Can nepotism be good?


TODAY there is a widespread perception of a tilt towards nepotism; the political class along with other sectors of our society is increasingly filled with the offspring of established parents.


This phenomenon has gone largely unnoticed or has been apprehended in a piecemeal fashion. The few who have commented on it have voiced alarm that we are returning to a society based on hereditary status complete with a corporate aristocracy and a political house of lords.

Is this trend an ominous departure from societal principles or a return to occupational traditions within families which is much a part of national fabric than most people realise?

The proliferation of family ties has been broadly described as a “new nepotism” or a “new dynasticim” in global politics. There is an undeniable advantage to bearing a recognisable name in a media-driven electoral system and to having easy access to parent’s fundraising and political networks.

Whatever the cause, the dramatic surge in family succession signals a quiet revolution as a new generation comes forward to claim its inheritance. Some citizens have viewed the new successors as opportunists trading on their famous names and family connections.

However, many others embrace the notion that continuing a family tradition has a dignity and value of its own. Take business for example, every year the business press devotes considerable ink to the ups and downs of business heirs taking over the running of large corporations.

These and other family appointments are called signs of a new nepotism in global business with new expectations: Observers and stockholders called these scions to take their firms in bold new directions rather than simply continuing their parents’ work. In fact, the great majority of global businesses are family owned or controlled, including many Fortune 500 companies.

Thus nepotism in business is perhaps to be expected. More surprising is the rapid growth of family succession in areas such as entertainment, the arts and sports.

No social scientist has studied modern nepotism. However, you do not need a degree in sociology to realise that there is a new boom in generational succession. The question is: What does it mean?

Why is it happening now when society is at its most democratic and individualistic state? Does it not fly in the face of our commitment to merit an equal opportunity?

Are we creating a new caste hierarchy based on occupation similar to that of the medieval guilds? More to the point, how will we square our embrace of the new nepotism with our traditional aversion to the old?

It is worth dwelling for a moment on the differences between the old nepotism and the new. The old nepotism involved parents hiring their children outright or pulling strings in their behalf.

It was also highly coercive — obedient daughters married according to their parents’ wishes and dutiful sons allowed their fathers to chart their careers and often to select brides for them as well.

The new nepotism operates not from the top down but from bottom up. It is voluntary not coercive. It springs from the initiative of children not the interest of parents. It tends to seem “natural” rather than planned.

Although not nepotism in a classic sense, it is rightly called nepotism because it involves exploiting the family name, connections or wealth. The method maybe different, but the result is much the same.

Dictionaries trace the word “nepotism” to the Latin root nepos meaning “nephew” or “grandson”. However, this etymology is misleadingly narrow.

The word derives more directly from the Italian nipote which can refer to almost any family member of any generation male or female.

Nipotismo came into wide use in the 15th and 16th centuries to describe the corrupt practice of appointing papal relatives to office, usually illegitimate sons described as nephews and for a long time this ecclesiastical connection continued to be reflected in dictionaries.

The modern definition of “nepotism” is simply favouritism based on kinship, but most people today use the term very narrowly to mean hiring not just a relative, but one who is grossly incompetent. The word is also used very broadly to describe a range of affinities that go well beyond the family.

From the working man’s perspective, nepotism means hiring or promoting the boss’s son-in-law, nephew or girlfriend over the heads of more qualified candidates.

This violates our basic sense of fairness and elicits revulsion and anger towards those who practice nepotism and evermore perhaps to those who profit from it.

Yet in family businesses nepotism is often the rule and it is usually accepted as the way things are by everyone involved. In such cases nepotism appears to be a problem only when the beneficiary is manifestly unqualified.

Economists view nepotism as an obstacle to healthy change in business firms, one that results in waste and inefficiency. Yet some acknowledge that nepotism maybe rational practice because it can reduce the cost of extensive talent searches.

Still others argue that hiring family members is the best way to promote important values of trust and solidarity. Despite official anti-nepotism policies, many executives admit that they prefer to hire relatives of current employees because their experience suggests that the proven conduct of a relative best predicts the behaviour of a prospective worker.

In most societies nepotism is first and last a class issue, a way for the rich to warehouse their employable offspring while keeping the lower class in their place. In fact, however, systematic nepotism has been practiced more or less continuously by both the upper and the lower classes, without ambivalence or apology.

It was the middle class that pushed the merit principle, rising as it did through the institutions of the market and the state in which promotions depend or bureaucratic efficiency. This is one of the things that make the new nepotism such a surprising development it is essentially a middle class phenomenon.

All societies are organised at the most basic level around the processes of marriage, reproduction and succession. Every society, therefore, evolves a “nepotistic formula” geared to its needs and conditions.

These formulas arise as adaptations to a given set of social and ecological conditions. The unique feature of the global nepotistic formula is the result of a long historical process whose dominant trend has been the breakup of the large extended families typical of Agrarian societies and the emergencies of the nuclear family as the fundamental unit of industrial civilisation.

Nepotism maybe objectively discriminatory but given that people are going to practice it anyway we may as well infuse it with meritocratic principles so that all can benefit.