Nepotism is okay as long as you keep it in the family
Because of the Miers case (no, this isn't about Miers, promise!), the word "cronyism" has been bandied about quite a lot lately. Via Roger Simon, I found this interesting article by Adam Bellow in the National Review on the subject of cronyism and its kissing cousin, nepotism.
Bellow isn't especially interested in distinguishing between cronyism and nepotism; to him they are almost identical, since they both "offend our public creed of meritocracy." According to Bellow, the problem with cronyism/nepotism is a possible conflict with our deeply entrenched idea that getting jobs or promotions or appointments should always be based on merit only. Cronyism/nepotism muddies the waters.
Sounds reasonable, and I agree with Bellow here. I think it's true that appointing friends or family or even former colleagues to an important post can raise the suspicion that the person was chosen solely or at least primarily because of that relationship. As Bellow points out, the phenomenon is not at all unusual; cronyism/nepotism often plays at least some part in the making of a selection from among a bunch of applicants, whether in industry or in politics--perhaps especially in politics. Bellow calls it "a permanent feature of the American political landscape."
One might generalize and say not just American politics--it's probably, to a greater or lesser extent, a prominent and permanent feature of every political landscape, or of any other type of landscape where such choices are made. Unknown quantities are just that--unknowns, and therefore risky. And it is human nature to want to reward family, friends, and acquaintances, and to help them on the road to success. In politics, it's understood that one of the benefits of past service is often an appointment, a sort of quid pro quo. And even if we should want to stamp out this behavior, it would be naive to think we ever really could.
So what, then, is Bush's fatal flaw, according to Bellow? Not nepotism or cronyism itself, but cronyism without regard for the saving grace of merit:
[Bush] has made the common dynastic mistake of confusing loyalty and merit; in his eyes, the merit of people like Michael Brown and Harriet Miers consists in their being his friends. They are loyal to him, and their loyalty must be rewarded...His greatest failing is his inability to hold people accountable for their errors. Because they are his creatures, he seems unable to disown them or even to see their faults.
Putting aside the question of whether Miers lacks objective merit and is just a loyal "creature," (remember, I said this post wasn't going to be about Miers, and I'm sticking to that), I found Bellow's article to be a bit disingenuous, given his own history--for Adam Bellow is the son of Saul Bellow, a fact he fails to mention either in the article or in the short bio that accompanies it.
I'm not saying that Adam Bellow can't write. Or that he's not a fully meretricious fellow himself. I really don't know, since this article is the only work of his I've ever read--although, having heard his name before, I immediately recognized his identity.
So when I read his article, I suspected that at some time in his life his name had probably opened a few doors for him that would have otherwise remained closed. And it's often getting that first foot in the door that matters, because it turns out that the world is not really a strict meritocracy after all, as much as we'd like to think otherwise.
As it turns out, the internet is a wonderful thing. So it is that I was able to find this interview with Adam Bellow on a website devoted to information about family businesses. In it, Bellow talks about the role of nepotism/cronyism in his own life:
I didn't grow up with my father because my parents divorced when I was two. So he served more as a model than someone who was hands-on and personally involved in my learning to write. He did have a powerful influence on me, and I was clearly drawn in his direction at an early age.
He had nothing to do with my getting into publishing, however... at least, not directly. That was more of an accident after I ran out of other options. I was thirty and just married and went to see a friend of my father for advice. He directed me to Erwin Glikes, publisher of The Free Press, who hired me as an editor. Over the course of my career I have not benefited at all as the son of Saul Bellow, even though my entry was definitely facilitated by the connection. I'm a good example of what I refer to in my book as the "new nepotism."...
New nepotism is not the same kind of nepotism that people generally think of. It's not the same as we have defined in years gone by. There are important differences. With the new nepotism, parents no longer pick up the phone and pull strings. Instead, it's the children themselves who decide this on their own and they find their own way to exploit those connections.
I'm not so sure what difference it makes whether a parent makes the call or the child does--in fact, I'm pretty sure it makes almost no difference at all; it's still the relationship that greases the wheels. After all, making one's own phone calls to ask for hiring assistance from a parent's friend is hardly a model of extreme initiative.
Don't get me wrong--I'm not knocking it. I'd do it if I could, and so would most people, and I don't think it's a terrible thing at all. As I said earlier, it's the way of the world, here and everywhere, and I'd be hard-pressed to figure out a benign way to stop it, even if I wanted to.
But this business of Bellow's father having "nothing to do with" his son's getting into publishing may be a case of "I fear the man doth protest too much." Saul Bellow certainly had, as Adam Bellow himself points out, something to do with Adam's entry into the field, and entry is often the most important hurdle. How could Adam Bellow know for sure that over the course of his own career he has "not benefited at all" as the son of Saul Bellow? Would people actually be telling him if his family connections had figured into their promotion of him?
The children of the very famous often encounter something like the old problem the very rich face: does he/she love me for myself, or for my money? Hard to tell. That's why in folk tales the prince or princess sometimes dresses in commoner's rags, just to see how people will treat them if their identity is hidden. Sometimes the results are not very pretty.
[CORRECTION: Ooops! I've been informed by a kind and careful reader that "meretricious" isn't quite what I meant, not by a long shot. The word, of course, should be "meritorious"--having merit. A thousand pardons.]