Inherited Wealth

Jens Beckert

10. Januar 2008

MPIfG Book


Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.
384 pages
ISBN 978-0-691-12497-1 (cloth)
ISBN 978-0-691-13451-2 (paperback)

"Jens Beckert's excellent new book Inherited Wealth helps explain how the values  of liberty, equality, family and economic prosperity recurred in debates over entails and other issues across three countries and three centuries." (Anne Alstott, Harvard Law School)

» Publisher's page
Beckert, Jens
Inherited Wealth. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.


How to regulate the transfer of wealth from one generation  to the next has been hotly debated among politicians, legal scholars,  sociologists, economists, and philosophers for centuries. Bequeathing wealth is  a vital ingredient of family solidarity. But does the reproduction of social  inequality through inheritance square with the principle of equal opportunity?  Does democracy suffer when family wealth becomes political power?

The first in-depth, comparative study of the development  of inheritance law in the United States, France, and Germany,  Inherited Wealth investigates longstanding political and intellectual  debates over inheritance laws and explains why these laws still differ so  greatly among these countries. Using a sociological perspective, Jens Beckert  sheds light on the four most controversial issues in inheritance law during the  past two centuries: the freedom to dispose of one's property as one wishes, the  rights of family members to the wealth bequeathed, the dissolution of entails  (which restrict inheritance to specific classes of heirs), and estate taxation.  Beckert shows that while the United States, France, and Germany have all long  defended inheritance rights based on the notion of individual property rights,  they have justified limitations on inheritance rights in profoundly different  ways, reflecting culturally specific ways of understanding the problems of  inherited wealth.


Chapter 1: Introduction

1.1 Inheritance and Modern Society

1.2 Social Dimensions of Inheritance Law

Chapter 2: The Right to Bequeath: Testamentary Freedom and the Individuality of Property

2.1 France: Equality versus the Freedom of Private Disposition over Property

2.2 Germany: Testamentary Freedom versus Family and Social Justice

2.3 United States: Equality of Opportunity versus Individual Rights of Disposition

2.4 Conclusion

Chapter 3: Equality and Inclusion: The Inheritance Rights of the Family

3.1 The Principle of Equality in Intestacy Law

3.2 The Spouse in Intestacy Law

3.3 The Integration of Illegitimate Children into Inheritance Law

3.4 Conclusion

Chapter 4: Political Structure and Inheritance Law: The Abolition of Entails

4.1 The Double Abolition of Substitutions in France

4.2 The Delayed Abolition of Fideikommisse in Germany

4.3 The Abolition of Entails in the American Revolution

4.4 Conclusion

Chapter 5: Social Justice through Redistribution? The Taxation of Inheritance

5.1 Equality of Opportunity versus Private Property: The Estate Tax in the United States

5.2 "Sense of Family" versus Social Justice: The Inheritance Tax in Germany

5.3 Destruction of National Wealth? The Progressive Inheritance Tax in France

5.4 Conclusion

Chapter 6: Conclusion: Discourses and Institutions

Appendix: The Method of Content Analysis of Parliamentary Debates


Jens Beckert

Jens Beckert is Professor of Sociology and Director at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Cologne.


"Jens Beckert's excellent new book Inherited Wealth helps explain how the values  of liberty, equality, family and economic prosperity recurred in debates over  entails and other issues across three countries and three centuries. Beckert's  book focuses on legal debates over the rules of succession and taxation in  France, Germany and the U.S. from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first.  The book considers the development of the law of wills, intestacy, entails and  inheritance taxation, with close analysis of the arguments offered in  parliamentary debates over key pieces of legislation. Translated into English  and aimed at an academic audience, this volume draws on a wealth of French and  German sources not readily accessible to Anglophone scholars and offers an  unusually comprehensive comparative analysis."
Anne Alstott, Harvard Law School, Cambridge, MA: "Family Values and the Law of Inheritance," in: Socio-Economic Review 7, 2009, 145–159.
"[...] Inherited Wealth presents a theoretically and methodologically strong piece of scholarship on an important sociological topic, and serves as a strong model for other researchers, regardless of the area of study."
Catherine Siebel, North Central College; Review in: Contemporary Sociology 38(2),  2009, 185–186. [PDF]
"Beckert's study [...] confirms that strong currents of social thought have profound and important impacts on the structure of law. Though German and French cultures may not be of direct interest to American historians, they create an intriguing background for evaluating the contours of American debates about wealth accumulations. That alone makes the book worth plowing through."
Richard H. Chused, New York Law School; Review in: The Journal of American History, December 2008, 833–844.
"This is an impressively-written, scrupulously-researched, and highly important book. Beckert's work deserves to attain the status of authoritative reference on the subject of inheritance. It will appeal especially to those who believe that the understanding of economy is impossible without a painstaking analysis of the institutions that govern behavior. Lastly, faculty should consider this book if they are offering a senior-level seminar on economic inequality or related issues."
Christopher Brown, Arkansas State University, Review in: Journal of Economic Issues  43(1), 2009, 280–281.

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