Should any contract be void if all of the parties to one side or another die? I think we can at least say "no" if parties on the other side are responsible for the death.
If I make a contract with a mortuary to bury me (preferably) after my death, should they be released from the agreement by my death? It seems like this principle would also do serious damage to life insurance. Isn't a life insurance policy a property right?
Companies and other organizations are sometimes bound by contracts that have only been agreed to by people that are now dead. Is that an argument for not allowing a company to be a party to a contract? Or do we say that a company is a legal person for that purpose, and so since that "person" persists, so should their contractual obligations? If so the issue of control by a dead philanthropist is trivially fixed by incorporation.
I hear the U.S. Constitution described as a social contract. Should it be relevant (as Lysander Spooner believed) that all of the signatories to that contract are dead? Or does democracy nullify the principle? If the last legislator who voted for a law dies, should it have any affect on the law?
With a philanthropy, maybe the solution is to simply transfer ownership to the trustees, who then have the power to amend their own charter as they wish, breaking any hold by a dead hand.
Thomas Jefferson, it should be noted, believed something very similar. In a letter to James Madison, having earlier in that letter recounted some (no doubt less systematically gathered than a modern reader would prefer) statistics and concluding from then that the mean remaining life expectancy of a randomly chosen adult was in the neighborhood of 19 years, and having made based on that arguments about the proper duration of validity of public debts argues thus:
“On similar ground it may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct. They are masters too of their own persons, and consequently may govern them as they please. But persons and property make the sum of the objects of government. The constitution and the laws of their predecessors extinguished then in their natural course with those who gave them being. This could preserve that being till it ceased to be itself, and no longer. Every constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.—It may be said that the succeeding generation exercising in fact the power of repeal, this leaves them as free as if the constitution or law had been expressly limited to 19 years only. In the first place, this objection admits the right, in proposing an equivalent. But the power of repeal is not an equivalent. It might be indeed if every form of government were so perfectly contrived that the will of the majority could always be obtained fairly and without impediment. But this is true of no form. The people cannot assemble themselves. Their representation is unequal and vicious. Various checks are opposed to every legislative proposition. Factions get possession of the public councils. Bribery corrupts them. Personal interests lead them astray from the general interests of their constituents: and other impediments arise so as to prove to every practical man that a law of limited duration is much more manageable than one which needs a repeal.”
Wise words, from a slave owner.
Better a hypocritical slave owner than not, of course, but I still have a really hard time separating the arguments from the mind that created them.
Yes, the slave owner talking to us from beyond the grave about why we shouldn't be ruled from beyond the grave by his dead hand and those of his contemporaries—slave holders and their enablers, every last one—is quite wise.
> Better a hypocritical slave owner than not
Jefferson seemed to live in relative accord with his professed views on slavery and issues surrounding it (which, yes, included that slavery was bad, but also that “freeing” slaves unprepared to survive and sorry themselves as free citizens was bad, and that the ideal solution was for the state to acquire saves and train and then free them.)
Which is not to say that Jefferson's views (other than the “slsvery is bad”) part weren't biased in favor of his own position and perhaps bolstered by some measure of racism, but hypocrisy is less evident.
As a first cut, I'd say it should become void if and only if the death leaves nobody with standing to sue over the alleged breach.
> If I make a contract with a mortuary to bury me (preferably) after my death, should they be released from the agreement by my death?
Under my standing rule, I'd say the contract would still stand under the argument that the people who would otherwise have to deal with disposing of your body were intended third party beneficiaries and they can enforce it.
Alternatively or additionally, there should probably be a special case for contracts concerning things actually involved in your death or in the short or mediate term dealing with the aftermath of your death. The justification for a special case is that as a matter of public policy we want people to make arrangements to handle their deaths, and the ability to make durable contracts concerning that is necessary to promote that.
Yes, it should be void, though maybe not quite immediately on death. How could it be otherwise, unless the the contract were somehow binding on person's heirs (either personally, or though the burden if administering an estate that they can't wind down).
Maybe they'll bury you, but the cemetery doesn't have to maintain your grave in perpetuity after your death:
Philanthropic endeavors allow for them to choose to push their values after death as a legacy instead of their blood. If they can't do that then it makes their influenced descendants the next best thing.
It may be a "fair for its day" solution compared to others and something that should have some limits. Racial restrictive covenants for housings were decidedly not grandfathered in with changes of laws for a deliberately extreme example.
The cemetery shouldn't be liable for maintaining the grave unfunded in perpetuity but being able to say take a fund for maintaining the grave for 100 years and pocket it is wrong.
Essentially I think they should be allowed to stand when reasonable in changing circumstances.
If the cemetery has charged you more for such service and made it a part of the contract obviously they have to honor it. Of course, there will always be a "reasonable effort" clause. If there is a flood, earth quake or foreign invasion the cemetery might not be able to keep its promise.
I think the underlying principle is not as much about "perpetuity" as it is about whether the contract with dead must be honored even years later. I think it should be and that is the whole point of having contracts. Of course subject to reasonable efforts.
But who's going to enforce this? If the owner of a cemetery stops maintaining a grave, a random person doesn't have standing to sue. In reality what's happening is closer to honoring contracts with the still living relatives of the dead.
This doesn't damage US democracy as a whole, because the power sits with the institutions; but that incident stands as great evidence that as a contract the constitution is really more of a set of guidelines than something that the government buys into. It can be overruled by political pressure without formal process.
I personally think there is a case for laws sunsetting after some period of time (30 years?) to prevent build-up of cruft and to deal with generational change.
There's a lot of questionable things. The general idea of the constitution and the declaration enshrine the concept that governance is only permissible if with the consent of the governed. Hence the principle of "no taxation without representation". Yet, we do tax individuals who make money under the age of 18, in spite of the fact that we do not recognize their consent (try going to the polls if you're under 18). Governments spend more than they take in (defecit spending) despite the fact that it obligates future generations to pay it back, who cannot, as far as we know with our current model of physics, give their consent for that spending in any direct OR indirect way.
No, we mostly don't.
> Have you ever tried to get a trial jury for a traffic ticket more than $20 (which is a civil, not criminal, suit)?
Like all of the Bill of Rights, the 7th Amendment is a limitation on the Federal government.
Unlike some provisions of the Bill of Rights, the provision of the 7th you raise has not (as of yet) been found to be a component of “liberty” protected by the 14th Amendment Due Process Clause and, thereby, incorporated as a right defended against State action.
Traffic tickets are generally under state law and thus not subject to the provision.
"Hooray they are only going to violate the constitution sometimes! This is a win for civil rights! You go notorious RBG!"
No it isn't you idiots, it's a violation of your rights enshrined in case law and marketed with a positive spin.
We collectively keep choosing reactionary expediency over the rule of law.
>Companies and other organizations are sometimes bound by contracts that have only been agreed to by people that are now dead. Is that an argument for not allowing a company to be a party to a contract? Or do we say that a company is a legal person for that purpose, and so since that "person" persists, so should their contractual obligations?
Right but the legal entity making the contract is not dead, and further contracts in perpetuity are commonly unenforceable. In California for example if the contract lacks language on an express or implied fixed term, courts take that to mean it's terminable at will at any time by any party. And other states consider perpetual contracts to flat out violate public policy and thus be completely unenforceable (note this is different from auto-renew-by-default "evergreen" contracts which are totally kosher, any party can simply choose to actively non-renew).
And contracts are not inviolable, there just are consequences for doing so. And the entity is "living" so to speak and may amend itself and adapt to a changing world.
>I hear the U.S. Constitution described as a social contract. Should it be relevant (as Lysander Spooner believed) that all of the signatories to that contract are dead? Or does democracy nullify the principle? If the last legislator who voted for a law dies, should it have any affect on the law?
This seems to really be stretching the point too far. "Social contract" is not some fixed legal meaning at all, I think you're getting into silly levels of abstractionism. Polities are self-perpetuating in ways more basic of legal entities existing within them. And to the point, they're also endlessly amendable by definition and by society at large, not fixed in time by an individual.
>With a philanthropy, maybe the solution is to simply transfer ownership to the trustees, who then have the power to amend their own charter as they wish, breaking any hold by a dead hand.
That seems like one possible way to bring things into line with normal corporations and such, though there are others.
It's definitely a very interesting question though, to consider to what extent any polity should allow and support the creation of perpetual static legal constructs within it, particularly in a democracy. I'm not immediately fully convinced by the article, but I also feel like it's true it's become a recent unquestioned consensus without any modern debate or reflection, and that it deserves such debate on principle.
Then according to the quote in dragonwriter's comment, so did Thomas Jefferson, a man not notable for silliness.
Well, in the words of Alexander Hamilton (paraphrased):
"We signed a treaty with a King whose head is now in a basket
Would you like to take it out and ask it?
Should we honor our treaty, King Louis' head?
'Uh do whatever you want, I'm super dead'"
The US government basically says: you have to give us X% of your money ... unless you spend it first on something philanthropic. Well the problem is that basically anything that doesn't make a profit can be a philanthropy. It can be your church, your college, a soup kitchen, or an organization that wants to give every stray dog a funny hat.
So if you suddenly become a billionaire, you can just set up a foundation and "tax yourself" by donating the money to what YOU think should happen rather than what the goverment (as elected by others) think should happen.
Furthermore the system of deductible donations benefits the rich much more than the poor. My tax rate is about 40%. So if I donate a dollar to charity I am effectively only losing $0.60. The government was going to take $0.40 anyway. If you make less money and your tax rate is only 20%, then it costs you $0.80 to give $1 to charity.
Some good reading:
P.S. given that our system is what it is, I do donate quite a bit to charity because I can afford it and because I see worthy causes around me.
Small donations don't have that influence unless they add up, becoming again a form of majorities's expression (not necessarily democratic,) but given enough cash in hand, an individual can tip the balances significantly.
That being said, I don't think that it is really fair to extend this to philanthropy as a whole. A good idea isn't bad simply because some people abuse it. It just means that the rules need to be defined more clearly.
Tax deductions make sense to an extent as they encourage donation to charities, and the principle does work. Not perfectly, but to an extent.
While there are obvious cases of charities being used to avoid taxes and the like, there are also other examples. The Biill and Melinda Gates foundation is one of the largest funding bodies of scientific reserach globally.
Bloomberg's 1.8 billion dollar donation to John's Hopkins helps accessibilit for lower income students.
Of course, philanthropies come with challenges. There's always opportunity cost, there are always other areas of funding that could use the money. There will always be people who diisagree with the use of the money.
Of course, there can be a motivation behind some funding. Bloomberg gave to Hopkins because it's his alma mater. Is that completely fair? No. But let's not pretend that the government in the US is completely unbiased with grant allocation and funding...
Philanthropy should never be the only way money is given to worthwhile causes, and not all causes that are funded will be seen as equally important as others. That does not make it bad, though. Private donations should fill a role that the covernment cannot, in that moment, fill. Perhaps that is funding for smaller, experimental projects that have a higher risk of failing. Perhaps it's projects that are beneficial for one state, but not another. Or projects that do not align with the current goals of the administration (e.g. climate change).
Rich people should not be allowed to use charities as a way to avoid taxes. But not every rich person is evil. Some donations may genuinely be given simply to help causes. Even if it's the soup kitchen. The rules imposed on how these bodies are set up should be stricter, yes. But I think that foundations can provide a good balance in funding allocation to the government.
The super rich should give anyway, even without the 40% break.
Which is the whole point of the government encouraging donations to charities by giving tax breaks, your worthy causes aren't my worthy causes so would go underfunded if they were up to majority rule. As it is you get to "vote with your pocketbook" which is about as pure as democracy gets.
 Google is the perfect venue for this talk.
It's a really great talk, and I recommend you take the time to watch it. I can't do the argument justice.
So, basically, the broken window fallacy?
I don't doubt that philanthropists act out of their own self interest (as do all rational humans) but forcing them to lose seems like just an extension of a zero-sum game argument where someone has to lose in order for them to win in their philanthropising (or whatever the proper word is).
Broken window fallacy is saying "if I destroy your stuff, I'm actually doing society a favour". So, damage to you = benefit to society, which is bunk.
This is saying, lets not be led by the nose by people who gain the most from what we are doing - because while it (arguably) helps society a bit, society could overall benefit a lot more from better balanced solutions that aren't stymied by those seeking to reinforce their wealth/power.
A wealthy person may "lose" if we tax them more, but that isn't breaking their window, that's balancing who gets what - which is what we do anyway, middle class already loses when a big company finds a tax loop-hole, to use a trite example.
But this is after tax income that they're just spending however they wish. The same arguments were used in the recent article about the superyachts where people were saying society is broken because someone can actually earn enough money to buy one of those things.
I'd much rather have Bill Gates spending his wealth on whatever philanthropic projects he deems worthy than the city taxing me to renovate the baseball stadium down the street "for society".
Just because Certain People Who Shall Remain Nameless™️ are promoting a toxic zero-sum attitude that unnecessarily divides us nowadays doesn't mean there aren't some things in life that truly are zero-sum.
At the moment, economic justice appears to be a pretty zero-sum proposition. Ending billionaires would end poverty. And there doesn't seem to be a way to end poverty without ending billionaires. (Or at least significantly reducing inequality.)
Both corporations and charitable foundations often emulate democratic governments in some ways, most notably in their shareholder and/or board meetings. There's nothing wrong with emulating the good parts of democracy in other suitable contexts. But I'm not sure whether it's worthwhile to emulate them in every context.
Even when things are run democratically, it is sometimes better to limit participants to those who are directly involved. Would you like some democratic input from the general public as to what happens in your bedroom between consenting partners, for example?
Why is this good?
I would say the goal is to reduce problems.
> Most systemic issues we see today have a root cause in people giving up their ability to vote
Could you provide examples? Is this responsible for poverty, war, or poor education?
> preserving each person's share in the power pie
Bit of a mixed bag. Depending on your political leanings, I might give Trump and Brexit as examples of democracies making poor choices.
Minorities need protection from majorities in democracies. And not just racial, religious or ethnic minorities. Everyone is a minority in multiple ways.
You have hobbies, beliefs, goals and connections that the majority in your country doesn't have. And they are all at risk under a democracy. This is why we don't have a "pure" democracy. This is why the Founders put many anti-democratic features in the US Constitution.
Every right you enjoy is a point where society drew a line and said "this will not be subject to a vote".
The U.S. spends about 1% of their budget on foreign aid. Yet in polls, most Americans think foreign aid should be further reduced .
 In the following poll of 1012 Americans, 81% thought foreign aid should be reduced and only 18% thought it shouldn't be: http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2011/images/01/25/rel2d.pdf
> His general argument was that endowments should be permitted, in some cases even celebrated, but that they should never be perpetual and that the state must always retain the right to intervene in a philanthropic endowment. His baseline conclusion: “all endowments are national property, which the government may and ought to control.”
Does this include the ACLU? It's been around for nearly 100 years, has a massive membership, a massive budget, and is the recipient of multi-million dollar endowments. The ACLU does important work advocating against government misconduct and abuses. The ACLU _should_ operate in perpetuity. It provides an important out of band check on government power, regardless of the popular democratic sentiments of a given year or decade.
Property rights are the foundation guaranteeing the ACLU's independence. It is the means by which the government encourages a diversity of institutions. By declaring "all endowments are national property" Mills is undermining this basis.
What Mills really had a problem with was the outsized influence of the church in his time. And he works backwards from that state of affairs to come his conclusions.
The laws that allow so few to accumulate so much, when the rest of the world has so little? Something seems off about that. Like the systems we've built aren't really working very well, not for everyone (though they're working great for a few.)
Counting on philanthropic efforts to replace services provided by government? Absofuckinglutely. You've just replaced democratically-governed society with "what a couple of rich guys think is a good idea for now". It's hard to be less anti-democratic than that.
If democracy is not necessarily good and does not bestow moral standing, then does the characteristic of being anti-Democratic automatically imply that it is bad or wrong?
If, conversely, you don't believe that democracy is a good feature of government, there are bigger things to discuss than the impact of wealthy individuals on that process.
A lot of these discussions take this framing for granted.
The murderer is not accused by the knife.
Democracy is the mechanism for decisioning. Those who wield it hold the blame, not the mechanism.
That "thought experiment" isn't really helpful. It just starts with a particular morally-charged framing, and creates a mechanism to push that framing forward towards a conclusion, while discouraging thought about any other principles.
You could probably construct an infinite number of other "experiments" that push towards an infinite number of different conclusions on any topic, like "How many men...does it take to give you property rights? Do you own the car if only you say so? What if a gang of five men say you own the car..."
I believe the point is to illustrate that you either have inalienable natural rights or you don't -- which is usually the basis of the "taxation is theft" argument -- i.e. you either own the produce of your labor or some other entity owns it and allows you to keep a portion of it out of kindness or whatever.
Not arguing for or against just explaining the reasoning behind their reductio ad absurdum "thought experiment".
The questions can be meaningful if you replace "Is it theft if..." with "Is it bad if...". Is it bad if one man steals a car? Is it bad if a majority of voters decide to take some money from the rich to build roads and help the poor? Answers to these questions lead to actionable policy. The original questions do nothing but make communication more difficult by creating personal, non-standard definitions of a word.
It's similar to a thought experiment I heard regarding abortion, where you start at 1 day and say, "Is it ok to abort at 1 day? what about 1 week? month? 20 weeks? 40 weeks?"
But I could very well be misunderstanding it myself.
In essence, the argument is using our negative feelings about "theft" to distract us from the relevant question of "is it ok/good?".
It's a technique that works for any category of things where there's a spectrum from bad to good and you want to persuade someone that the good instances are actually bad.
To take the abortion example. You ask someone who's undecided on abortion, "Is it okay to abort the moment after birth? What about the moment before birth? An hour before birth? A day? A month? 8 months? The day after conception?"
Phrased this way, the answers are likely to change from "no" to "yes" at some point through the spectrum. The person will likely feel it's okay to kill a single celled zygote with no brain and no mind, but not okay to kill a freshly born baby, and this phrasing makes it easy to acknowledge the difference.
But you can muddy the waters by changing the question from "Is it okay..." to "Is it murder...". After all, if you consider it murder to abort a fetus just before birth, it's not obvious why you wouldn't categorized aborting younger fetuses as murder.
One reasonably answer might be that you could consider killing a fetus/embryo at any age to be murder, but that still doesn't make it wrong to kill at early stages.
A technically correct answer would be it's not murder because our legal definition of murder excludes abortion.
However, people presented with this argument often won't say either of these things, and that's why this technique is effective. It obfuscates the question we're actually interested in ("is it okay?") by breaking it into two parts. It's trying to convince you that 1) killing a fetus is murder, 2) murder is not okay, therefore killing a fetus is not okay. This is an obvious fallacy. If you change what's considered murder to include something that is okay, then you've invalidated 2). However, these last steps of the argument are usually subconscious and people miss the fallacy.
The taxation argument has the same problem. Sure, you can call taxation "theft" if you want, but that does nothing to explain why it's bad. Or we can stick to the official definition of theft, which excludes tax. Either way, they've failed to explain why tax is bad.
I appreciate the discussion btw :-)
There's no perfect political system. Despots can be good and they can be bad; they can free the serfs, or they can instigate a genocide. But unlike well-implemented democracies, despots have a single point of failure. What happens when the 'enlightened' despot is wrong?
Yeah it's a good point. If we stipulate that anarchy can't work (which I don't believe necessarily, I'm agnostic on that, but for sake of discussion I'll stipulate), then I can't really think of a better system either (assuming we're actually talking about a direct democracy like Ancient Greece had).
The people can and do get things wrong, but it does seem less likely that the people as a whole will be tyrants than one or a few individuals.
Only if you don't count the votes of the slaves, of course.
If that money weren't locked up with the super rich, a lot of our problems would go away.
So yeah, perpetuating this system, and making it worse, isn't going to end well.
Besides, philanthropy is often merely a way to gain a political goal with a significant tax savings.
The representatatives control vast sums of money that are doled out to individuals.
However, representatives are themselves almost always of the upper classes. This is true regardless of whatever other minority groups the representatives may be part of.
A welfare-based representative government means that the poorer classes do end up depending on the government.
Thus, representative government in practice consists of rich people doling out money to help poor people who depend on it: the exact institution you criticize.