The Family Trust
Essays Society

The Family Trust

Sebastian Milbank

Or, In Praise of Nepotism

Is there anything worse than nepotism? Surely the everyday corruption of closed circles hoarding opportunity and wealth erodes the common good: waste and delay suffuse everything from getting a license, to owning a home, or managing a business. As ordinary people’s aspirations are dashed by the bitter accumulation of petty extortionists, these thousand tiny cuts erode society’s ability to engage in collective action. Mediocrity rules as the most ruthless, craven, and obsequious rise to the top.

It is better, surely, to live in a world ever more defined by the blind justice of rules and laws rather than old money, and by contractual relationships, not grubby old boys’ clubs.

But is that really the world we live in? Ask anyone with a business or a shop about the barriers encountered in western economies, and they start to sound a lot like the typical corruption prolific in developing countries. In a charming show of Anglo-American devotion to making the world better, one law at a time, when the Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA) spent several years in the 1990s treating bricks as toxic substances, firms started shipping with a form defining a brick as a hard odorless ceramics body with a boiling point of 3,500 degrees fahrenheit.

The British government, not to be outdone, imposed the metric system on baffled British consumers and shopkeepers, and imprisoned several small businessmen in the 1990s for the high crime of using pounds and ounces rather than grams.

Prosecutions and forms in triplicate were delivered with typical Anglo-Saxon efficiency and the human rights of all involved were carefully observed. Without corruption, graft, or nepotism having made an appearance even once, businesses were harassed, commercial sectors suddenly targeted, and innocent men arbitrarily and cruelly imprisoned.

As for those who lack lawyers and managers expert in complying with the regulatory maze of the modern economy, many enterprises get stuck or just struck down on a technicality. Buildings are demolished due to esoteric planning regulations, since every worker, supplier, and customer generates overwhelming paperwork.

It’s not just those trying to make it on their own. Try applying for a job in an unfamiliar field, and you will discover you are already ineligible. Relevant qualifications, a mass of skills, and a sterling character often prove pointless when competing against people who interned at the right firms, went to the right schools, or, increasingly, tick the right boxes of identity.

Many areas of life in the United Kingdom, once full of working-class talent, have regressed into clubs almost impossible to join without the proper background and connections. Journalism and politics are obvious targets here, perhaps the arts are no surprise either, but who would have guessed entertainers and pop stars, not to mention athletes, would increasingly be drawn from elite schools and networks? Once, teenagers could turn up to work in major industries and get ahead by talent and luck. Now, people in their mid-twenties, loaded with qualifications and working mad hours, cannot break in.

Impersonal bureaucracy and digital technology were supposed to make society fairer and more equal. But, predictably—at least for students of human nature—it simply kicked off a brutal competition to game the system. In countries riddled with traditional corruption, laws and rules are routinely bent and broken in exchange for cash.

But in our more “advanced” society, winners who manipulate the rules for gain have the necessary paperwork for the money and power siphoned away. The race for ever-expanding qualifications reflects the need to distinguish oneself in a system set to erase distinctions. The more blind the system, the more opaque the methods to get seen. At least in societies based on patronage, everyone knows who the patrons are.

Another irony of this administrative system is that the more we seek to increase its accountability, the more unaccountable the system becomes. The only legitimate modes of engaging it are bureaucratic, much like a computer which only accepts the language of binary coding. Thus, every new form of accountability adds a new layer of bureaucracy, making it ever harder to locate any responsible human agent. Faced with errors, abuse, and scandal, an official can point to the obeyed rules, and—if pushed further—can launch another committee or report to investigate the previous committee or report before recommending further procedural solutions to the mass of lifeless, cloying procedure.

The most fitting analogy for our hyper-administered but economically unjust age is not some neo-Medieval vision of princes and paupers, but rather the very modern state failure of the Soviet Communist system. In it everything “worked” and modern life continued, even as the system became ever more irrational and dysfunctional, in part because the system was circumvented by and depended on illegal commercial activity.

By the 1980s, the Soviet economy was increasingly dominated by the “second economy” of blackmarket trading and illegal activity, estimated to be worth $145 billion by 1991. Because no more authoritative or coercive bureaucracy could be imagined, it proved too inflexible to accommodate reality and so forced people outside of its structures altogether. In our system, rule and law-based administration, being held in tremendous respect, is rarely disobeyed or formally subverted, but is it really so hard to think that we have much in common with late Soviet Russia?

The commonalities are several. The USSR’s collapse came about because politics ceased to operate. After the initial revolutionary moment, the discursive space of living political citizenship was rapidly closed, with a small technocratic elite in uncontested control. Very soon the spirit of real communism faded into an abstract justificatory framework for an inflexible, irrational system of paranoia, spying, and censorship. The Soviet Union fell because it was always going to fall, not by external invasion, or even internal revolution or civil war, but through the gradual evaporation of living faith in the Union. National and other older forms of identity proved to be a stronger force, and the Union split into its constituent nations built on such lines of culture, ethnicity, and religion.

And in Russia itself? The shock treatment of the Yeltsin years, with its corrupt incorporation of western meritocratic standards, lead to a new oligarchic elite and near demographic collapse, followed by a long-term demographic decline now managed by an ever-shrinking cadre of a former KGB elite, fighting for scraps, not for keeps. Meanwhile, former satellite states drifted from one dysfunctional union to another, as they joined an economically stagnant, if not shrinking, European Union.

We as western counterparts too have constructed societies that minimize “tribal” belonging and kinship, in favor of a fairer egalitarian ideal, realized through impersonal systems. Our living ferment of politics has become a frozen tundra with an insubstantial moral framework, caught in a spiral of self-justification. Populist backlashes have fared little better, either as impermanent regimes or little better than puppet theater, unable to bring about structural or institutional change. In this context it is criminally foolish to continue ignoring the deep claims of friendship, family, nation, and religion in how we conduct our political and economic life. What if much of what we derogatorily label as “nepotism” is actually good? Might we give two cheers for corruption, rightly understood?

Our human nature grounds the attractions of kinship and neighborliness. Thus favoring our closer ties over the stranger and outsider is a limited but basic virtue, one that necessarily becomes a vice when artificially suppressed. What makes hospitality such a primal virtue, as old as the travails of Odysseus, is to choose to treat the vagrant and newcomers as if they were family, worthy of protection and respect. Generosity towards “the other” assumes “nepotism” exercised towards the stranger who happens to arrive at our door, produced from resources that would otherwise be private.

Modern people well understand this principle when it comes to sexual desire—repress the sexual urge entirely and illicit sexuality will flourish, destroy courtship and dating, then porneia and loneliness reign supreme. But when dealing with no less natural urges—the desire to advance family and friends, to associate with and help our kin and familiars—the typical liberal regards a vice to contain and suppress. (Although those who deny these things so often happen to attend the top schools of their parents and friends.)

Yes, we must love our children, but it is a terrible wrong, we are told, to pass on our wealth and privilege to them, secure positions in private education, even lavish resources on their education outside of school. Unfair! Likewise, “hiring your mates” is an evil every hiring process wards off with ever greater fervor.

But “blind” hiring processes are rarely actually blind—the veil of pretended ignorance serves to protect institutions, not help applicants. Even applicants picked purely on the basis of qualifications are pre-filtered by elite institutions and workplaces that garland their resumes. At the same time we abandon patronage in the old sense for a new form of patronage, one based on “protected characteristics” and promoting “marginalized groups” that sees women, ethnic minorities, and other “victim groups” form their own nepotistic networks through “mentorship programmes,” quotas, preferential weighing in hiring processes, and lowered requirements for entry.

When a society makes no explicit provision for ties of kinship and friendship in its organization, the result is not the reign of fairness, but that covert, unscrupulous, and corrupt form of favoritism we call nepotism. Naturam expelles furca, tamen usque recurre et mala perrumpet furtim fastidia uictrix––human nature does not tolerate or co-operate with the cold ideal of meritocracy. As vast masses seek to scale the walls of impersonal administration, secret tunnels and gates gain considerable value and allure, changing and warping the very quality of associations that come into being.

Responsible associations will abide by the laws and systems, to “do the right thing.” Meanwhile, associations will form around the gaps and holes, not through relationships based on moral values but as opportunistic partnerships of mutual self-advancement. Social capital, along with economic capital, will be hoarded by the most selfish and ruthless whose self-promoting cartels will pragmatically unite to shut out everyone else from access to common goods.

The effect of many laws and systems designed to frustrate such groups is simply to raise up a wall that only such insiders can penetrate.The basic missing component is trust, in political and economic affairs alike. But trust is initially nurtured among naturally close people. Later extensions of trust are impossible, if we poison its very roots.

In denial of this, modern theorists typically regard advanced, complex mass democracies and economies as ungovernable by anything other than rigorously enforced laws and contracts. However, the opposite is the case: the more complex and attenuated across space a transaction becomes, the more subject it is to trust’s exercise to be just. The modern world operates on personal trust, yet we perversely choose to vest our trust in impersonal rules to outsource our own responsibility to make society prosper.

In the process, despite our sophisticated institutions and technologies, we have culturally regressed, losing a vital and ancient political technology, grounded in an extension of the familial and neighborly, not their destruction. In the premodern world, where there was no international contract law or gigantic blind administrations. Other various modes were necessary to get things done.

One of the most universal, deep-seated, and primordial was the law of hospitality, a technology which long preceded the invention of writing. The heads of many pantheons of gods were patrons of hospitality, from Zeus to Odin. Both deities would appear as aging beggars to hosts, both rich and poor. Those who sheltered the god would receive extraordinary gifts; those who turned him away would be cursed. While the cynical view of humanity places hostility towards the stranger at the heart of human nature, the encounter with the stranger has always been far more intimate, complex, and troubled. The stranger took on an almost divine quality, potentially a god as well as potentially a devil. In either case the law of hospitality was the best defense against harm. Those who broke this law, especially by harming a guest, risked divine punishment and social stigma.

“Do good and keep your doors open to any who may come from far or near, for he who does not do good and does not keep his doors open, will find the door of Heaven and Paradise (garodhman) closed to you,” were the words of Adhurbadh, a Zoroastrian sage. Even in the Bible, both Abraham and Lot discovered what the author of Hebrews summed up: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” This command to trust seems utterly counter-intuitive for a world far more dominated by violence and hostile strangers than our own. But given the weakness of central institutions, if one wished to travel, conduct long-distance trade, or officiate diplomacy, hospitality was absolutely required.

For the ancient Romans, the politics of the res publica relied on fides—faith, not in our sense of belief, rather in the terms we continue to use for the fidelity of a lover or the bona fides of a prospective employee. The Romans prided themselves on their rigorous fidelity, boasting that a Roman would keep his word under all circumstances. We have the famous example of Regulus. He, who had promised to return to his Carthaginian captors, did so despite the inevitable torture and subsequent death. Like today, Rome had strong law courts and contractual enforcement, but, unlike today, the ultimate basis for Roman justice rested in the trust Romans had in one another as well as in the law.

How is this relevant to us today? Crucially the primacy of trust in Rome was not an idealistic aspiration, but, like hospitality, proved a matter of necessity. Unlike the smaller Greek poleis, Rome had to maintain unity of purpose amid hundreds of thousands, and eventually millions, of citizens and inhabitants. That city was in some ways the first ancient society to resemble our own in combining republicanism, a prototypical form of mass politics, and a complex commercial economy.

Yet, in attempting, unlike the Romans, to run a mass society without trust, the West and the English-speaking world in particular, are essentially privatizing the needed social capital of kinship and friendship, ensuring that the opaque workings of influence, patronage, and access are restricted to a narrow elite.

It is a perverse coterie. Even as a closed sphere of purely private action and desire lurks uncomfortably beneath the surface, the formerly private economic sphere merges with state action, in a mutually corrupting gesture that destroys the ethos of both private endeavor and public service.

Here again Rome has precedents for our own Decline and Fall: in the late Empire, citizenship expanded when it lost its value as wealth disparities skyrocketed, but politics receded, as power was vested ever more in the militarized retinue of peripatetic emperors roaming the borders of their realms. In theory Roman citizens (and far more people were Roman citizens than ever before) had equal access to the law courts, but almost nobody had access to the Emperor when magistrates proved tyrannical, courts corrupt or ineffective, and the army increasingly in charge of policy.

Public trust shares in human nature’s foibles and weaknesses. Its tendencies towards tribalism and self-interest, irrational prejudice as well as excess of desire and appetite, naturally incline technocratic planners to minimize its influence within their systems. That cold inhuman system, however, does not change, but merely frustrates and corrals human nature. Technocracy forbids the possibility of moral transformation and social progress because it gives no scope to the human. Instead of the social machine, we need expanding circles of association, like the widening ripples of a lake.

Before technocracy, there were laws and rules, administrations and offices as antecedents of our modern institutions, but they usually worked within the grain of familiarity. Law codes were based on natural and customary law, while custom preceded law, and law did not necessarily dictate custom. Even now, legal procedure is considerably superior to bureaucracy in its human and rational nature, along with its concern for the reputation, character, and circumstances of its subject (which perhaps explains why litigation has expanded, even as association and other forms of mediation have receded). In making trust a prejudiced bogeyman, liberalism has crowded out other concerns, and shut off the path not only to bias, but also to sympathy.

Sympathy was much valued by early liberal thinkers. Still deeply embedded in a humanistic tradition, they envisioned that compassionate and rational magistrates would guarantee fair and liberal systems, navigated by a class of citizens ever advancing in education, sober judgment, and resonance with fellow men. However, their suspicion of guild and borough, parish as well as manor and estate tied these old worlds to the irrational customs and suspicions of outsiders. Because these roots of a wider sympathy were already under assault, the result was to privatize it—as what Adam Smith phrased “a moral sentiment”—and base public law and contract upon rational calculations and egoistic motivations.

Liberal rationalists, while divided on the legacy of antiquity, looked towards a republican society governed by free and virtuous citizens. Because humankind was thought to be inherently rational, a society that prioritized citizen rule would be naturally just.

Such pursuits of power and glory within public life, as the American founders assumed, were at once inevitable and rational tendencies. They just needed to be reined-in by a framework of cooperation and moderation as the most rational course for the self-interested man. Shaped in many respects by an antique model of politics as the competing dignities of groups and individuals, the framers sought to “solve” politics by having “ambition counteract ambition.”

A lot has happened since then, and the consequences of trying to set aside human nature’s natural prejudices should have been more obvious. Given a system that made every effort to discourage political faction and the domination of any one group or individual, the effect has been a political culture of extreme tribal partisanship, the politicized judiciary, and the administrative usurpation of deliberative and legislative politics.

Early on, this humanism was subordinated to a positivist and utilitarian attitude. A series of English biologists and economists as well as German philosophers and historians led the nineteenth century charge towards pessimism about human nature, though without ever abandoning rationalism. Eventually Americans caught on. The liberal order’s problem was supposedly not that there is more to the good life than reason, rather that real people, left to their own devices, were unworthy of being considered rational.

Thus the world saw the birth of a truly post-human civilizational project. Though systems were not immune to being looked at with suspicion—far from it—the human component was always the most suspect of all. This perspective has remained remarkably unchanged amongst modern and postmodern thinkers up to the present. Institutions are subjected to permanent revolution whose direction of travel is always away from direct human relationships and towards bureaucracy, rules and regulations, systems and solutions, to say nothing of transgression and identity.

Yet, reason is simply not what rationalists take it to be. Custom, dignity, and aesthetics, as well as affection, fraternity, and tradition are not irrational because they obey an order of logic different from that of mathematics, engineering, and physical science. They embody a larger mode of reason, not its negation. When we subordinate or excise these aspects of human life from collective decision making, the result is not a more logical society, but a descent into a Terry Gilliam-style dystopia of total irrationality. Only living, breathing human beings can integrate reason with emotion, aesthetics, and ethics. Thus, if such as these are exiled from a merely mechanical and digital reason, they will exact an atavistic revenge. Which we see now with our own Soviet state of the union.

So what would such a humanistic mode of economic and political organization look like, if social capital were restored to the masses without the evils of corruption? There are no easy answers. One might have to accept those evils as a worthy trade-off. To create a high-trust economy, we must first wager to trust others—which is always a risk and leap of faith.

We must first consider other forms of economic organization than the increasingly static and state-like modern corporation. Professional associations, co-operatives, and guilds that host apprenticeships, not to mention universal paths of patronage and mentorship, form crucial parts of the answer. Large companies still have a place, but the HR department’s reign must end, to be replaced with organized labor and industrial democracy. Let elected workers and employees hold the company to real, sympathetic, and participatory account, rather than rely upon rules that over-inhibit while yet subject employees to interested manipulation.

Likewise, the administrative state must be held accountable to political office. It must both devolve more powers and services to local government, and have more elected positions within public services. No less crucial is the power transfer in education away from government monopoly and towards parents and communities. Rather than an unwieldy leviathan, the state must become small but decisive, working to promote the common good within every field of endeavor and organization, yet without seeking to control and run all aspects of life. Within education, for instance, the government should cease micromanaging the examination process, to instead insist that children be reared in their nation’s history, customs, laws, and contested virtues.

The shift to such policies and approaches, centered on character formation and self-organization, is fully possible in practical terms, despite the tremendous erosion of inherited cultures and practices. The ideological barriers come from disciples of rationalistic liberalism that trusts systems over people, and posits universal rights only as measures to restrict our ability and obligation to associate freely. The Human Resources bureaucracy flows from the Human Rights administration, and both vitiate our mutual duties towards common life.

In sum, favoritism toward family and friends is both natural and good, to be only qualified by law and regulation, but never disallowed. The common good flows not from lonely individuals subservient to abstract norms, but from the widening of humanizing associations among real life, flesh-and-blood men. So why not try nepotism? If we shouldn’t make our nephews cardinals, at least hire them at the family firm. Either would do.

Sebastian Milbank is the Executive Editor of The Critic magazine. Having earned his doctorate from Cambridge University’s Faculty of Divinity, he has written for The Telegraph, Mere Orthodoxy, and First Things, among other places. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.

Featured image: Ulysses transformed by Athena into a Beggar painting (1775) by Giuseppe Bottani via Wikimedia Commons.