A short story

A father lays in his deathbed. He had a long and productive life; having started out with nothing, he managed to amass a fortune of mythical proportions.

Not so much the gold, or the land that stretches far beyond anyone's eye could see. His fortune lay in his wisdom: through toil, wits and luck he found a way to plough the land so that instead of one it can feed a million people, he discovered how to mix herbs to heal the wounds, and he uncovered the secrets of flying in the skies.

His two sons are by his side. The one on his right is strong, clever and hard-working, the one on the left a bit less so - although some say his misfortunes are due to his bad luck.

The cruel father utters these last words: 'May my land and my diamonds go to the strongest one; and as for my most expensive treasure, the knowledge I have developed, may that be free for both of you to use'. And as he closes his eyes, the strong son goes on to cultivate his father's lands, and to apply his father's knowledge and develop it even further; the weak son goes on living on the breadcrumbs that fall from the strong son's table.

But the good father utters these last words: 'My two sons, one of you is strong and the other weak. Yet, my strong son, no matter how you claim your wealth is all of your own making, you would never be able to get rich without my knowledge, without the foundations I built. Most of what you produce is not of yours, but of my making.

I love you both the same, and this holds true of your children and of your children's children that I will never meet. So, I will grant you each half of the rights to my knowledge - call it a patent if you wish. Should one of you utilise this knowledge to create wealth for himself, he should compensate the other for using his half of the rights to the knowledge that I, your father, bequethed you. Never forget, you are standing on the shoulders of giants, and the giants have no reason to love either one of you more than another.'

Which father is the fairer of the two? What would your father be more likely to do? If you are confused, it may all become clearer if you remember Will giving me a hard time.

by datacharmer | Tuesday, January 29, 2008
  , | | A short story @bluematterblogtwitter


  1. Will Says:

    Would a "good" father substantially reduce the wealth of each of his sons and all his decedents?

    Even a weak son that cares about his children's economic well-being would prefer your "bad" father. By creating the incentives "to apply his [] knowledge and develop it even further", the "bad" father ensures prosperity that eventually spreads to all his decedents.

    The "good" father, unfortunately, utters empty phrases on his death bed. We know the strong son will apply and cultivate knowledge to less of a degree than otherwise because he will have to share his output. By making all uses of his knowledge public goods, he's ensured they'll be under-supplied, in effect, impoverishing those sons he so much loves.

    Since its equality he seems to care so much about, perhaps the "good" father would be satisfied to find he's made his sons equally poor.

  2. datacharmer Says:

    But I'm not concerned about inequality; I am concerned with 'fairness'. A lot of people believe redistribution is unfair because 'I made that money on my own, I should get to keep it all'. But no-one could make that kind of money (product) in neolithic times, not without our ancestor's heritage of economic growth and development.

    Neither am I seriously proposing a 'patent' system for all knowledge; that would be way too impractical and even if it 'fair' it is indeed inefficient.

    But it serves its purpose perfectly as a justification for redistribution.

  3. Will Says:

    "But it serves its purpose perfectly as a justification for redistribution."

    You didn't resolve the conflict between those that say redistribution is unfair (e.g. the strong son, no doubt, and probably a weak son that cares about the economic outcomes of his own decedents) and those that say unfairness (i.e. inequality of outcomes) requires redistribution (e.g. a myopic weak son and the myopic "good" father).

    This conflict is important because redistribution most likely requires the repossession of wealth from members of the former group and giving it to members of the latter group. How is it fair to favor the latter group's position on fairness over the former group's position?

  4. datacharmer Says:

    Enter the Rawlsian veil of ignorance: you don't know if you are going to be strong or weak, and you don't know if your children are going to be strong or weak.

    As for bringing growth into a halt, we are redistributing a fair bit now and we are still growing nicely.

    And nobody said anything about repossesing wealth, only about a one-off reallocation of intellectual property rights.

    Come to think of it, why not property rights in general? I should be entitled to a share of land and natural resources at birth, as I sure wasn't around when all these fences started coming up.

    And yes I agree with you, this is not practically enforceable. But it still offers a moral justification for redistribution by more feasible means.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    All the protestations against the "veil of ignorance" model are really a rail against the concept of redistribution of wealth by the affluent. I can understand how one might want to characterize this as legalized theft, but that doesn't change the fact that redistribution of wealth is a good, necessary, and stabilizing mechanism of any successful society.

    It's indisputable historic realism that wealth equals power and that power wants more wealth. This creates a naturally occuring disparity between the haves and have nots that increases over time. The wealthy and powerful have always wanted to protect what they've amassed, seeing it as their 'due', as if they've 'earned' the right to ignore suffering. But, it's in society's interest (especially in a democracy where the masses help to form the rules) to see that these disparities don't get out of control.

    This is a hard learned lesson from history: NO society has survived that has removed their redistribution of wealth mechanism. When 1% of a society has 99% of the wealth, what do you think will happen? The odds are 99 to 1 that the wealthy will, once again, be taken out through revolt. It's happened in every major society that has ever existed and become to top oriented.

    And, if you really want to keep your taxes down, push for more redistribution through programs that help the poorest levels early on. The lowered health care costs, the likelihood that additional education will get many off the dole and into the taxpayer ranks, and the additional consumer spending from their increased incomes will flow that money right back up to the top anyway!

    Will's argument that even the weak son should prefer the bad father suggests that prosperity would spread to all his descendents. Obviously, this is false as the very first one disadvantaged is the weak son and all of his descendents. It's very Darwinian, but that's why human society has advanced; we aren't bound to the survival of the strongest code of the rest of species. We have the capacity to rise above that.

    The good father's phrases were anything but empty. We have no reason to believe that these brothers will be good to each other or for each other. All a father can do is to give both sons an equal playing field and wish them both luck. Sure, one son could go on a binge and lose everything, but he would have to suffer the consequences. Either could do well, either could fail.

    It was simply sophomoric to suggest that perhaps the "good" father would be satisfied to find he's made his sons equally poor, when the obvious intent is to help them both to prosperity. Will does not appear to understand the language very well.

    Trickle down never works for obvious reasons; the rich don't get rich by spending but by hoarding it. The poor cannot sit on money, or even use it to make more. They have no choice but to put it right back into the system generating demand, decreasing jobless rates, and putting more tax money in state coffers. Trickle up doesn't just trickle, it erupts.

    One last thing. The only reason that the rich are rich is that none of it is forced or at gunpoint. Taxes are your entry fee into a free society where you have the means and opportunity to advance yourself. Don't like taxes? Fine, I understand. Go find someplace to earn your money that has no taxes.

    What must be understood is that the business of government isn't business it's people; the business of people is people, and the business of business is people too (something businesses are just catching on to). Corporations, stock portfolios, funds and property are all just non-living things - hardly even worth calling entities. Societies are groups of people; and they matter more than the structures and infrastructures they've built or allowed to be maintained.