Do Inheritance Customs Affect Political and Social Inequality?

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Citation: Anselm Hager, Hanno Hilbig Do Inheritance Customs Affect Political and Social Inequality?. American Journal of Political Science (RSS)

doi: 10.1111/ajps.12460 Wikidata: Q67000665




"We study Germany—a country with pronounced local‐level variation in inheritance customs—and find that municipalities that historically equally apportioned wealth, to this day, elect more women into political councils and have fewer aristocrats in the social elite. Using historic data, we point to two mechanisms: wealth equality and pro‐egalitarian preferences. In a final step, we also show that, counterintuitively, equitable inheritance customs positively predict income inequality. We interpret this finding to mean that equitable inheritances level the playing field by rewarding talent, not status."

Authors posit (H1 attributed to French revolutionaries):

H1: Equitable inheritance customs engender gender and class equality in the political and social realm.

H2: Equitable inheritance customs reduce wealth inequality.

H3: Equitable inheritance customs increase pro‐egalitarian preferences.

Hypotheses confirmed.

Determinants of Inheritance Customs:

  • cultural theory: "Roman rule positively predicts equitable inheritance customs (F‐statistic of 87.0). Roman rule is thus one plausible instrument."
  • political theory: "we cannot confirm that equitable inheritance customs tend to cluster near the historic center of the Peasant wars" (a proxy for peasant autonomy)
  • economic theory: "confirms that mean elevation negatively predicts the adoption of equitable inheritance (F‐statistic of 220.8). Mean elevation is thus a second plausible instrument."(proxy for favorable climate and soil)
  • "we calculate the distance of a given municipality to the closest river (either the Rhine or the Neckar). The correlation is very strong (F‐statistic of 189.5). Distance to rivers in Germany's southwest is thus a third potential instrument."

Customs data from: "Röhm sent a detailed questionnaire to all 24,547 German municipalities [on the] historically prevalent agricultural inheritance custom (circa 1800). There are two historic forms: equitable inheritance (property is fairly split among siblings) and inequitable inheritance (property is given to the firstborn son)" and

Theoretical and practical relevance:

"Social equality may thus, rather perplexingly, give rise to increased income inequality. Although the nature of this interplay was beyond the scope of our study, we believe the finding underlines the multidimensional nature of inequality, which is a promising area for future research"

" Broadly speaking, we know little about the determinants of preferences for redistribution. This holds particularly true with regard to the impact of long‐established customs. How inheritance customs shape pro‐egalitarian preferences is thus a second promising pathway for future research. One hypothesis, cited above, is that equitable inheritance customs instill in people a belief that (gender) equality is desirable. At the same time, however, inequitable inheritance customs could also foster a desire to make society more equal because siblings witness unfair treatment within their own family. Future studies could help parse out with greater clarity how inheritance customs affect preferences for equality, for instance, by using survey experiments that expose individuals to different scenarios of inheritance."

"Whereas Western countries have, by and large, put equitable inheritance laws into place, the picture is different in much of the developing world."