Is Nepotism Always Wrong?

The crux of the accusation surrounding Trump’s inquiry into the Biden family’s activities in Ukraine is the suggestion that Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, won his position at a Ukrainian energy company due, wholly or in part, to Joe Biden’s position as VP in the Obama administration. In other words, the Trump administration is accusing Biden of nepotism. Democrats have been indignant at the accusation mainly because there is no evidence that the accusations against Hunter and Joe are credible. Moreover, by all accounts, Hunter studiously avoided lobbying his father on behalf of Ukraine in order to avoid any appearance of impropriety. The Democrats point to this behavior as evidence that the Bidens did nepotism 'the right way.’ But for commentators around the globe, there is a more galling irony about the context surrounding Trump’s inquiry and the Republican’s subsequent defense of the inquiry as being a simple matter of investigating possible corruption: namely, that several of Trump’s own children work in the White House despite having no real qualifications for their jobs. (If they do, there are far better candidates for their positions available.) This is obvious nepotism. 

To make matters worse, Trump is far from the only official who is guilty of obvious nepotism. Sure, Trump's daughter Ivanka works at the White House, and so does her husband Jared Kushner. But Rudy Giuliani’s son Andrew works at the White House too. He is the Public Liaison Assistant to President Trump. Attorney General William Barr's son in law, Tyler McGaughey, also works at the White House as an attorney in the counsel’s office. Meanwhile, Barr's daughter works at Treasury. It would seem that there is more than enough nepotism to start looking into right at home before turning our attention abroad. But Trump has chosen to prioritize investigating his main political rival instead, and the Republicans see nothing wrong with that.

Stepping back for a moment, with nepotism apparently rampant across the administration and political sphere in general, it is worth asking why nepotism is wrong and if it can ever be done correctly. After all, the Democrats are engaged in a high stakes impeachment battle with the Republicans about the nature of nepotism and both sides are apparently guilty to some degree. As hypocritical as it is for Republicans to defend Trump’s nepotism while chastising Biden’s, it would be just as hypocritical for Democrats to suddenly be okay with nepotism now that one of their own has been shown to engage in it as well. The situation demands a more nuanced understanding of nepotism than a simple blanket condemnation. When is nepotism ok and when is it not ok? Is it ok in Biden’s case but not in Trump’s case? Or is it wrong in both cases, but, given Biden’s son’s distance from the White House, is nepotism less wrong in Biden’s case because he did it 'the right way'? Is there even a 'right way' to do nepotism?

Nepotism is a complicated topic, but let’s start with a definition: nepotism is the act of using one's power to get good jobs or unfair advantages for members of their family when the members of their family do not deserve it or may not have the right skills, experience or motivation. The key phrase in this definition is “do not deserve it.” This is a loaded phrase for several reasons, mainly because it introduces a notion of merit that may only apply within certain socio-economic or cultural contexts. After all, no one begrudges the shop keeper for hiring their family members to run the shop for them. Moreover, in many cultures, it is expected that younger generations will eventually take over the businesses of older generations. Even in a modern American corporate context, it is fairly common for executives to secure internships or other opportunities within their organization for their children, and CEO’s and owners routinely attempt to pass ownership of businesses to their children in an attempt to form dynasties. Indeed, in many scenarios, nepotism of this sort can be seen as simply an expected perk of the job and not anything untoward. It might make some people uneasy if the specific instance of nepotism negatively impacts the careers or lives of other workers who may not have the same advantages as the beneficiaries of the nepotistic act, but when done conscientiously, nepotism can be an acceptable form of advancing one’s family prospects, at least in the realm of business.

The waters are a bit murkier in the political sphere. When politicians use their power to install family or friends in positions they have not earned via the regular channels of meritocratic effort that everyone else is forced to work through, the ethical valuation of the move will often be heavily influenced by which side one happens to be on. Politics is often treated as a zero-sum game where the rules are optional and the outcomes are all that matter. From that perspective, politicians are incentivized to surround themselves with people they trust, such as family and friends. Nepotism of this sort can be motivated more by the desire for security and defense against political enemies than by simply advancing the fortunes of one’s family and friends. But in democratic systems, the trade-off of installing trusted family members in positions of power is the potential for voters to react negatively, and express that negativity in the voting booth. After all, the voters’ interest in having a well-run government is not served by nepotism. Nepotism can also be a liability for the politician who employs it, in that the gain in trust comes at the cost of expertise or effective performance in the role, which can hurt the politician in the future.

With those distinctions in place, we can then say that the important difference between Biden’s nepotism and Trump’s nepotism, and the thing that matters about both of them, has to do with the fact that Biden’s nepotism did not impact our system of government in any meaningful way, whereas Trump’s nepotism clearly does. Because of Trump’s nepotism, the White House is staffed by a range of unqualified (or at best semi-qualified) socialites. Trump’s nepotism has jeopardized the ability of the US government to function and capped the careers of otherwise deserving political operatives in Washington for whom a job at the White House was their ultimate ambition. Meanwhile, as far as anyone can tell, Biden’s son made no meaningful contribution, positively or negatively, to the world other than by possibly facilitating small backroom dealings with a Ukrainian energy company. In Trump’s case, the interests of the American people writ large are jeopardized. In Biden’s, they are not.

Though there might not be a way to pull off nepotism at the highest levels of society in a way that is completely fair and just, there may be better and worse ways of engaging in nepotism from the perspective of national risk. When Trump put his son-in-law in charge of solving the opioid crisis, pacifying the Middle East, etc., he put the nation at higher risk than when Biden's son took a job on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. Both instances did put the nation at risk to some degree, but the danger posed by Trump’s nepotism far exceeds that of Biden’s, particularly because the latter case did not involve the direct interference of Biden himself. 

With that in mind, when Democrats defend Biden, they should be careful to point out that the level of risk the nation faced by having Hunter Biden work for a Ukrainian energy company was, while not insignificant, not nearly as great as the level of risk we are currently facing due to other instances of nepotism, such as in the case of the Trump family. Therefore, it simply makes more sense to prioritize dealing with Trump’s nepotism before dealing with Biden’s. That is common sense. Nepotism is not always wrong, but it is risky, and in the case of the President, the risk is unnecessary and irresponsible.

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