In Defense of Nepotism
It’s a popular punching bag, but the antipathy isn't thought through.
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Nobody likes nepotism. It's one of those universally reviled practices in society. To be familiar with the word is to have a negative association with it. Nepotism refers to preferentially giving jobs and other favors to relatives or friends. Everyone is quick to call out nepotism when they see it, quick to belittle those who benefit from it and to cast aspersions on those who bestow it. It’s regarded as a form of corruption, a moral failing, and an impediment to progress. The problem is, nepotism’s many critics are full of shit — their antipathy poorly thought-out and mired in envy and hypocrisy.
Indulge me in a little thought experiment. Imagine a land purged of nepotism. Think about what this society would look like. Where no one could hire their friends or family, or give them any special considerations. Where you could not be hired at any company where a friend or relative worked in a senior position. Where family businesses no longer existed. Picture families of immigrants, saving up and pooling their money to move to America where they can start a business and build a better life, arriving on our shores to discover that they will be compelled to hire only those applicants deemed most qualified. Consider the many businesses and industries built on the trust of working with people you closely know in your personal life. It’s not a foolproof system, but without it, more measures and precautions would need to be taken, more costs imposed both in money and time, and that expense would be passed down to the customer.
Imagine owning a business as a parent, sibling, or friend, seeing a loved one struggling to find work, and being unable to help — not only to hire them, but to use your connections to secure them a job anywhere. What implications would this society have for inheritance? Inheritance is not traditionally covered under the definition of nepotism, and yet the logic behind each is virtually identical. It’s nepotism to leave your business to your daughter or son, but not your house or savings? A society that did not tolerate nepotism would not long tolerate inheritance.
All of this begs the question of how a prohibition on nepotism would be imposed, because it ain’t going anywhere voluntarily. Paint me a scenario where nepotism is brought down to levels that make 2022 seem like 1722 by comparison — and that doesn’t require an array of draconian laws, regulations, review boards, and agents to implement and enforce. The society of this thought experiment would be one that is less free, less liberal, and more authoritarian. Trying to help your kids and loved ones is the purpose of family. It’s an instinct that’s bone-deep and as old as the hills. It lies at the very heart of human nature. Any society that would try to suppress some of our most fundamental (and generally benign) instincts would be inhuman.
What makes people rankle over nepotism is the seeming unfairness of it. And it is unfair. Why should some people be born to parents who are CEOs or PhDs while others grow up in foster care, or to single mothers working minimum wage? There are things we can and should do to raise the floor and increase the opportunities and standard of living for all. But let’s not kid ourselves. Life is unfair, because life is luck. You don’t pick your family. You also don’t pick your talents, genes, chance meetings, interests, health, and so on. How is having well-connected parents who secure you a job logically or morally different from someone born with incredible talent in something that society values economically? Why is one to be scoffed at and the other celebrated? It’s all just luck! There is no philosophically defensible argument at the core of this double standard. It boils down to, as is so often the case, good old-fashioned envy and hypocrisy.
When people express disapproval about nepotism, it’s always the nepotism of others, never their own. Funny how nepotism is a disgraceful form of corruption that shouldn’t be allowed when others do it, but when it’s you — hey it’s the most natural thing in the world, nothing to see here, folks! Rules for thee but not for me is a telltale sign of a steaming crock of horseshit. If a friend or relative offers you a better job than you could ever get on your own, you’ll take it. And if you’re in a position to help someone you care deeply about, you’ll do it. You’re delusional if you think we’re going to get rid of that, and confused if you think that we should.
None of this is to say that nepotism should have no limits. There are circumstances where hiring the most qualified candidate matters more than the freedoms of business owners or executives. When lives or the welfare of millions are at stake, nepotism is unethical and should be restricted. A hospital president appointing his nephew to chief of surgery ahead of far more skilled and qualified doctors is wildly inappropriate and unacceptable. The owner of a furniture business promoting his son to vice president isn’t. If you’re not committing crimes, abusing employees, or endangering the public, you should be free to run your business as you see fit.
From the dawn of civilization until the past few hundred years in the developed world, nepotism was virtually the only path for success. These societies had no conception of upward mobility beyond tales of magical storybook fantasy. A society dominated by nepotism, where it was the only game in town for success and advancement, would take us right back to the days of feudalism. But a society without any nepotism would be an inhuman dystopia that crushed the most ingrained instincts essential to what we orient our lives around. While we can and should curb its excesses, nepotism is human nature, and pushing too far in the direction of purging something that runs this deep, whether by law or social pressure, will reliably fail and cause more harm than good in the attempt. Nepotism, as with so much in life, is about balance. Too much of it is detrimental. But just because you can take a thing too far doesn’t make it fundamentally bad.
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