by Jens Beckert. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. 384pp. Cloth. $85.00/£50.00. ISBN: 9780691124971. Paper. $39.95/£23.95. ISBN: 9780691134512.

Reviewed by Andrea Pozas-Loyo, Department of Politics, New York University. Email: apl228[at]


INHERITED WEALTH is a rich sociological study that explores the development of inheritance law in France, the United States, and Germany since the late eighteen-century. Beckert’s study focuses on four controversies over the regulation of private wealth transfer motis causa: 1) the dispute over testamentary disposition, 2) the debate over deceased’s relatives rights to an inheritance, 3) the abolition of entails, and 4) the conflict over inheritance taxation.

INHERITED WEALTH is foremost an enjoyable and erudite invitation to an extremely interesting yet understudied research area. Beckert successfully captures the reader’s interest in the empirical relations and normative issues addressed in his book. Inheritance law is revealed as a promising glass through which some questions central to political science can be investigated. For instance, the fight over the abolition of entails is a nice case to study when and why can we expect successful reform against legal clauses that entrench political power. Beckert also shows that inheritance law is a fruitful field for normative research. The transmission of “unearned wealth” from one generation to the other raises complex normative problems for democratic societies where merit is the normative justification of inequality. Political scientists interested in the empirical or normative study of law are therefore likely to find in INERITED WEALTH a rich source of engaging questions.

While in INHERITED WEALTH we find a remarkable amount of fascinating details on an extremely diverse range of political, social, economic and cultural factors surrounding the development of inheritance law, or perhaps because of it, I found the explanatory side of the book less satisfying. This is due in part to the methodological approach, a “multidimensional heuristics [that] incorporates economic interests, demands by the state, and the role of social institutions (especially the family and the legal system), as well as culturally based values that are expressed in the discourse on inheritance law” (p.5). This methodological approach seems to invite the incorporation of a very large amount and diversity of independent variables. Given the number of variables, systematically testing general hypotheses becomes unfeasible. Thus, the conclusion that “the contingency of social processes of institutionalization must be placed front and centered” (p.293) and that “the evolution of the law seems to be the result of concrete processes” marked by very specific political, cultural, social and legal conditions (p.293) seems to follow more [*509] from the methodological approach than from an empirical analysis.

INHERITED WEALTH has two theses. The first is that the justifications expressed in dominant patterns of argumentation, within which the contending parties over the terms of inheritance law defend their views (i.e. the discursive fields), are a necessary but not a sufficient independent variable to explain the development of inheritance law. To be sure, Beckert’s assertion is not that “the specific lines of conflict in legal discourse . . . can explain the development of inheritance law, but rather that [they] influence legal development ALONG WITH other aspects” (p.7).

In order to support his first hypothesis Beckert presents a very interesting account of different empirical and normative claims over the regulation of inheritance. Through the pages of INHERITED WEALTH we learn the views of people as diverse as Montesquieu, Ferdinand Lassalle, and Andrew Carnegie. In addition, Beckert analyzed thirty-six legislative debates, and he presents several nice tables with data of the speaker (party, gender, religious affiliation, and the like), of the speech (date, for or against a given position), and of specific reasons adduced. Does INHERITED WEALTH deliver on its promise of showing us the necessity of including the justifications expressed in the discursive fields to give a satisfactory account of the development of inheritance law in France, Germany and the United States?

Beckert claims that “the relevance of these symbolic orders for explaining institutions is revealed by correspondences between the structure of the normative problematization of inheritance law and its actual institutional expression” (p.283). However, these correspondences do not seem enough to make the point. A skeptic reader could argue that the specific development of inheritance law in each country could in principle still be determined by other variables and the correspondence, with specific orders of justification the result of their being strategically used by otherwise motivated law-makers. On Beckert’s own account, the role and importance of discursive fields vary, sometimes he claims that they only “support” the existing rules (e.g. p.87), or “legitimize” some socio-politically motivated change (e.g. p.59), or reflect specific economic goals, while other times they seem a central explanatory variable with independent effects over the legislative outcome (e.g. p.284). To be fair, the questions “when and how much do discursive fields matter?” and “which are the causal mechanisms through which they influence legislative outcomes?” are briefly explored in the conclusion; however, a fully developed explanatory model structuring the rich content of the book is still missing.

The second thesis of INHERITTED WEATH is that the development of inheritance law is not a linear evolution toward increasingly efficient institutional forms or increasing individualization. I found this second line of argumentation convincing. Throughout the book Berckert presents several interesting counterexamples against these teleological theories. For instance, the evolution of inheritance taxation does not present a clear move towards reducing fiscal intervention and [*510] increasing individual freedom of disposal; nor does the development of testamentary freedom where no important expansion of individual testamentary rights occurs in the more than two centuries under study. Beckert then successfully points to clear instances that disprove the increasing individualization theory both in its Weberian and Durkheimiam versions. INHERITED WEALTH also contains interesting counterexamples of the increasing efficiency thesis. From an efficiency perspective, the development of inheritance law does not have a clear upward trend, as the implementation of the real partitioning in France after the Revolution clearly shows.

Notwithstanding the explanatory concerns I have expressed, INHERITED WEALTH is an extremely stimulating book, on a set of issues that has not received much attention from political scientists. It is an impressive work that invites further research on this fascinating topic. Hopefully this generous invitation will be answered by scholars and students from the fields of legal, political, social, and economic analysis.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Andrea Pozas-Loyo.