Editors’ Note: Mark T. Mitchell’s essay is the first in our series, Reimagining Wealth. This series critically examines modern notions about wealth, the cross-generational practices surrounding wealth and property, and the interplay between wealth and family formation. Professor Mitchell’s Long Read essay considers how a stewardship model of property ownership can help us recall our responsibility to provide and care for future generations with our wealth. Later this week, we will have essays from Patrick T. Brown, Clara Piano, Jeff Polet, and Elayne Allen.
On Monday, December 12 at 12:00pm ET, we will have a webinar discussion via Zoom with all the authors. Register here.
At first glance, intergenerational wealth might seem like a narrowly confined topic. Some people (usually rich ones) pass their wealth to their trust fund babies. The rest of us struggle to get by and hope our kids can find their own way once they turn eighteen.
But this framing overlooks crucial historical and cultural context. For much of our history, wealth was transferred across generations via productive land. People also viewed at least some of their material goods as things to be shared with future generations. Hard-working Americans depended on inheritances. For a variety of reasons, we have moved away from thinking of property in terms of inheritance and transmission. We are mired in presentism focused almost entirely on consumption, losing sight of civic duty and familial responsibility. How can we begin to revive a tradition of intergenerational wealth and recover the virtues associated with it?
However, the issue of intergenerational wealth will never be adequately addressed until we consider fundamental preconditions that must be in place first. These preconditions are cultural and spiritual and serve to remind us that economics is never merely about economics. Effective economic principles and policies thus depend on pre-economic considerations.
In this essay, I will argue that an effective and sustainable approach to fostering intergenerational wealth entails two complex but necessary elements: an ethic of stewardship and a culture of property ownership. Without these, intergenerational wealth is an unattainable dream, but cultivating both is neither simple or automatic. And when these ideals are lost or diminishing, as they are today, regaining them will require concerted attention, dedicated effort, and wise public policies.
Perhaps it goes without saying that intergenerational wealth requires generations. The issue is not simply the acquisition of wealth but rather the act of passing wealth from one generation to the next. This suggests that family formation is an essential part of the equation. But at one level this is counterintuitive. Rearing children requires significant resources. Resource depletion, it would seem, undermines the possibility of handing anything to the next generation. But in fact personal wealth typically increases in the wake of family formation: men who marry earn significantly more than those who do not. This crucial step sets the stage for intergenerational wealth transfer.
The breakdown of the family is a serious impediment to any adequate account of intergenerational wealth. When adults choose to forgo having children they, in effect, exempt themselves from direct responsibility for future generations. They can, of course, cultivate a general sense of hopeful goodwill toward the future; however, they lack the very real connection, rooted in biological reality and emotional intimacy, to concrete persons of future generations. At the same time, out-of-wedlock births to single mothers create disadvantages for children that extend to adulthood and are a primary contributor to intergenerational poverty. The social science is clear: intact two-parent homes are a necessary condition for fostering intergenerational wealth.
Thus, family formation is key. Yet even then, there is no guarantee that parents will act with sufficient concern for the future of their children. And even if they have sufficient concern, political and economic impediments may preclude effective intergenerational wealth transfers. Tocqueville observed that in a democratic age, characterized by equality of conditions, people tend to become preoccupied with the present. Restive and anxious activity combined with an obsession over material well-being leads to narrower temporal horizons. People, Tocqueville writes, lose sight of their ancestors and at the same time can no longer see their descendants. The immediate present takes on a distorted priority, and the future becomes increasingly dim and irrelevant. John Maynard Keynes aptly expressed this sentiment: “in the long run we’re all dead.” Of course, this is true, but at the same time it reveals a stunning lack of concern for future generations that are, alas, not dead yet.
How, then, can temporal horizons be expanded? How is it possible to induce a sense of obligation to future generations? The great conservative Edmund Burke anticipated this casual disregard for the future, and offered a possible remedy: “people will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.”
Burke seems to be suggesting that knowledge of one’s ancestors will, among other things, help one realize the deep and abiding gifts that one has inherited from persons long dead, many of whom have long since disappeared from memory. A sense of gratitude will give rise to responsible action. This responsibility entails caring for one’s inheritance and, in due time, passing the gift on to the next generation. When one comes to see oneself not simply as an individual with individual concerns, desires, and resources, but rather as part of an ongoing line of reception, care, and transmission of goods—cultural goods, institutions, and property in the form of wealth—one will be disposed to think seriously and act wisely to preserve, generate, and transmit wealth to one’s children, to their children, and beyond.
The word that describes this complex dance of grateful reception, careful cultivation, and responsible transmission is stewardship. Regarding ourselves as stewards rather than “absolute owners” dramatically shifts the way we think about ownership. The basic contours of the latter are pretty obvious: my claims are absolute. What I possess is mine without qualification. I can do with my property whatever I choose. The horizon of my concerns extends no further than the horizon of my own life or the duration of my desires. Property, then, is seen primarily as a means by which I am satisfied. My concern for it, therefore, is limited to the span of my life or the perceived range of my needs. In this sense, private property is reduced to disposable terms: I will use my property for my own pleasure and, ideally, my life and my property will be used up at the same time because not to use up my property in my own life is a waste of potential pleasure.
There is, as I have suggested, a better way to think about property. What if all that we possess is held in trust? What if we are better conceived as stewards rather than absolute owners? What if ownership, properly conceived, calls forth a sense of responsibility that extends beyond our own desires and even beyond our own lives? Conceiving property in terms of stewardship provides a remarkably rich alternative to the prevailing view of ownership.
This alternative view of ownership can even find some justification in the work of John Locke, who is often associated with a doctrine of absolute ownership. Locke argues against suicide because we are God’s workmanship and therefore He owns us. To destroy ourselves would be to destroy property belonging to another. Of course, as Locke continues to develop his account of property, the ownership of God grows much dimmer and the exclusive right to own and dispose of property becomes more firmly rooted in the individual. However, his initial impulse to ground the limits of ownership in a theological claim is a residual idea from Christian history.
Thomas Aquinas, for his part, argues that God is the owner of all property, and humans exercise ownership as a trust. We care for property as a way of tending creation, which is a basic task to which all humans are called. Aquinas argued that things are better cared for when particular individuals are responsible for them. Private property, in other words, helps to preserve property.
The so-called tragedy of the commons is rooted in a profound insight into human nature: we care for things more attentively and effectively when we have exclusive right to them. But when property is held “in common,” the all too human tendency is to treat it with less care (someone else will do it) or to seek to extract wealth from it before someone else does (first come, first served). In both instances the long-term health of the property is jeopardized by short-term thinking. Exclusive right to a piece of property provides a more effective means to ensure that the long-term health of the property is preserved and even enhanced.
If property is held in trust, the vital key at the center of this idea seems to be responsibility to God rather than the absolute freedom to do with the property whatever I desire. If property and freedom are intimately linked (and historical experience suggests they are), this would suggest that freedom and responsibility are intimately linked as well. This represents, at the very least, a far more complex notion of freedom than one rooted only in private desire.
When my temporal horizons are extended beyond my own life, when I come to assume responsibility for individuals not yet born, I will come to think of my property as something for which I am obligated to care rather than something I am free to use up or destroy. This view of property also suggests a crucial way to cultivate middle-class virtues. Responsibility, self-control, planning for the future, and thrift emerge as necessary qualities if we are attentive to the needs of future persons, most of whom we will never live to meet. My decisions and actions must be characterized by a sober attention to the future rather than exclusive attention to my present enjoyment.
Ultimately, stewardship provides us with an approach to ownership that avoids the extreme of absolute ownership (resulting in possessive individualism or careless consumption) on the one hand and communal ownership (resulting in the tragedy of the commons) on the other. Both extremes undermine the sense of responsibility that is so necessary for the long-term care of property.
Stewardship leads us to see the world as a gift to be cared for responsibly with an eye to the future. When we come to think of all that we possess as a gift, our view of the world is radically transformed: all that we possess calls forth a disposition of gratitude. The material things we are called to steward—even those things we earn by the sweat of our brows or the cleverness of our minds—take on a different appearance. We own material things so that we can provide for ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and our descendants. We care for these material things knowing that we have been tasked with the responsibility of using them in a way that benefits others. Wanton disposability grates hard against this way of seeing material possessions. When we come to see our possessions as gifts held in trust, we are naturally oriented to think in terms of preservation of things that can be preserved and careful use of things that cannot. Responsibility, self-control, recognition of limits, and thrift come to characterize our approach to possessions. In other words, thinking of ownership in terms of stewardship calls forth a constellation of virtues that are essential for the cultivation of intergenerational wealth—and for good citizenship more generally.
However, an ethic of stewardship is not sufficient for creating a culture of intergenerational wealth. Property is also essential. One component of this story is how the language of wealth has eclipsed the language of property. This shift has consequences, for wealth and property are not identical. In an older idiom, property—which is to say, capital—is significantly different from the spending power that comes through wages. In terms developed by Marx, the bourgeoisie is a class characterized by the ownership of capital. The proletariat is bereft of capital and works exclusively for wages. Wages have an exchange value, but apart from exchange, they are inert.
By contrast, real, tangible property has a use value as well as an exchange value. A table, a bicycle, or an electric mixer can all be sold in the marketplace. But their value can also be realized apart from exchange. They can be put to practical use in a way that a dollar bill cannot. Some kinds of property also have production value. I can work my land and produce food for myself and my family; with my tools I can build a chair to rest in or a house to live in; I can also create marketable items and sell them for profit or trade them for goods I need or desire. Property characterized by production value is the form of property best suited to independence, for it provides the owner with broader effective control than property suited merely to exchange or to use. The proletarian is bereft of productive property and therefore his options are constricted, for all his decisions must be made in terms of exchange. He lacks effective control over a piece of property, and as a result the scope of his freedom is narrower than the freedom of the owner of productive property.
An economy consisting primarily of citizens who lack productive property fosters a culture of presentism, which generates both insecurity and instability. Such people often find themselves living paycheck to paycheck out of necessity when wages are low, or out of habit when surplus wages are seen as a means to indulge the appetites. Living close to the margin, whether by necessity or by carelessness, fosters insecurity. When the threat of unemployment looms during times of local or national crisis, the insecurity becomes acute. Workers without capital—that is, workers who think of themselves primarily as earners and consumers rather than owners and stewards—will be easily seduced by promises of state-based aid. The longing for the security that property ownership can offer is readily replaced by the security promised by the state. Only the former can foster the formation of intergenerational wealth.
It should be obvious at this point that proletarianization necessarily undermines the formation of intergenerational wealth. Citizens who think of themselves as owners and stewards see the world in fundamentally different terms than do citizens who think of themselves simply as earners and consumers. This difference is not primarily determined by whether someone is rich or poor. Rather, it is a different way of seeing the world and one’s place in it. When Tocqueville visited America in 1831, he was impressed by the fact that virtually all Americans were owners or aspired to be owners. “In America,” Tocqueville wrote, “there are no proletarians.” Much has changed. The formation of intergenerational wealth—in actuality intergenerational property—has in many quarters been replaced by a dependence on the largesse of the state. This shift should alert us to the fact that the diminution of intergenerational wealth will quite naturally, in a developed country, give rise to an ever-expanding welfare state. The latter naturally replaces the former and purports to solve the same problems. But that is merely an illusion, for intergenerational wealth provides insulation against insecurity whereas the welfare state depends on insecurity for its health.
Thus, when security and stability are undermined, and when the independence afforded by the ownership of productive property is lost, the stage is set for the expansion of the welfare state. Swiss economist Wilhelm Röpke is unambiguous on this point: “Government-organized relief for the masses is simply the crutch of a society crippled by proletarianism, an expedient adapted to the economic and moral immaturity of the classes which emerged from the decomposition of the old social order.” According to Röpke, the welfare state can only be dispensed with “in the degree in which we may hope to overcome that inglorious period of proletarianization and rootlessness.” In other words, the decline of private property and the independence that such property affords creates proletarian citizens lacking in both security and stability. Such citizens, and their elected officials, are natural champions of the welfare state. The growth of the welfare system facilitates the steady growth of the state, for there is little incentive short of economic ruin (and sometimes that is even inadequate) to curtail its growth.
Reconceptualizing Productive Property
Of course, throughout most of human history the quintessential form of property has been land. However, to attempt to devise a political program around the idea that Americans should once again be land owners is clearly a non-starter. There is not enough land to accomplish this in any meaningful way. And furthermore, many Americans have no interest in owning land. This means that a revitalization of property (and therefore of intergenerational wealth) must, at the very least, involve reconceptualizing it to include forms of productive property other than land.
However, we must acknowledge the difficulty of our current situation. Shifting conceptions of property have important, though perhaps not obvious, social effects. For instance, when property was conceived primarily as productive land, owners could improve their property over time and in the process increase the value of their property and improve their economic situations. Productive land (at least on a modest scale suited to the personal attention of the owner) provides a constant, tangible reminder of the connection between property, work, and independence. Political liberty is an embodied extension of the principles required to live and work on one’s own land. Jefferson’s dictum about the yeoman farmer, though lacking nuance, did point to an important truth. Property and freedom go together. Owning productive property tends to cultivate careful owners who jealously guard their property and jealously guard their liberty. Property ownership helps to cultivate the virtues that make this possible.
Today property is no longer conceived primarily in terms of land. When we think of property, we tend to think in terms of abstract wealth and consumer goods—cash, stocks, and 401ks on the one hand, and cars, boats, and shoes on the other. Our wealth makes it possible to purchase a variety of labor-saving devices and toys—items whose purpose is to make our lives easier or to entertain us. Rather than thinking of property as something that must be improved over time through persistent hard work, we tend to think of property as something that can be immediately enjoyed, and when it falls into disrepair or no longer serves its purpose, we discard it and purchase a replacement. This way of thinking is exacerbated by the planned obsolescence built into many of our most coveted technologies. Long-term stewardship of the latest iPhone makes little sense when it will be useless in only a few short years. We cultivate the habit of using things up, disposing of them, and buying the latest shiny version. When we think of property primarily in terms of wealth and consumption, the careful owner readily becomes the careless consumer whose temporal horizons extend only as far as the immediate enjoyment provided by the toys we purchase (often on credit).
Today we continue to move further away from the ideal of broadly owned productive property. A society of insecure consumers is going to demand security and services. The state emerges as the only entity capable of offering the array of services demanded by bored and insecure consumers and offers up the full weight of its resources to meet the ever-expanding demands. The careless consumer is perfectly complemented by the caring state. Property, along with middle-class virtues such as responsibility, limits, restraint, and planning for the future, is replaced by an incessant demand for services with little concern for financial limits, personal restraint, or any thought for the future. In such a context, the formation and perpetuation of intergenerational property are unlikely, for the state has become the inadequate replacement.
A nation of propertied middle-class citizens is the best avenue to securing intergenerational wealth and moving away from careless consumerism. Intergenerational wealth only facilitates social stability and economic health when a critical mass of citizens enjoy its fruits and simultaneously feel the burden of transmitting wealth to their own descendants. Propertied middle-class citizens think in terms of ownership and responsibility to the future. They don’t have so much that they can take ownership for granted, but they also recognize the opportunity and responsibility to acquire wealth and care for it well. A nation of proletarianized citizens who don’t think in terms of the future and who don’t see avenues to becoming owners is a nation where broad-based intergenerational wealth will become increasingly elusive.
Revitalizing an Ethic of Stewardship
It is at this point that we return to the notion of stewardship. Productive property and the virtues fostered by property ownership are essential complements to a nation of free and responsible citizens who, among other things, think in terms of generations. But if a nation of yeoman farmers is no longer possible, we must reconceive property and responsibility in a way that meets the needs of our current situation. How can this be done? We must revitalize the ideal of the careful owner, and this can only be done when we come to think of ourselves as stewards. When we do so, our temporal horizons are pushed beyond the narrow confines of our immediate desires or even our individual lives. We will come to see our property (and this can include productive property, a home, the natural world, our institutions, our bodies, and even consumer goods) as held in trust.
We are responsible for caring for our property in a way that will improve it for those who come after us, for unlike absolute owners, stewards must always be mindful of future citizens who will one day, in their turn, assume stewardship of our property, institutions, and nation. The duty of stewardship calls forth virtues of personal responsibility, self-control, thrift, and concern for others including those not yet born. The effective ownership of private property calls forth the same array of virtues. Thus an ethic of stewardship and the ownership of property work in tandem to foster the virtues that a nation of self-governing citizens must possess if freedom is to flourish. These are the virtues that give rise to intergenerational wealth.
When we come to understand ourselves as stewards, several things come to light. First, land as the quintessential form of productive property becomes less essential. Stewardship applies to a wide array of goods: anything durable enough to persist in time can either be stewarded well or poorly. This include various forms of private property—including a house, a business, an automobile, or tools—but it also includes cultural gifts such as stories, songs, and celebrations. It includes institutions and practices that have been developed over time and passed from one generation to the next.
Second, an ethic of stewardship will tend to awaken the desire to own property. Stewards are caretakers. The natural condition of a caretaker is to possess something to care for. The desire to possess durable property is the natural corollary of individuals animated by an ethic of stewardship.
Third, stewards understand themselves as owing multiple debts of gratitude to past generations and, simultaneously, recognize a duty to future generations to steward well the gifts they have received. A steward is constituted by a complex and ongoing pattern of gratitude and obligation. In this respect, a steward’s life is framed primarily by a sense of duty rather than an incessant demand for an ever-expanding assortment of rights.
Finally, because stewards understand themselves as part of an ongoing process of care and transmission, they will see themselves as participants in a sweeping story rather than merely as atomistic blips without meaningful connection to either the past or the future. An ethic of stewardship, in other words, provides an important source of meaning—of belonging—for those who embrace it. This sense of meaning counters the impulses of the careless consumer and extends concern and responsibility beyond the narrow confines of the present.
Of course, property ownership per se does not necessarily demand an ethic of stewardship. Absolute ownership can induce an individual to think only in terms of extraction and desire. However, property ownership, when attended with a proper disposition, can call forth an ethic of stewardship. At the same time, an ethic of stewardship can cultivate a desire to acquire and care for private property. The two work in tandem: an ethic of stewardship induces a person to acquire and care for property, and the ownership of property helps to stimulate an ethic of stewardship. When both are present and healthy, the formation of intergenerational wealth—in the form of intergenerational property—will naturally emerge. If either or both are missing, the welfare state will naturally emerge as an inadequate substitute. A culture of broad-based intergenerational wealth, rooted in an ethic of stewardship and the reality of private property, stands as a stark alternative to the welfare state where the middle-class virtues are supplanted by proletarian dependence. The intergenerational health of a society is facilitated by the fact of intergenerational wealth, and this is made possible by well-stewarded property.
Image designs by Jared Eckert.