Jens Beckert has produced a fascinating and admirable work on inheritance laws in France, Germany, and the United States from the mid-eighteenth century to the present, explaining the special circumstances that generated such laws and the forces that over time modified them. Beckert is a sociologist whose subfield is evidently the sociology of the law, and some of his writing deals with sociological theories and their usefulness (as a partial listing: functionalism, Weberian ideas of modernization, Durkheim and the law, Habermas and linguistic formulations), but historians will enjoy and learn from this book because it is free of jargon and is written from a historian's vantage point. It is clear that Beckert has kept abreast of various trends in historiography because he displays an Annales approach (he mentions the longue duree several times) and he indicates that events should be understood in terms of path analysis and the role of contingency in establishing those paths. Most fascinating, however, is his depiction of the differences among the three countries in the formulation of their inheritance laws.
Beckert essentially approaches inheritance from three vantage points: the amount of freedom given to the testator (testamentary freedom), the ability of the will-maker to control property over time (entails), and the right of the state to tax estates and inheritances. These are, of course, complicated matters covering numerous laws in three different countries over two centuries, and the interested reader should consult the book for specifics. In general, Beckert's conclusions follow these lines. In the United States, inheritance laws were governed by two major ideological points of view: individual freedom and the need to avoid dynasties that were the ruination of republics. Thus the United States had more testamentary freedom than either France or Germany--to the point of allowing disinheriting children, an act forbidden in Germany and France--but because of fears of aristocracy the United States had more attempts to limit concentrations of wealth in families, thereby resulting in higher rates of taxation on inheritances. Beckert mentions that only in the area of inheritance taxation does the United States have a higher rate of taxation than Europe. He brings his study into a lengthy discussion of the Bush tax cuts in 2001 which, probably only temporarily, ended all estate taxation. One of the more fascinating qualities of the discussion of inheritance laws in any of the three countries is that not until the 1970s did economic considerations, in the guise of economic growth, play a significant role in the deliberations.
France and Germany were different. In France, the revolutionary cry of equality dominated inheritance discussion and resulted in more drastic curtailment of testamentary freedom than in the other two countries. At first (1790), French law declared that intestacy proceedings would divide inheritances equally among the children, but eventually (Code Civil, 1804) all inheritances were to be divided equally among the children, a rule that continues to govern France to this day. Entails in France had a strange evolution due to the political needs of Napoleon and his desire to attract a new nobility while undermining the old nobility, but were generally abolished by 1849. However, the ideal of equality had an odd impact on French taxation: the principle of equality did not accord with the notion of progressive taxation. Moreover, French taxation of inheritances did not originate with concerns about the health of the republic but from the financial needs of the state. The basic law was written in 1901. In the framing of French laws in the twentieth century, the greatest concern was population growth: France's population long stalled (around the 40-50 million range) and legislators believed inheritance laws had some effect in either stimulating or retarding the size of family.
Germany's struggle with inheritance laws is, in some ways, the most interesting of the three because of a different view of property. In the United States and England, the idea of property came from Locke and was singularly individualistic. In Germany, the idea of property was linked to clan and family. Individuals earned property for the family and were only transient members of the family; the family persisted over time, and individuals were at best caretakers or trustees of the property for only short durations. Germans had a more individualistic sense of property prior to 1750; thereafter, it became more familial (Beckert includes a wide discussion that embraces Grotius, Pufendorf, Stahl, Fichte, and Hegel). As a result, testamentary freedom was restricted; the family (Beckert calls this "social justice") predominated in considerations about inheritance. While neither France nor the United States had great difficulty in abolishing entails, the same was not true for Germany. Germany did not abolish entails until 1918, and actually more entails were established in Germany between 1850 and 1918 than between 1750 and 1850--Germany, in short, defied the conventional wisdom of modernization in its inheritance laws by stressing community more than individualism. (A quick note: Beckert uses as his foil the writings of Max Weber who defined modernization as the march to individualism by the breakdown of community obligations.) Taxation of inheritances in Germany thus ran into limitations, regardless of how much the state taxed in other instances, because of the belief in family property; thus Germans tax inheritances much less than does the United States.
Beckert offers a number of interesting ideas. He goes over the important debates and the writers on inheritance law and thus contributes to intellectual history. By his study (really, transnational in the most vital sense), he shows how societies differ in their conceptions of property and how early steps do lead to a path of evolution that pure logic (i.e., functionalism) would not predict. He has a methodology for exploring debates, content analysis, that is worthy of attention because it can be obviously used in a vast number of American studies of ideology--indeed, a formulation that I think is particularly apropos to the Civil War era. And then there are the specific details Beckert gives that sometimes stagger the imagination. The annual transfer of wealth by inheritance in the United States is between $600 and $900 billion, in Germany between 150 and 300 billion Euros. The socialists in the early twentieth century said little about inheritances because they believed all property was theft. And England did not abolish primogeniture until 1925. Indeed, one is struck after reading this book by the sheer longevity of inheritance laws and how seldom they were tinkered with.
There is little 1 can find to fault this book. I might have enjoyed a further theoretical analysis on the division between individualism and community, and Beckert might have included England in his study to have drawn out the aristocratic influence on inheritance laws, especially in comparison to the United States. But these are at most minor quibbles. The interpretations are sound, the use of theory wise, the methodology instructive, and the information provocative. For individuals in legal history, political history, and transatlantic studies, this book comes with the highest recommendation.
Oklahoma State University
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2009|
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