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Welfare Is the Best Weapon Against Nepotism

Bryan Bedder / Getty Images

With another round of Bush versus Clinton looming (and everyone putting aside time to call their moms this Sunday), nepotism is enjoying something of a renaissance in certain corners of America. Yesterday, Kevin D. Williamson of National Review Online argued that, since families are a source of inequality due to both breeding and nepotism, the liberal fascists will soon mark them for destruction. Quickly, wealthy families of the world: unite! 

Today, The New York Times’ David Brooks gave family dynasties a hearty endorsement in one of his increasingly deranged fireside chats, suggesting that since some “powerhouse families” regularly produce successful members, "we should be grateful that in each field of endeavor there are certain families that are breeding grounds for achievement. … I bet you can trace ways your grandparents helped shape your career," Brooks advises, proving once again he knows zero people who are not rich.

The sudden swell of praise for filial favoritism among conservative pundits comes as no surprise: Combine a heavy emphasis on family values with an equally intense desire for money, and the outcome is what we from the South recognize as good ol’ boy networks, wherein a hapless dweeb who can barely manage a baseball team stumbles into the presidency because his daddy made a good run of it. Examples of the perils of nepotism are scattered throughout history, with lunatic kings and savage tsars and incompetent princes galore. But these are extreme cases. And furthermore, I suspect Williamson and Brooks are correct when they suggest that there really is neither an effective nor humane way to put an end to the many unearned advantages some lucky offspring glean from their kin. 

Families will always prefer their own, and parents will always be inclined to do whatever is in their power to secure a future for their children. None of this is inherently wrong; indeed, these are the same impulses that have perpetuated the human race. The trouble is that some dynasties accumulate so much wealth and influence that the social mobility of other, less fortunate children becomes increasingly unlikely. Where Williamson and Brooks are wrong is to presume the solution to this problem needs to involve some tinkering with families themselves.

Nepotism is especially good at securing covetable slots in society—that is, jobs and positions that come with a great deal of wealth and cultural capital. Consider the Sony exec who bought his daughter into the Ivies: her degree, though purchased, will still out-prestige another candidate’s state school degree when it comes time to compete for jobs. (That is, if she even has to search for a job outside Sony.) To make sure that these rare and desirable slots are equally available to the rich and poor alike, one potential solution could be to assign them by lottery—which is the kind of bizarre answer that only seems likely to sweaty right-wing columnists plagued by leftist night terrors. A far more sensible solution would be to assemble a welfare regime that will guarantee that, no matter who you are, you can live a long and healthy life.

After all, if we acknowledge that sources of income—especially the choicest jobs on the market—are destined to be acquired through sheer luck, then it makes sense to put in place a failsafe for the unfortunate masses who are born to ordinary people. Universal healthcare, child benefits, heavily subsidized or free college education, and basic incomes are all sturdy and sensible programs that can ensure that all citizens, regardless of their parentage, will have a fair shot at enjoying their lives and their potential. We would all likely care a lot less about the special avenues to wealth available strictly to the parentally privileged if missing out on those juicy jobs didn’t mean losing health insurance, slipping into poverty, and finding oneself unable to afford a family of one’s own.

So I guess that, in the end, I’m with Williamson and Brooks: Nepotism is here to stay, and there’s no sense in fighting the partiality of parents for their children, especially when it comes to jobs. To respect the sanctity of those family relationships—and to save the conservative commentariat the horror of anti-nepotism policies—we need only to make sure no other person’s future is compromised, which means putting a strong system of wealth transfer programs in place. Thus, poor kids everywhere can rejoice: welfare is (rich) family-friendly after all!