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Splitting Heirs

Why are some societies more unequal than others? For researchers Anselm Rink and Hanno Hilbig, the roots of the problem are buried deep in family history. Their new study reveals that fair inheritance customs act as a social leveler: driving equality, empowering women, and ultimately rewarding talent over status.

For centuries, being anything but the firstborn son meant a raw deal in terms of inheritance. Unfair practices such as the custom of primogeniture, though stamped out in part by the progressive tide of the French and American Revolutions, sowed the seeds of social inequality along class and gender lines. A new study by Anselm Rink and Hanno Hilbig, to be published in the American Journal of Political Science, investigates whether fair inheritance customs in Germany lead to increased social equality. Rink and Hilbig’s findings are clear: To this day, German municipalities that historically equally distributed wealth among siblings elect more women to political councils and have fewer aristocrats in the social elite.

Fair inheritances therefore demonstrably level the social playing field. The study also unearthed one surprising, and perhaps counterintuitive result: Fair inheritance customs also positively predict income inequality. On closer inspection, however, this offers more proof of the fact that by distributing inheritances more fairly, what is rewarded in the next generation is pure talent, not social status. Current debates about inheritance tax should take heed of these findings, which provide another vital piece in the puzzle surrounding inequality in today’s societies.

About the authors

Anselm Rink is Assistant Professor of Political Economy at the University of Konstanz.

Hanno Hilbig is a PhD student in Government at Harvard University.

Both authors are guest fellows at the WZB’s Migration, Integration, and Transnationalization Department.

A short version of this study was published in German in the latest edition of the WZB-Mitteilungen as "Das Rätsel der Ungleichheit: Historische Erbsitten haben Auswirkungen bis heute" (PDF)