of explaining how low-tech savages could have built giant pyramids.

    By the way, I learned about Native American cultures in my school history lessons. I don’t remember whether my history teacher used the word “genocide” when talking about what was done with Native Americans, but the colonization process was portrayed as exactly that. Nobody claimed that Columbus discovered America either; after all ancestors of Native Americans did that long before Vikings who did that long before Columbus. Apparently this particular indoctrination is absent outside of American schools.

    they weren’t ‘civilized’ and therefore didn’t count

    I don’t think people should feel guilty about their ancestors’ crimes. Firstly, nobody chooses their parents/ancestors. Secondly, that was a different time and people had different beliefs that justified these actions.

    Trying to excuse your ancestors’ crimes by saying that “people who aren’t ‘civilised’ didn’t count” is a totally different matter. An illiterate hunter gatherer is a human being, he has human rights. Murders or land grabs aren’t any less atrocious just because the victim was illiterate. Any human being who in 21st century claims that it is OK to abuse “savages” clearly shows that there is something very wrong with him.

    Bottom line: there is no point diminishing Native American culture or civilization in order to feel better about your ancestors. It’s irrelevant whether they murdered civilized people or savages — a murder (or a land grab) is just as atrocious in either situation.

  13. says

    Ieva Skrebele@#13:
    I wasn’t aware that there really are any reasonably educated people who believe that Americas were thinly-populated wastelands full of savages.

    All I suggest, is:
    A man hears what he wants to hear,
    and disregards the rest,
    la la la la la la la

  14. says

    Ieva Skrebele@#13:
    I don’t think people should feel guilty about their ancestors’ crimes. Firstly, nobody chooses their parents/ancestors. Secondly, that was a different time and people had different beliefs that justified these actions.

    We take advantage of the downstream consequences of those actions; to that degree we are complicit.

    I don’t like the “different times, different morals” argument because it collapses down to nihilism: “shit happened” therefore “shit happens” – if I’m going to be a nihilist I prefer to be overt about it. Yes, it is what it is. But when we argue that that’s all it is, we are also saying that there are no value systems that can be had other than “shit happens” I know that’s true but I’m uncomfortable with it.

  15. says

    We take advantage of the downstream consequences of those actions; to that degree we are complicit.

    I agree.

    I don’t like the “different times, different morals” argument because it collapses down to nihilism: “shit happened” therefore “shit happens” – if I’m going to be a nihilist I prefer to be overt about it. Yes, it is what it is. But when we argue that that’s all it is, we are also saying that there are no value systems that can be had other than “shit happens” I know that’s true but I’m uncomfortable with it.

    This is not what I meant with it was a different time and people had different beliefs that justified these actions. It took human philosophers millennia to figure out that there is anything wrong with slavery, racism and murdering people who happen to have darker skin. Nowadays we take it for granted that these things are bad, because we grow up in an environment where we are told so.

    Contrast this with a person who was born several hundred years ago in a world where everybody around him were racist, misogynistic murderers. I do not believe that I can blame this human being for accepting this worldview. It’s not that simple to singlehandedly invent human rights while simultaneously living in a world where they just don’t exist. This is why on a personal level I never blame a racist individual who lived in the past.

    This is consistent with my general view that human behavior is largely the result of nurture and local customs. Nowadays we can observe this with people who are born in impoverished places where joining the local street gang is the only option. Thus I don’t always hold people fully responsible for crimes they commit. I cannot blame an individual human being without looking in context at the kind of society that raised this person.

    Simultaneously I do not think that there are no value systems. I consider murder, land grabs, racism, and any other forms of discrimination as wrong. I think that the genocide against Native Americans was wrong. It was evil. It’s just that I do not blame those individual human beings who committed these evil acts, because at that time they didn’t know any better. Incidentally, I would blame a modern human who is exposed to the idea that racism is bad, but still decides to be a racist and behave as one.

  16. says

    People can often see something is bad when it is done to them. Didn’t we have armed conflicts with the Barbary pirates for making slaves of our sailors at the same time we bought and sold slaves?

  17. says

    @#17

    Of course people can figure out that certain things are bad. If we couldn’t, we would never have invented the concept of human rights.

    Unfortunately, it usually takes specific circumstances (for example, being the victim, or at least being in close proximity to the victims to actually witness their suffering).

    And then there are also specific circumstances, which hinder people from figuring that that some actions are bad. Religion is the main example here (“God wants you to mistreat infidels”, “pope said so and pope is always right”, “God wants women to obey and serve men”). In 19th century “science” did the same (“scientists” arguing that people of color are a different species and inherently worth less). In 20th century we had political propaganda, which served the same role. And then there’s also the human tendency to treat those perceived as “others” differently (murder of a member of your tribe is perceived differently than murder of an outsider).

  18. Owlmirror says

    @Marcus Ranum:

    Yes, WordPress is loathsome and using letter encodings was a bad idea back when it was SGML… (BTW, it has caused huge security problems, since “what you see is what you get” ought to apply to URLs, transaction amounts, etc. But it doesn’t always.)

    I really don’t understand this response.

    What I meant by what I wrote — what I thought was implicitly clear, but I guess not — was:

    If you are having problems with character encodings, it is possible to get accented characters to display in HTML using only ASCII characters. HTML entities are ASCII strings delimited by ampersands and semicolons, and the browser understands how to render those strings so that the accented character appears, regardless of the code page/text encoding/whatever.

    Ampersand itself is encoded by the string &
    The character “Latin small letter a with acute [accent]” is encoded by á
    The character “Latin small letter e with acute [accent]” is encoded by é
    The page I linked to with HTML Entities has more.

    If you had changed the “&” to “&” when you copied and pasted what I wrote, it would have appeared as I had written it. Alternatively, if you use Firefox, the option “View Selection Source” show the underlying HTML, and you could have copied and pasted that.

    I think that when you copied and pasted the displayed accented characters, those are actually UTF-8 characters (since the code page here is apparently Unicode). But I wouldn’t swear to that.

    (“mega-Niño” was confusing at first; I would have suggested “large El Niño event” — although, actually, what does “large” mean? Wouldn’t “prolonged” be more accurate?)
     
    I agree. I was surprised he didn’t just stick with something like “prolonged drought” but that’s writing.

    But he already had written about the drought; he brought up El Niño as the possible cause of the drought.

    Checking Google Scholar, it looks like the term of art is “El Niño/Southern Oscillation” (ENSO).

    And it looks like the one who proposed the scenario in question, Betty Meggers, used the phrase “mega-Niño” in the title. So I guess it made sense for Mann to use the phrase himself.

    But it also looks like most meteorologists don’t use that term, unless they’re referring to the Meggers paper. So . . . I dunno?

  19. oualawouzou says

    I wasn’t aware that there really are any reasonably educated people who believe that Americas were thinly-populated wastelands full of savages. That would be akin to believing that Earth is flat. Claiming that there weren’t any advanced civilizations in America leaves you with the impossible task of explaining how low-tech savages could have built giant pyramids.

    And then you have the other extreme, like my aunt who says my sister (adopted from Guatemala) is “special” because “these people have powers”…

  20. lumipuna says

    On the systemic erasure of American Indian history in US:

    I was aware long ago that exotization and appropriation of American Indian cultures is a problem. As unfortunate it is, I could intuitively see how my fellow white people find it attractive. Frankly I should be surprised it’s not more common.

    More recently, reading Affinity (among other things) informed me about how white people in US are often rather ignorant about Indian history and even more so about modern Indians – and if not ignorant, they’re often hatefully racist towards Indians. It seems incomprehensible to me as a European – but then I can’t comprehend the effect the long historical land conflict had on white colonial culture, and even less the effect it must have had on Indian cultures.

  21. says

    lumipuna@#21:
    More recently, reading Affinity (among other things) informed me about how white people in US are often rather ignorant about Indian history and even more so about modern Indians – and if not ignorant, they’re often hatefully racist towards Indians. It seems incomprehensible to me as a European – but then I can’t comprehend the effect the long historical land conflict had on white colonial culture, and even less the effect it must have had on Indian cultures.

    I don’t know where the whole kids game “cowboys and indians” comes from but when I was a kid, there were kids that play-acted at genocidal slaughter. It made sense that they did: there were many movies and TV shows that featured shooting ignorant-sounding steretypical pop-up target Native Americans. Some of those were covertly racist, others were less so.

    For example:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XChIBk_MBsk
    casually 0:30 in it says “… fighting Indians and outlaws.” Well, why are they fighting Indians?
    @19:40 Oh, arrows found in cattle. Must be Indians. Etc. There’s conflict…
    @38:59 Oh looky let’s lynch the guy who’s not white…
    I don’t want to watch it, I’m just flipping through the thumbnails and it ends with Indians and cowboys shooting at eachother. Ho, ho, ho.
    What’s scary is that I just popped in a youtube search for “cowboys and indians” and that came right up.

    There’s a trope that crops up a lot in those movies: bad guy white landowner or corrupt official wants to make it look like Indians are causing trouble, to get them slaughtered, or as a way of slaughtering someone and they get blamed. There is conflict, sometimes it gets resolved without the Indians all dying but there is always a lot of blustering and threat-making and the Indians are portrayed as tough/mean/intransigent savages – they may as well be orcs, zombies, or red-shirts; they’re a plot-device or a pop-up target.

    The covert ones were guys like Asa Earle Carter, who wrote The Outlaw Josey Wales and was a Klansman and the speechwriter who wrote Wallace’s “Segregation forever” speech. Josey Wales features a few racist tropes about Indians but is mostly building the “lost cause” myth of southern heroism. It’s especially egregious because the union soldiers are portrayed as corrupt and dishonest, raiding and killing at random (OK, some did that) but the southerners are mostly the good guys… [npr] I have been meaning to do a posting on Carter someday.

  22. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    We take advantage of the downstream consequences of those actions; to that degree we are complicit.

    For reference, my moral solution is easy: I reject absolute inheritance rights. My ancestors store the land of someone else’s ancestors, but because I reject this naive, libertarian wet-dream notion of inheritance rights, I don’t see a moral problem. It used to be stolen land, but then the owners died, and all of their immediate relatives and neighbors died, and thereafter there was no owner to whom to return the stolen land, rendering the issue moot.

    I’m part Cherokee. I think it’s ridiculous to suggest that I have a better ownership stake to a random plot of land in Detroit compared to any person with pure European ancestry, or pure African ancestry, etc.

  23. says

    EnlightenmentLiberal@#23:
    For reference, my moral solution is easy: I reject absolute inheritance rights. My ancestors store the land of someone else’s ancestors, but because I reject this naive, libertarian wet-dream notion of inheritance rights, I don’t see a moral problem. It used to be stolen land, but then the owners died, and all of their immediate relatives and neighbors died, and thereafter there was no owner to whom to return the stolen land, rendering the issue moot.

    I sort of agree, but only when there’s no other transfer of wealth or power substituted for the inheritance – which is something I don’t recall any society attempting to establish, ever.

    I’m tempted to go out on a limb and assert that inheritable wealth or power are diametrically opposed to equality; they are the ur-mechanism of fostering inequality. That seems to argue that an equal or fair society would require everyone to start at zero, or with a “kick start” provided by the state.

  24. says

    I’m tempted to go out on a limb and assert that inheritable wealth or power are diametrically opposed to equality; they are the ur-mechanism of fostering inequality.

    I agree.

    When it comes to principles I’d say that inheritance is a bad thing. It increases and perpetuates inequality.

    Unfortunately, there are all those pesky practicalities, which ensure that a world without inheritance is impossible. If we made a law that gets rid of inheritance, it would disproportionately target the poor (who are already worse off). The rich would simply find some loophole how to transfer their wealth to their offspring. For example, a rich father who owns a company while being still alive could simply hire his adult son and give him a ridiculously huge salary while claiming that this isn’t inheritance, this is salary.

  25. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    I’m tempted to go out on a limb and assert that inheritable wealth or power are diametrically opposed to equality; they are the ur-mechanism of fostering inequality. That seems to argue that an equal or fair society would require everyone to start at zero, or with a “kick start” provided by the state.

    Yep. I’m totally on board.

    I also wish that the US founders followed up on their rhetoric. IIRC, it was Jefferson that actually proposed something like this, in a private letter. The US founders did pass laws in every state to forbid passing along the whole estate to the single eldest male child, as was tradition, and required that the estate should be split among all (male?) children, for precisely this reason. They went some distance, but not very far.

    They also quoted Adam Smith, who actually wrote that inheritance of property is bullshit (paraphrase).

    I want a progressive inheritance tax, around 99% for the top 1000 estates, and becomes 0% tax rate around the top 90% percentile of estate wealth, or maybe around 0% tax rate around the top 95% percentile of estate wealth. Of course, these numbers may need to be higher. They need to be tweaked to actually fix the problem, and the problem is not “not enough taxes”; the problem is “too much inequality in wealth leads to power differences leads to an unstable representative democratic republic”.

  26. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Unfortunately, there are all those pesky practicalities, which ensure that a world without inheritance is impossible. If we made a law that gets rid of inheritance, it would disproportionately target the poor (who are already worse off). The rich would simply find some loophole how to transfer their wealth to their offspring. For example, a rich father who owns a company while being still alive could simply hire his adult son and give him a ridiculously huge salary while claiming that this isn’t inheritance, this is salary.

    IMHO, such loopholes can be closed, as least to the extent that income tax loopholes can be closed. IMHO, the solution there is also heavy progressive income taxes, and so if the father tries to pass his inheritance to his child via salary, that will also be taxed at an extremely high rate.

    I also want heavy progressive asset taxes. “Asset” includes typical property, but also less typical property, such as stocks and bonds. Again, with a cutoff so that it doesn’t affect anyone but the top 10% or 5%.

  27. says

    I want a progressive inheritance tax, around 99% for the top 1000 estates, and becomes 0% tax rate around the top 90% percentile of estate wealth, or maybe around 0% tax rate around the top 95% percentile of estate wealth. Of course, these numbers may need to be higher. They need to be tweaked to actually fix the problem, and the problem is not “not enough taxes”; the problem is “too much inequality in wealth leads to power differences leads to an unstable representative democratic republic”.

    If you let the 1% keep 1% of their vast wealth you will still wind up with inequality. A billionaire’s kid would start life as a millionaire.

    I have intended to do a blue sky posting on how I’d want to see this sort of thing structured, but, like my proposal on guns, I know it’s just blowing smoke-rings.

    I had a funny conversation once with a “conservative” who started trotting out tropes like “I don’t want to help some poor woman who has 5 kids from 5 different fathers, who’s just farming kids to live on welfare” (i.e.” a shocking asshole) and I asked him why not. Naturally, he walked into the trap and said that she hadn’t done anything to earn his money. I asked him what his kids had done to earn his money, and he walked off.

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