In Praise of Nepotism.  By Adam Bellow. Random House, 2003.

Reviewed for Family Business Review, 2009


“What kind of society is this, where you’re afraid to appoint your nephew or your son or your relative, for fear of what might be said?!?” Chicago’s Richard J. Daley (father of the present mayor) famously screamed at his City Council. That must be the only omission from this book, whose author surveys three thousand years of anecdotal cases about the generational continuity of power and influence.

Adam Bellow defines nepotism as “altruism limited to family members”—a form of discrimination, in other words, as opposed to earned status based on talent, effort, and devotion to the public good. Like the inimitable Mayor Daley, he wants to defend the family value of nepotism against “the extreme contempt” in which he feels it is held by many others.

Bellow asserts that nepotism, in that broad sense of successful people greasing the wheels of advancement for their kin, got a bad name over the millennia, but that it has evolved into a healthy thing for the American polity. It’s not clear where he sees a serious controversy, nor whether the diverse forms of family advancement he lumps together have enough in common to generalize about. Public officials appointing family members to lucrative positions ahead of more qualified applicants always attract critics, but what does that have to do with a popular Senator appearing at his nephew’s campaign rally in a free election for a seat in Congress from another state? Much less an owner hiring a son or daughter in their family-owned business?

Given the fact that some children of public servants, like those of artists, athletes, scientists, and entrepreneurs, will inherit genetic advantages similar to the parents’, as well as being exposed to the tools and the norms of those trades from an early age, many of the author’s examples merely show non-random choices of profession, rather than nepotism by any definition.

Bellow says in his introduction, but fails to establish with evidence in more than five hundred densely printed pages (more words, one suspects, than any two of his father’s novels), what we have now in America is a “New Nepotism,” somehow a blend of the best elements of aristocracy and meritocracy.


Reviews of the book ranged from dismissing it as an amateur’s compilation of historical anecdotes lacking cogency or significance to “a must read for anyone involved in a family business.” Whoever reads it for the latter reason is sure to be disappointed, full of engaging stories as it is.

Asserting a generalization doesn’t make it true, let alone useful. Bellow claims, “The American political class is increasingly filled with the offspring of political families.” On the contrary, almost half the book details multigenerational political families from Colonial America through the offspring of Jack, Bobby, and Teddy. It seems to have been a constant rather than increasing.

 “No social scientist has studied this phenomenon. But you don’t need a degree in sociology to realize that the boom in generational succession is something new in scope and character.” Actually, you do; at least you need systematic historical or journalistic research, testing propositions against evidence.

Instead of supporting his broad assertions, Bellow wanders through anthropology, evolutionary biology (“the purest case of nepotism in nature is that of the cellular slime mold”), and comparative religion. Is the importance of kinship in hunter-gatherer tribes relevant? Perhaps, but not when treated superficially. And it’s a stretch to assume that a survey of the 15th century Borgias’ nepotism has anything to teach us about political or business succession in 21st century America.


Does nepotism in politics have much to do with family firms or their succession?

 Family business successors differ from all the other beneficiaries of “altruism toward kin” that Bellow describes, in that the owning family is perfectly entitled to appoint them. It’s not depriving others in the community, state, or country of their fair shot at controlling that family-owned business or inheriting that family’s wealth

The word nepotism (nephew-ism, originally referring to several centuries of licentious popes’ “nephews”) only exists to cover the kind of preferment that is illegitimate or unfair. The continuity question in families we work with is which family members, among those legitimately entitled, will be selected to lead; which others will help them carry the enterprise forward for another generation; and which ones will go off in other directions.

Bellow touches on that in a paragraph about the impact of Old Testament stories on Western conceptions of the family:

“Unlike the civilizations of India, Africa, or China, the Bible offers a realistic image of family life that … affords no guarantee of harmony, loyalty, or even affection. Instead, from the beginning, the family is presented as a setting of competition, envy, even murder: the source of our greatest passions and the locus of our greatest sins. It is the dynamism of this patriarchal family, full of competitive siblings, jealous wives, and rebellious sons, that drives the action of the story.”

How little has changed, and how much more significant are the questions that come to mind about all that competition, as opposed to the mere fact of generational succession. Of course people try to advance their offspring and their relatives when they can. How well or how poorly is that goal served in various circumstances, by the competitive processes involved, both rational and emotional?

The case of John Adams is particularly interesting for the internal battle he fought between political philosophy and his nepotistic impulses. Bellow’s ten pages on this founding father, a fine summary, will be familiar to readers of David McCullough’s biography or viewers of the HBO series based on it. It does have relevance to family business, both because we can see parallels to a subgroup of our clients and because Adams would be an extreme case even among those.

Bellow quotes this astonishing letter:

“I will not bear the reproaches of my children. I will tell them that I studied and labored to procure a free constitution of government for them to solace themselves under, and if they do not prefer this to ample fortune, to ease and elegance, they are not my children, and I care not what becomes of them. They shall live upon thin diet, wear mean clothes, and work hard with cheerful hearts and free spirits, or they may be the children of the earth, or of no one, for me.” 


Principled words, not by Lenin but our second President. Yet inconsistent, we learn, with the reality of Adams’s paternal relations. He advanced his eldest son, the first of our four dynastic successors to the Presidency, at the expense of his two other sons. When Charles drank himself to death, “his father the president refused to see him. … He was denied burial in the family crypt, and the Adamses never spoke of him again.”

Missing from Bellow’s book is an awareness that the desire to preserve wealth is much more than the desire to advance one’s children’s security, careers and influence. John Adams’s behavior appears less hypocritical, though no less harsh, if we see his favoritism in the light of how “good son” and “bad son” reflected on himself—their altruism toward him, in other words, not his toward them.


Darwin in the boardroom?

Bellow’s tangent into theories of evolution (classing nepotism among the things parents of every species do to promote the success of their genes) is silly. It applies least of all to a business owner, the spread of whose genes depends entirely on the number of his progeny rather than on which of them, if any, carry on the business.

Actually, competition and survival of the fittest are pervasive forces within successful families. Business advisors and researchers, as well as family members, are more struck by those competitive dynamics and their consequences than by the fact that parents try to promote their clan as a whole.

In a competition for family business succession, if the fittest to lead succeeds without actually murdering his or her competitors for the top job, it has no effect on the founder’s genes. It does help his non-biological legacy survive: the business. So, if parents assert control over the choice of successors, it must be either because they believe the business will be fitter to survive under particular children’s leadership or because they’re more concerned about what’s best for different children. Either way, it is their personal legacy not their genes they’re promoting. So it makes no sense to talk about nepotism as a biological phenomenon in this connection. Human thought long since supplanted the force of the selfish gene, in favor of emotional attachment to legacy institutions.

When the author gets around to making assertions about different methods that nepotists employ (“the nepotistic arts” as he nicely puts it), he is still lumping business, politics, and philanthropic institutions together. A serious book exclusively about family firms’ favoritism versus meritocracy would go beyond the obvious. Yes, parents try to use their resources to promote the welfare of their progeny (the businesses and foundations they create, not only their children and grandchildren). That fact leads to questions that don’t appear in this book: What roles do the processes of competition within families play in selecting leaders? How effective are they in achieving the various goals of wealth creators (long-term family financial security, survival of the legacy business, social causes, etc.)?

Are there typical paths that next generation members take when not selected for leadership, paths for those who stay active within the FOB as compared with those who pursue lives in other directions? How much of each kind of family capital do they take with them? Where the answer to that is “less than their numerical share,” parental favoritism isn’t always, or even usually, responsible for the inequality. Often it is simply the parents’ belief that survival of the business is the higher calling, necessitating or deserving the greater share of resources.