Friday, October 21, 2005

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.]

16 Comments:

At 2:26 PM, October 21, 2005, Anonymous Richard Aubrey said...

Churchill, in his biography of Marlborough, refers to the politics of the late seventeenth, early eighteenth century and the nepotism/cronyism. He also refers to the slow dissemination of information.
Things took more time in those days, leaving people less distracted than currently[he implies]and more able to think long thoughts.
By the time the nexus came, the alternatives had been thoroughly thought out. Weeks, or months, while mud and snow hindered the couriers and the court went on a hunting trip across Kent or something.
Roughly the same thing was true of nepotism and cronyism. The people had been--as he says of Marlborough's amazingly shorthanded staff in the wars--chosen carefully and tried hard.
There was merit, Churchill says.

Whether this is the case now is unclear. I have no idea about Meirs.
I do recall a story about Brennan and Ike. Ike thought Brennan was a rock-ribbed conservative based on a speech he'd heard of Brennan giving. Turns out Brennan was doing judicial courtesy for a conservative friend who was scheduled to speak but had laryngitis.
One observer said that Meirs is known to Bush to be too solidly-rooted to "grow" (become liberal so as to get the approval of all the DC elite) while on the bench.
If true, that could offset a good many shortfalls, if there are any.
Another observer said there was something approve of when you get a justice who says, "Where does it say that?"

 
At 2:48 PM, October 21, 2005, Anonymous mizpants said...

Oh Neocon, I'm shocked. You, the most literate of bloggers, misused a word. "Meretricious" doesn't mean "full of merit." It means "artifically and vulgarly attractive."

 
At 3:02 PM, October 21, 2005, Blogger terrye said...

Ever hear of John Adams and John Quincy Adams? Think they might have been related?

People complained that Bush's father picked a man he did not know. Now they complain that Bush has picked a woman he knows too well.

As for Brown, I don't think he was the problem in Louisiana as much as the locals were and considering that the US Senator Landreux is the sister of the Ltn. Governor I would say there might be some nepotism going on there.

My father and mother were very good people but they were not important to anyone except their family and friends and so I would not know what it is like to go through life with a name that opens doors.

 
At 3:48 PM, October 21, 2005, Blogger Sigmund, Carl and Alfred said...

Presidential options are vast. Even if Mr Bush's loyalty superceded his cronyistic impulses, Ms Miers could have been rewarded from what are a plethora of Presidential appointments, including plum diplomatic postings to seats on influential government boards.

There may be more to the appointment than meets the eye.

 
At 4:28 PM, October 21, 2005, Blogger neo-neocon said...

Error corrected.

Can I blame spellcheck? Well, I can try--at least a little bit. I had some other word in there--no, it wasn't "meritorious," but it wasn't exactly "meretricious" either ("meritricious", perhaps?). Spellcheck substituted the rather nasty "meretricious" and I, in a hurry, plugged it in.

But thanks for the compliment, mizpants. I'll try to live up to it in the future :-).

 
At 4:48 PM, October 21, 2005, Anonymous Jp said...

I also wonder why all the fuss with nepotism in politics. Anyone working for corporate America has seen it time and time again. There isn't a CEO in this country that doesn't hire VPs and senior people soley because they're friends. That's the way it's done. CEO's want buddies that won't stab them in the back. Sure, it's not right, but why would anyone be surprised? The only thing that surprises me is the stupidity of the American people in thinking that this is "new," or that there's a presidential candidate out there that won't do it once it office.

 
At 5:47 PM, October 21, 2005, Anonymous Paul said...

Nepotism and cronyism infect politics-left and right!

 
At 8:30 PM, October 21, 2005, Blogger Holmes said...

I think it's just the idea that somehow a Democracy should also be based on meritocracy (or meretriciousness :) ). It's the idea. The fact that it happens doesn't mean that should be the goal. Of course, looking at our politicians, I'm not sure a person's merit has anything to do with politics.

 
At 8:52 PM, October 21, 2005, Anonymous dicentra said...

In Latin American countries, "personalismo" is the rule, not the exception. You don't get anywhere in business or politics without knowing someone.

I would be surprised if that weren't the case in Africa and Asia, as well. That we resort to meritocratic ideals and practices at all is the truly remarkable thing.

 
At 8:57 PM, October 21, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

I read the first word, meretricious, and didn't recognize it. But I do recognize meritocracy and its lay-abouts.

 
At 4:06 AM, October 22, 2005, Blogger JSU said...

Bellow the lesser actually wrote an entire book defending nepotism, which didn't get the best reviews.

 
At 5:27 AM, October 22, 2005, Blogger Goesh said...

-sure seems like splitting fine hairs on a frog to me, with each but adding some fuel to the fires of the vicious, potentially bloody, smoldering contempt many Americans hold for the political system in general. Aside from that, Bush can see no wrong in Harriet or his choice of her. She damn sure will need to display some forceful and dazzling rhetoric
for the Senators, who like many pundits, seem to have their minds already set in stone. Some are insisting Bush should withdraw her nomination. To what end? What with Rove in trouble and Tom Delay being charged, the GOP's man is going to up and say he was wrong and chose a 'bad' person? Janice Brown, a Black, female former CA Supreme Court Justice currently on a Federal bench was the most logical choice. George Bush is far, far from being the sharpest pencil in the bin. I just wonder who had his ear when Harriet was put forth.

 
At 9:12 AM, October 22, 2005, Anonymous Ruth H said...

The old saying "it's not what you know, it's who you know," is not without merit. The truth is that IS the way of the world, but once you get the foot in the door you must be able to do the job. Who knows how much talent is out here in the hinderlands, music, art, literary, scientific, etc. but it has not risen to the fore because they do not have a boost up by a friend or relative.

 
At 1:26 PM, October 22, 2005, Blogger neo-neocon said...

To Ruth H:

Your comment ("Who knows how much talent is out here in the hinderlands, music, art, literary, scientific, etc. but it has not risen to the fore because they do not have a boost up by a friend or relative") reminded me of the following lines from Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Church-yard":

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

 
At 7:28 AM, October 23, 2005, Blogger terrye said...

Geosh:

So far as I know Rove has not been charged with anything yet. This is politics... scams and trumped up charges.

And as far as Bush being sharp, well he has not made his brother Jeb Attorney General has he? Just because the chattering classes are chattering does not make Bush stupid.

I think people have become so hyper critical that a lot of good people want nothing to do with the system. After all they might have a past or a family they are not proud of and we all know what that will turn into.

It seems that character assasination is more important to people than character.

 
At 12:43 PM, March 26, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi ##name##, I've been working on the backyard a few years. We finally added a pond and a waterfall but I am certainly openlandscaping to some tips on how to make our backyard look great for this spring and summer.

 

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