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Detours and Contours of Inherited Wealth: The Perennial Structures of Transmission Between Generations*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 January 2017

Robert Descimon*


André Masson proposes replacing Gary Becker’s “theory” of generational altruism with a structural explanation inspired by Marcel Mauss’s famous essay The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies (1923), which was rooted in indirect reciprocities between three generations. Masson thereby elaborates a gentle critique of the moral principles often lying beneath the analyses of liberal economists (such as the “demonstration effect,” disen-franchisement, or the theory of homo reciprocans). Accepting the ambitions of economic science, Masson nonetheless maintains a conception of the social sciences that is more competitive than cooperative and provides convincing analysis of the economic and social foundations of current intergenerational transfers. The argument developed in this critical note proposes both a historical reading of the ideology of intergenerational equity, which is only conceivable in the transition from the Trente Glorieuses to the Trente Piteuses, and a structural reading arguing that, for the wealthy classes during the European Old Regime, successful transfers of wealth between generations followed the same formal requirements as those in the twenty-first century.

Economic Theory and the Social Sciences
Copyright © Les Éditions de l’EHESS 2013

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On the subject of André Masson’s book, Des liens et des transferts entre générations (Paris: Éd. de l’EHESS, 2009).


1. Becker, Gary S., A Treatise on the Family (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981)Google Scholar. Becker’s goal was to show that humans were rational about more than just economic matters and that family altruism is in keeping with the sensible calculations of the homo oeconomicus. See Becker, Gary S., “Altruism in the Family and Selfishness in the Market Place,” Economica 48, no. 189 (1981): 1-15 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Becker is a strong proponent of what one might call “economic imperialism” and is suspicious of the relevance of the other social sciences.

2. On the heuristic interplay between two and three, see Theodore Caplow, Two Against One: Coalitions in Triads (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1968).

3. Masson, Des liens et des transferts, 21.

4. Ibid., 261 and 412.

5. Ibid., 130, 195 and 264.

6. See, among others, Humbert, Marc, “L’aspiration vers la perfection des marchés dans une société morale et sans politique,” in Le sujet absolu. Une confrontation de notre présent aux débats du dix-septième siècle français, ed. Pierre-Antoine Fabre, Pascale Gruson and Michèle Leclerc-Olive (Grenoble: Jérôme Millon, 2007), 71-87 Google Scholar.

7. Cox, Donald and Stark, Oded, “On the Demand for Grandchildren: Tied Transfers and the Demonstration Effect,” Journal of Public Economics 89, no. 9-10 (2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar: 1665-97 as well as “Intergenerational Transfers and the Demonstration Effect” and “Financial Transfers to the Elderly and the Demonstration Effect,” Mimeo, published online in 1994 and 1998 respectively.

8. Noomen, Willem and Boogaard, Nico van den, eds., Nouveau recueil complet des fabliaux (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1986), 3: 175-209 and 430-32 Google Scholar.

9. On page 365, Masson cites Dieter Birnbacher, Verantwortung für Zukünftige Generationen (Stuttgart: Ph. Reclam, 1988), who argues that “unregulated markets undervalue the interests of future generations” (in the same way that states do).

10. On page 162, Masson cites, among others, Ernst Fehr and Simon Gächer, “Fairness and Retaliation,” in The Economics of Reciprocity, Giving and Altruism, ed. Louis-André Gerard-Varet, Serge-Christophe Kolm, and Jean Mercier-Ythier (London: Macmillan, 2000), 153-73. In the ultimatum game, two players must agree on how to divide a given sum of money. A proposes to give B a fraction of the amount, and B can either accept or refuse. If B refuses, neither player gets anything. I will simply make the perhaps ungenerous remark that the players in category A are put in the position of mobsters and players in B in that of mugs, a sociology well known to readers of detective fiction, and that what we find is that most people have trouble recognizing themselves in either of these two categories, at least when they are playing this game.

11. The Trente Glorieuses (The Glorious Thirty) is a frequently used designation for the postwar years between 1945 and 1973 in which the West—and not least of all France—experienced a period of rapid economic and demographic growth. It ended with the oil price shocks in 1973. The term Trente Piteuses (The Piteous Thirty) is sometimes used to designate the period between 1973 and the present (although now it would perhaps be more correct to say the Quarante Piteuses, The Piteous Forty).—Trans.

12. Boltanski, Luc and Chiapello, Ève, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Gregory Eliott (London: Verso, 2005)Google Scholar.

13. Masson, Des liens et des transferts, 270.

14. Boltanski, Luc and Thévenot, Laurent, On Justification: Economies of Worth, trans. Catherine Porter (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006)Google Scholar.

15. Esping-Andersen, Gøsta, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990)Google Scholar.

16. Masson, Des liens et des transferts, 285.

17. Cyril Lemieux, Le devoir et la grâce (Paris: Economica, 2009), 69-91.

18. Masson, Des liens et des transferts, 345.

19. Radcliffe-Brown, Alfred Reginald, Structure and Function in Primitive Society: Essays and Addresses (London: Cohen & West, 1952)Google Scholar.

20. Bourdieu, Jérôme, Postel-Vinay, Gilles, and Suwa-Eisenmann, Akiko, “Pourquoi la richesse ne s’est pas diffusée avec la croissance? Le degré zéro de l’inégalité et son évolution en France 1800-1940,” Histoire et mesure 23, no. 1-2 (2003): 147-98 Google Scholar; Thomas Piketty, Gilles Postel-Vinay, and Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, “Inherited vs Self-Made Wealth: Theory and Evidence from a Rentier Society (Paris 1872-1937),” , April 14, 2010 version, which outlines a second distinction that, in pre-Revolutionary French law, consisted in the fundamental difference between “inherited” and “self-made” wealth. In Pierre de Marivaux’s play Le préjugé vaincu (first performed in 1746 and published in 1747), Dorante, rich and “by all accounts well respected” but a commoner, falls in love with Angélique, the daughter of a marquis, who rejects him because of her aristocratic prejudices. In Scene 7, she overcomes her prejudice by declaring: “Dorante did not make his fortune; he found it already made. Dorante’s family is very good and very distinguished, even if lacking in nobility: it is one of those families that are involved in everything and ally themselves with everyone.” Dorante’s rival, whom Angélique professes to love, is both a baron and a close relative. However she scarcely knows him and he appears to be a caricature of mediocrity.

21. On page 200, Masson cites Luc Arrondel, André Masson, and Pestieau, Pierre, “Bequest and Inheritance: Empirical Issues and France-U.S. Comparison,” in Is Inheritance Legitimate? Ethical and Economic Aspects of Wealth Transfers, ed. Guido Erreygers and Toon Vandevelde (Berlin: Springer, 1997), 89-1251Google Scholar.

22. Bourdieu, Jérôme and Kesztenbaum, Lionel, “Vieux, riches et bien portants. Une application de la base ‘TRA’ aux liens entre mortalité et richesse,” Annales de démographie historique 107, no. 1 (2004): 79-105 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23. Bourdieu, Pierre and Passeron, Jean-Claude, Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture, trans. Richard Nice (London: Sage Publications, 1977; repr. 1990)Google Scholar.

24. Braun, Rudolf, “‘Staying on Top’: Socio-Cultural Reproduction of European Power Elites,” in Power Elites and State Building, ed. Wolfgang Reinhard (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 235-59 Google Scholar. This author, writing from a perspective that draws on both Bourdieu and Weber, emphasizes the interplay of constraints that govern social reproduction, which is rarely a calm and settled stream.

25. Naudet, Jules, Entrer dans l’élite. Parcours de réussite en France, aux États-Unis et en Inde (Paris: PUF, 2012)Google Scholar.

26. Castel, Robert, From Manual Workers to Wage Laborers: Transformation of the Social Question, trans. Richard Boyd (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2003)Google Scholar, a book that emphasizes just how recent and ephemeral the “salaried society” was that is currently crumbling before our eyes. Historians, who know that salaried labor was not common before the eighteenth century (or even afterwards), will not need to refer to the arguments of Vries, Jan de, The Industrious Revolution: Consumer Behavior and the Household Economy, 1650 to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, which adopts, from a methodological point of view, the exact opposite approach from Masson’s.

27. Dubet, François, La galère. Jeunes en survie (Paris: Fayard, 1987)Google Scholar. It is true that Dubet is talking about young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

28. Meillassoux, Claude, Mythes et limites de l’anthropologie. Le sang et les mots (Paris: Éd. Page deux, 2001)Google Scholar, 16, writes: “in an unequal society, the concept of the biological (blood-related) family can only be applied in full to the wealthy.” Godelier, Maurice, The Metamorphoses of Kinship, trans. Nora Scott (London: Verso Books, 2011), 85 Google Scholar, writes: “for a peasant without anything to transmit and a lord who has titles, lands, and a glorious genealogy to hand on, kinship can have neither the same meaning nor the same importance.” It is not difficult to find parallels between these analyses and our contemporary society.