Should We Praise Nepotism?

In 2003, Adam Bellow published a piece in The Atlantic titled “In Praise of Nepotism”—he would later expand his argument into a book with the same title. Playing the contrarian in the room, Bellow argues that nepotism is in our genes (as per the phenomenon of kin selection), and that we might as well learn to live with it. In his words: “since we are clearly not going to get rid of the new nepotism anytime soon, Americans must come to terms with it. That means learning to practice it in accordance with the unwritten rules that have made it, on balance, a wholesome and positive force.”

Recently, some pundits have made similar arguments. Consider Tucker Carlson’s editorial after Chris Cuomo’s suspension from CNN. Cuomo breached journalistic ethics by actively defending his brother Andrew­—the disgraced former New York governor—from sexual misconduct accusations. In Carlson’s words, “Helping his brother is not the worst thing Chris Cuomo ever did, in fact, it may have been the best thing he ever did… that’s what you do with brothers… It’s called loyalty.”

Carlson does have a point. Cuomo—and CNN at large—can be accused of far worse things. For example, why didn’t any heads roll at CNN when someone on their staff reported that there were “fiery but mostly peaceful” riots in Kenosha, or when another of their employees reported that “a car drove through a city Christmas parade” in Waukesha, omitting the fact that the car was driven by a black supremacist?

But is Carlson correct in arguing that Cuomo’s nepotism is excusable? Loyalty is an overrated virtue. “My country, right or wrong” is the sort of jingoistic phrase that gives nationalism a bad name. The same goes for family. Yes, as Bellow argues in his book, our genes lead us to favor relatives. And unsurprisingly, in all societies and epochs, you would be expected to follow the old Bedouin adage: “I am against my brother, my brother and I are against my cousin, my cousin and I are against the stranger.”

But modern Western civilization has been different. Historically, one key distinction between the West and the rest was precisely the weakening of nepotism, and the subsequent rise of meritocracy. Blood relations became less relevant in social organization, and this enabled the sort of prosperity that only modern Western civilization has achieved. In his seminal book The WEIRDest People in The World, Joseph Heinrich ably explains how we came to live in a Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) society. In Heinrich’s estimation, the weakening of nepotism was an important step: “relative to most populations, we WEIRD people show relatively less favoritism toward our friends, families, co-ethnics, and local communities than other populations do. We think nepotism is wrong, and fetishize abstract principles over context, practicality, relationships, and expediency.”

Conservatives such as Carlson have not properly considered how socially erosive nepotism is. Carlson’s argument plays into the hands of radical leftists who insist that meritocracy has never existed (and will never exist) in Western countries ruled by elites who tightly keep privileges in the family. While leftists overblow their claims, they have a point, especially when it comes to academia. Why should college admissions give any weight to “legacy preferences”?

But leftists should first pull the beam out of their own eye. They constantly defend a new form of nepotism. For what is identity politics, if not a new version of helping your brother at all costs? Ethnic groups are essentially large families. And sadly, we now live in an age in which all ethnic groups—except whites­—are supposed to privilege their own, no matter what. In our strange world, movements such as “Buy Black” get praise from the Left, without any hint of irony.

Nepotism is bad. We should not praise it, and both the Right and the Left need to do some soul-searching in this regard. This is especially the case in higher education. Admissions and hiring must be conducted on the basis of merit and capacity, not because your grandaddy graduated from the same college. But likewise, the color of your skin must also be irrelevant in these considerations. The sooner we understand this, the farther we will go in our pursuit of an educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic society.

Image: Ante Hamersmit, Public Domain


One thought on “Should We Praise Nepotism?”

  1. My recollection of Bellow’s book is that he proves that nepotism is ubiquitous and has been throughout history (even Franklin did it), but he gives zero evidence that it is desirable. I love Tucker, but his economic thinking is muddled on a good day: He should stick to cultural and political issues.

    Nepotism can be good or bad, depending on whether rigorous hiring standards remain in place. Family relationships increase cohesion, and a tightly knit organization culture can yield collegiality and trust, which in turn can enhance coordination, efficiency, and quality. The Japanese firms have achieved this through hiring top management from a handful of elite universities, lifetime employment, and intensive in-house socialization, a process not quite nepotistic but almost so. Akio Toyoda, the great-grandson of the founder, is today the president of Toyota, and various Fords continue to play a role in a firm that seems to currently be undergoing a rebirth. The computer firm SAS used regional and sometime nepotistic hiring (not with respect to the owner but with respect to rank-and-file managers) to enhance stability and trust.

    That said, there are many reasons to avoid nepotism. Family businesses benefit from family hiring only when they apply the same rigorous standards to family members that they would to outsiders. The third generation of the Pressman family destroyed the iconic New York men’s store Barney’s for failing to do so, and there are innumerable other examples. Perhaps only one of a dozen heirs is suited to ruin the business. Careful selection methods and a long apprenticeship period work best. Nepotism can be especially destructive when the family members (or friends of rank-and-file managers) are not held to the highest standards. The television show “Succession” illustrates this; the children are self-destructive, comical fools. That makes good television fun, but it destroys businesses and other institutions. The trust that comes from filial relationships has value if and only if the job applicant has qualifications that meet or exceed those required for others. Nepotism is useful as an increment but destructive as a sole or decisive hiring criterion.

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