Wealth inequality endangers democratic values and calls for a public response. This Article contends that family businesses merit special scrutiny because they control vast amounts of private wealth and combine two of society's most important economic institutions: family and business. Accordingly, family businesses implicate concerns regarding both inherited wealth and the concentration of economic power made possible by the corporate form.
Despite their economic significance, little has been done to investigate whether family businesses contribute to wealth inequality. This Article offers the first legal, and one of the only academic, treatments of the topic and shows that family businesses play a double role. On the one hand, family businesses reinforce existing disparities in wealth and opportunity. Heirs, after all, stand to benefit from the hard work of previous generations. On the other hand, family businesses can be a powerful antidote to inequality, disrupting entrenched class hierarchies and creating opportunities for individuals, families, and ethnic communities.
This Article concludes that whether family businesses produce net social costs or benefits depends crucially on two principal factors. First, to the extent there is a lack of public investment in social mobility, family businesses can increase the distribution of wealth by providing needed investments in human capital. Second, to the extent the rewards of capitalism are not widely shared, family businesses can offer a source of opportunity, not just for family members, but also for employees and the communities in which family businesses operate. Thus, family businesses should not be viewed in isolation; a comprehensive response to the problem of wealth inequality must involve the state, the family, and the market.
Benjamin Means, Wealth Inequality and Family Businesses. 65 Emory L.J. 937 (2016).