Priests and potentates used to appoint their nephews to offices or grant them special privileges. The Latin for “nephew” is “nepos.” This practice is known as nepotism.
Nepotism seems bad. But what is wrong with it? Parents often teach their children the family business and pass it down to them. Children often shadow their parents at work and inherit a business or profession. It makes sense to employ family members who share common values.
It is often virtuous to prefer your kin over others. Imagine that your child and a stranger fall overboard in a storm and you can only save one person. Who should you save: your child or the stranger?
If you save the stranger and let your child drown, some might suggest that you are a terrible parent. We have special obligations to care for family members. A family is a web of loyalties, promises, dependencies and love.
But government based upon kinship smells undemocratic. Which brings us to Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law. Trump has appointed him as a senior adviser. That’s nepotism.
There is nothing wrong with the Trump children helping to run their father’s casinos. Nor was it wrong of Martin Luther King Sr. to invite his son to share his pulpit. Neither was it unethical for Eli and Peyton Manning to follow their father as NFL quarterbacks.
It’s differrent in government
But in the public sphere, things are different – or they should be.
Despite this law, President Bill Clinton appointed his wife to head up health care reform efforts in the 1990s. Ironically, the Clinton case sets a precedent for Kushner’s appointment. Certain White House appointments are exempt from the law.
Familial maneuvering is not surprising in politics. American politics often has been a family affair.
The Bush dynasty gave us two presidents and a governor who ran for president. George W. Bush’s opponent, Albert Gore Jr., followed in his father’s footsteps as senator from Tennessee. During the George W. Bush administration, Elaine Chao was appointed labor secretary. She is the wife of Sen. Mitch McConnell. Now McConnell is the Senate majority leader and Chao has been appointed transportation secretary.
And so it goes. Mitt Romney’s father, George, was governor of Michigan. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fifth cousin was Theodore Roosevelt, who was also Eleanor Roosevelt’s uncle. In California, we’ve had either Pat or Jerry Brown as governor for 22 of the past 60 years.
These dynasties are not illegal. Illegal nepotism occurs when favoritism toward a member of one’s own family results in a direct appointment to a position or office. Pat Brown did not appoint Jerry as governor. Nor did George H.W. Bush appoint his sons to their offices.
Dynasties smell, too
But this still smells undemocratic. In a democratic republic, governmental positions should be based upon merit. Thomas Jefferson suggested we need leaders with “worth and genius” instead of rulers who come from “wealth and birth.” Jefferson suggested there is a natural aristocracy of “virtue and talent.” The development of natural excellence is often inhibited by nepotism and dynastic rule.
Dynastic politics also creates family feuds and factionalism. Traditional feudal aristocracies often pitted families against one another. And yet, political dynasties can create stability. Political families have networks of supporters and reserves of expertise, which can be used for good.
But closed family networks are not always beneficial. One practical concern about nepotism in any organization is that a closed circle of advisers creates an echo chamber. A system of family loyalty undermines open debate and innovation. The old empires included yes-men and courtiers, who supplicated and acquiesced to those in power. Democratic societies value those who speak truth to power, encouraging free and critical thought.
The Constitution was established to provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity. Our government should not be used to promote a family’s fortunes or agenda.
Nepotism violates the spirit of open access and equal opportunity that democratic societies celebrate. Democratic people should be wary of nepotistic political dynasties, whether the family in question is Kennedy, Bush, Clinton or Trump.