In Praise of Nepotism: A History of Family Enterprise from King David to George W. Bush.

Author:Whalen, Charles J.
Position:Book review

In Praise of Nepotism: A History of Family Enterprise from King David to George W. Bush, by Adam Bellow. New York: Anchor Books. 2004. Paper, ISBN 0385493894, $16.00. 565 pages.

As the study of social provisioning, institutional economics necessarily casts a wide net in its investigations. The market, state, and family are all within the bounds of institutionalist analysis, and much has been written about these spheres and their interrelations.

The age-old social practice of nepotism, however, has received scant attention from institutionalist scholars. Thorstein Veblen (1914), of course, saw significance in the instinctive "parental bent" from which nepotism springs. More recently, William Dugger's (1989) Corporate Hegemony detailed how the corporate career game involves nepotism-soaked "sponsored mobility" (in contrast to the "contest mobility" of a meritocracy). Still, these are among the notable exceptions.

Yet institutionalists are not alone in overlooking this subject. According to Adam Bellow, a New York-based editor (and son of novelist Saul Bellow), he made a shocking finding when seeking to write an article on the topic a few years ago: "The first and only book explicitly devoted to nepotism is a seventeenth-century tract ... translated as The History of the Popes' Nephews" (p. 20). He adds, "I had to write the book I needed to read in order to write the shorter polemical work I had envisioned" (p. 21).

In Praise of Nepotism is that book, a volume that draws on scholarship in an array of disciplines and that traces nepotism across history. Although I quarrel with one of the author's primary conclusions, I recommend the work highly to evolutionary economists.

Many Americans like to think the United States is a meritocracy. Bellow's book, however, shows that nepotism is alive and flourishing in twenty-first century America. In fact, Bellow argues that the practice is in the midst of resurgence. His examples of family influences upon present-day employment and careers begin with politics (the presidential election in 2000 was just the tip of the iceberg), but attention is also given to business, the labor movement, the military, the arts, entertainment, sports, and numerous professions.

Of course, nepotism has always existed. It's a human drive: normal, natural, and "basic to human survival" (p. 22). But nepotism, a preference for kin that often involves coercion as well as reciprocal altruism, is not merely a biological phenomenon...

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