Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Politics of the Eldest Son

I am the eldest son. Virtually all of my close friends throughout my entire life have been eldest sons. In the Bible, and in England, the eldest son inherited the land, and was charged with preserving the family, and the family values.

Jacob was the younger son. Joseph was the younger son by a lot. Solomon was not the eldest son, and of course, Absolom was the favored child for a long time. The Bible features the younger son in part, I believe, because the society features the eldest son. That it is possible to suceed both in the world, and in the eyes of God, even if your brother has all the money.

In those days -- the myth goes, and my non-systematic reading through the years tells me that it’s true -- in those days, in Europe, the eldest son got the land and the youngest son became a priest. (Which might explain a lot about how and why the priest said this, and the people did that.)

Then later, the eldest son got the land and the youngest son scrambled for the ticket to America.

Conveniently for American mythmaking, George Washington was raised by his elder half-brother. You don’t see it much anymore, but I bet there was a lot of Jacob and Esau stuff (some Joseph with his brothers stuff?) running around back then in the legend of good ol’ Lawrence and George.

Benjamin Franklin was apprenticed as a printer to his much-older brother. He later escaped to Philadelphia.

And for those of you who don’t bother with the Bible or American History, or even movies about the same – in The Godfather, it was Michael, not Sonny, who understood what the whole thing was about.

A lot of founding American law reflects the point of view of the second son. Since the second son is aware of how much fortune depends on accidents of birth, the American estate tax is a founding principle of the Republic. It is based on the notion that to some extent the entire society, and therefore all the people who support the law and the society, are responsible for the creation of large fortunes that get accumulated into just a few lucky hands that happened to be born first. Therefore, it is only fitting that the law should demand a share of the earnings at the time when the wealthy SOB who robbed everyone to get the money is not in such a good position to complain about it.

Maybe, more importantly, in those days, everyone knew of fortunes that fell into the hands of feeble-minded or evil people just because of accidents of birth. Common people, to the extent possible, did not want their lives to be beholden to the whims of those sorts of accidentally rich people. And if you multiply that over a couple of generations (Insert favorite W- joke here.).

Since the second son is aware of how hard it is to make something out of nothing, the bankruptcy laws don’t penalize you too heavily if you try to make something out of nothing, and you fail.

Since, even in the United States, the eldest son often gets the business and all the cash and power that go with it, the rest of the siblings often have to, as Huck Finn put it, light out for the territories. That may be one reason why American laws don’t stress parental rights over adult children too much. The only place where the laws about parental rights over adult children are strong is in the area of enforceability of wills and trusts. If the will says you don’t get the money until you’re 50, well you better find a job until then.

What is taking place now, the repeal of the estate tax, the repeal of the bankruptcy law, the notion that the family has a higher place in the law than the individual, is not a return to the old values, unless by old you mean 17th century England. It is not part of the history of this country, except for certain parts of the plantation South. It is most definitely, and quite intentionally, not part of the law of the land.

So when Tom Delay (and you right-wingers, if you want to create something that will last, you better find yourselves another spokesperson and fast) complains about activist judges, he is, as he is in all things that do not relate to the blunt manipulation of law and position for his personal profit, dead wrong.

The laws reflect something else, and they reflect something else for a reason. If the reasons have changed, and you have the votes, change the laws.

Don’t blame the judges though.

America is finally mature enough economically that the second son now has what the first son had along. Now he understands why the first son had certain laws in place to keep it.

Woe be to all you have-nots. To all you second sons, wherever you were born.

Long live primogeniture.