Is nepotism sending the U.S. back to the Middle Ages?

The Argument

Historic meritocracy is under attack -- and threat -- by a privilege movement.

Books

October 12, 2003|By Daniel J. Kornstein | Daniel J. Kornstein,Special to the Sun

At times it seems as if Americans are going back to the Middle Ages. One's lot in life then depended entirely on the status of one's parents. In this country, by contrast, individual merit, not inherited status, was our inspiring national credo. Now, however, subtle and disturbing signs of feudalism are reappearing in our society.

Children of famous politicians trade on their well-known names when they run for office, even for president. Recent efforts to reduce or eliminate estate taxes have succeeded. Alumni use legacy admissions to get their offspring into college.

Supporters do not discuss these actions in terms of meritocracy. Instead they justify (read rationalize) their anti-meritocratic steps in the guise of fulfilling other, supposedly higher, more urgent goals. Thus, we are told, wealthy, dynastic political candidates are less likely to be corrupt; eliminating estate taxes helps small farmers and businessmen; and alumni legacies provide a needed flow of funds to colleges. Such specious rationalizations mask the medieval nature of their attack on meritocracy.

The insidious attack has suddenly come out into the open. Emboldened by its successes, the assault on meritocracy now loudly trumpets its true nature. With bugles blaring, drums beating and flags flying, the new movement back to the Middle Ages has at last found its spokesman in the recently published In Praise of Nepotism (Doubleday, 565 pages, $30) by Adam Bellow.

The son of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow, Adam Bellow has written a book that should make his famous, talented and self-made father cringe. It should also distress every other person who has struggled long and hard for success. In Praise of Nepotism should appall anyone who believes in the ideal of equal opportunity and meritocracy.

Bellow sets forth a simple but breathtaking, overbearing, presumptuous and profoundly reactionary, even scary, thesis. According to Bellow the Younger, nepotism -- which he defines as exploiting one's family name, connections or wealth -- is a basic human instinct, like sex and aggression. It is, he claims, the "bedrock of human existence" and is a "wholesome and positive force."

Bellow writes like an apologist for the divine right of kings and the caste privileges of barons and lords of the manor. He enthusiastically welcomes the "return of the hereditary and dynastic principle in the hearts of the American elite," which he sees as an "encouraging sign." This country, in Bellow's view, "needs more not less nepotism." "Nepotism works," Bellow announces, "it feels good, and it is generally the right thing to do."

Phew! No one can accuse Bellow of mincing his words or of being mealy-mouthed. The trouble is, he is serious. But to quote Bellow is to ridicule him, and to state Bellow's argument is to refute it.

Even Bellow realizes that nepotism clashes with cherished American ideals. The ideal of selection and advancement according to merit has long been a keystone of America's ideology, a sacred first principle. Bellow concedes that nepotism violates our basic sense of fairness, which expects each of us to be judged on our own intelligence, talent, creativity -- on our individual merit, not that of our parents.

He is conscious of the long war between the hereditary principle and the principle of merit, between birth and worth. From its beginnings, America repudiated Old World hereditary aristocracies in favor of meritocracy. The American ideal was that one's lineage would not count for success, but one's abilities and efforts would.

The meritocratic ideal has, unfortunately, never squared perfectly with American reality. Social life in America has been and still is full of inherited privilege. Bellow spends the bulk of his book describing the role of nepotism in history and demonstrating that it is "very much a part of our national fabric." Faced with a reality that falls short of the ideal, Bellow favors trimming the ideal. "Since we are not going to get rid of [nepotism] anytime soon," writes Bellow, "Americans must come to terms with it, and that means learning to practice it." (Would Bellow say the same thing about racism?) Bellow's book is pernicious and dangerous nonsense. The desire to be judged on merit is one reason why many of our immigrant ancestors came here.

The feudal roots of Bellow's argument are not far below the surface. "Europeans in general," Bellow notes, "have a much more relaxed and balanced view of nepotism. ... They tend to accept it as part of the fabric of things."

Although Bellow cites this European attitude as supporting evidence, it really reveals the lingering effects on the European mind of the long, stratifying experience of feudalism. In breaking with England, Americans rejected that experience. If, as Bellow says, "Extreme antipathy to nepotism is an American phenomenon," that is a high compliment, not a criticism, of American political theory.

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