Commentary Magazine


In Praise of Nepotism by Adam Bellow

In Praise of Nepotism: A Natural History
by Adam Bellow
Doubleday. 565 pp. $30.00

This is a book whose provenance may well overshadow any serious discussion of its merits. Adam Bellow is a well-known editor, and he is also the son of Saul Bellow—as he notes here in an astonishingly lengthy list of current writers who are the sons or daughters of better-known writers. As an editor, he is of course very well connected; the list of those he acknowledges as offering some kind of help with this book is so extensive that one begins to wonder who in the literary world is unconnected with him.

But the point of his book is a serious one. We are a society committed to the idea that an individual should make it on his own merits, without connections and without pull. Civil-service laws should determine who gets jobs in government; academic achievement who is admitted to colleges, universities, and professional schools; competence who gets jobs in business and industry; true professional or artistic achievement who is published and who wins appointments, prizes, recognition. And yet we cannot escape the vast reach of connections and kin in determining our individual opportunities and our fate.

The obvious response to this, if we are to be true to the dominant values of our liberal and democratic society, is to be even stricter in emphasizing merit and competence over kin and connections: to extend civil-service examinations to more and higher government posts, to insist on academic achievement alone as the criterion for admission to colleges and universities and professional schools, perhaps even to require that books be submitted anonymously to publishing houses and prize committees.

In fact, however, our tendency has been to move in the other direction: to accept, even if we do not publicly acknowledge, the role of kin and connections in getting the good things of life. And so we have removed more and more positions in government from civil-service regulations, found even more reasons why merit alone should not be the basis of admission to academic institutions, taken it increasingly for granted that we should use what resources we have to advance our children and relations in the world. Our laws do not accept and our dominant social philosophy declines to recognize the claims of particular connection, but what this large volume documents, in mind-numbing detail, is that in practice we operate in a directly opposite fashion.

It is, admittedly, a dilemma. The most influential work of moral philosophy of the past half-century is John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, a book that demands and rationalizes the fullest possible degree of equality and fairness for every individual independent of any accidental property of birth or station. Not only among liberals but even among conservatives, one would be hard-pressed to find a defense of disparate or unequal treatment—except, as in the case of affirmative action, one that has been designed to achieve an even larger measure of equality. And yet ordinary life stands in stark contradiction to these principles. Who of us with children or grandchildren or relatives or friends can deny using what influence we have for their advantage? Can we hope to reconcile our values and our practices, or are we simply all hypocrites?

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Adam Bellow thinks we can achieve some kind of reconciliation. His case rests less on reasoned argument than on biology, history, and experience. We are, he writes, what we are—which is, in part, animals. Our animal nature, as the recent revival of sociobiology argues, reaches into and explains many aspects of our behavior, and forcibly commands that we advance the well-being of those closest to us by genetic connection. It is not possible to escape our nature. It exercises an authority that quite transcends the principles of universal equality and blind justice that we have developed in the course of human history, and that we have publicly come to acknowledge as our guides.

So Bellow begins his long tour with biology, going back as far as the slime mold. Then he takes us through human history, from clan, caste, and tribe, from the Hebrew Bible and the classical world, to the Middle Ages and finally to modern times. Along the way, we meet the most notorious cases of nepotistic preference: the Borgias, the Bonapartes, the Rothschilds. In all this, readers may find more than they wish to know, and specialists much at which to cavil. But the book really takes off when Bellow reaches the American colonies and the American revolution—for it is then that the ordinary and universal practice of nepotism came under direct challenge both in theory and, indeed, in practice.

As if there were not enough already to admire in the American founders—Washington, the Adamses,  Jefferson—Bellow takes us through their arduous internal struggles between, on the one hand, affection and preference for those close to them and, on the other, adherence to the principles of the new nation and its founding documents. It is an instructive and even inspiring exercise.

George Washington had no children, but he had nephews. As President, his behavior was perhaps faultless: “So far as I know my own heart, I would not be in the remotest degree influenced, in making nominations, by motives arising from the ties of amity and blood.” Here is what he wrote to one of his nephews, Bushrod Washington:

You may not doubt my wishes to see you appointed to any office of honor or emolument in the new government, but however deserving you may be of the one you have suggested . . . the eyes of Argus are upon me, and no slip will pass unnoticed that can be improved into a supposed partiality for friends or relatives.

Retired to Mount Vernon after two terms as President, Washington may have unbent a little, writing to John Adams’s secretary of war about another nephew, George Washington Custis:

If ample fortune, good Education, more than common abilities, and good disposition, free from Vice of any kind, give him a title . . . , his pretensions thereto (though not to the injury of another) are good. But it is not my desire to ask this as a favor. I never have, and never shall, solicit any thing for myself or connections.

Bellow characterizes this last disclaimer as “disingenuous,” adding that “the father of his country had made his wishes clear, and they were unhesitatingly obeyed.” But I think Bellow is being too censorious. Later he quotes Jefferson, writing about a similarly sticky situation—in this case, a kinsman who had relieved Jefferson by not pursuing an appointment: “It is true this places the [relatives] of the President in a worse situation than if he were a stranger, but the public good . . . requires this sacrifice.” Here a friend of the President was being penalized because of his connection. The problem was a painful and delicate one, and it deserves a more extended discussion than Bellow gives it.

A final exchange, this one between Adams and Washington, is perhaps the most interesting. Pondering what to do about his son John Quincy Adams, who was no neophyte but had already accumulated an impressive record in the foreign service and was eligible for a major appointment as ambassador, the new President asked Washington for advice. Here was the response:

If my wishes would be of any avail they should go to you in a strong hope that you will not withhold merited promotion from Mr. John [Quincy] Adams because he is your son. For without intending to compliment the father or mother or censure any others, I give it as my decided opinion that Mr. Adams is the most valuable public character we have—and that he will prove to be the ablest of all our Diplomatic Corps.

President Adams appointed his son ambassador to Prussia, and Washington’s judgment of his character and abilities was certainly vindicated.

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The founding fathers struggled with the issue; their recent successors seem unbothered by it. When FDR appointed his son Jimmy as his private secretary at a good salary, Eleanor objected, but Franklin rejoined: “Why should I be deprived of my son’s help and the pleasure of having him with me just because I am the President?”

Since Roosevelt, we have fallen much farther. Bellow reviews with considerable distaste the case of the Kennedys, climaxed by the appointment of Robert F. Kennedy as his brother’s Attorney General. Indeed, it may have been in part because of that appointment that a federal nepotism statute was passed in 1967. This law, Bellow observes, was in turn “the main reason why Hillary Rodham Clinton could not be named to a cabinet position in her husband’s administration.”

I am not sure this is correct. We learn from a footnote in this book that “the law does not prohibit the employment of relatives or spouses in the same federal agency; rather, it prevents officials from influencing decisions affecting the employment of such relatives.” Would this not have been considered relevant to the hypothetical case of a President appointing his wife to a cabinet position? Here, too, deeper discussion would have been welcome.

In any case, the 1967 statute was not the first of its kind. The earliest attempt in law to limit nepotism was occasioned by the scandal of Congressmen placing their relatives on the payroll, sometimes in no-show jobs. Congressmen J.R. Mitchell introduced a bill in 1932 outlawing such appointments; it passed, but was repealed five years later. Today the practice continues, and no one seems much exercised by it.

I wish Bellow had been able to offer some comparison of the practices of the Kennedys with those of the Bushes, though it is true that the latter’s story is not yet finished. He does display an unfortunate prejudice when he writes of George W. Bush and Al Gore, two presidential candidates who in different measure had been helped in their careers by being the sons of successful politicians, that “the superficial frat boy was marginally preferred [by the electorate] to the humorless, brownnosing wonk.” In fact, the frat boy ran 500,000 votes behind the wonk.

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In the postwar period, corporations as well as colleges and universities introduced anti-nepotism policies of their own, but they ran afoul of the women’s movement. This was a case in which the search for “equality” by one definition turned out to limit “equality” by another: in the 1960′s, a competent academic wife was disallowed from receiving an appointment in the same department as her husband (or vice-versa). In the wake of the expansion of women’s rights, all such rules have fallen by the way.

So what is to be done? As I have intimated, Bellow is no enemy of our present degree of kin preference. Distinguishing it from the old-fashioned sort, he calls it “modern nepotism”; in this, the initial advantage bestowed by connection is moderated by a subsequent need to show competence. He finds this quite acceptable, but once more his discussion of the issues it raises is limited and leaves much unsaid. I am sure a host of moral and social philosophers will have more to offer. Bellow deserves credit for having placed the question on the table, and I hope it will not be held against him that he has a personal interest in the matter.

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