There was an interesting study released last month that revealed that 40% of Canadians will, at sometime in their lives, work for their father’s firm. And the more elite and wealthy you get, the higher that percentage moves, meaning children of the 1% have an almost 70% likelihood of working for papa. The blog post above singles out James Murdoch as a textbook example, a category we could easily expand to include other fortunate sons like Steve Forbes, Howard Buffett, and William Ford, Jr. — and even the occasional fortunate daughter, like Linda McMahon or Belinda Stronach, too.
In this context, it’s perhaps not surprising that so many sons and daughters follow their fathers into the political world, or even succeed him as president or prime minister. Democracies see this happen fairly regularly — just look at George W. Bush or Indira Gandhi — as do horrifying totalitarian dictatorships, as we saw yesterday when Kim Jong Un was formally crowned Supreme Leader of North Korea. Either way, the kids were just getting into the family business.
It seems to me that the primary difference between nepotism and monarchy is time and success. If your bloodline can stay nominally in charge of something long enough, your last name evolves into a brand of stability and quality which shareholders come to trust. If your first scion successor crashes and burns spectacularly, however, the whole exercise will seem pathetic and self-serving, and the once-proud family name may never recover.
Oliver Cromwell, for instance, is easy to remember as a vainglorious thug and dictator because his offspring failed to cling to power long enough to evolve into a dynasty whose mystique and allure could rival that of the Stuarts they deposed. As is someone like Baby Doc Duvalier, who, despite succeeding his father as ruler of Haiti while still a teenager, was ultimately overthrown as president-for-life after only 14 years in power. The Saud family of Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, who were every bit as self-serving and dictatorial when they first assumed control of their petro-state in 1932, today enjoy unimpeachable legitimacy and prestige as princes and kings mostly due to their ability to maintain an unbroken string of hereditary tyrants.
By installing the late Dear Leader’s young son on the throne of North Korea, the Kim family has now passed the crucial three generation milestone that generally tends to separate the successful monarchies from the wannabes. Should Kim Jong Un churn out an heir of his own someday, it’s not impossible to imagine his bloodline ruling that nation for as long as it exists, even if (or maybe especially if) the Kims themselves gradually evolve into weak figureheads masking the regime’s true party-military power apparatus. We might even live to see a day when a democratic, or South-annexed, North Korea still retains a Kim in some newly-devised, toothless head of state position to smooth the transition. This, after all, is exactly what happened with the long-reigning Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia, who despite a period of authoritarian rule during the 60s and 70s, was eventually recast as a democratic constitutional monarch in the 1990s.
Of course, the fact that this kind of DNA-based system of government can occasionally “work,” in its own troubled way, provides scant evidence that it should, especially in the face of more viable alternatives. We know that one of the most obvious downsides of rule-by-children, be it in a democracy, boardroom, or dictatorship, is that the kids in question are often far too spoiled, coddled, and sheltered to have visions of leadership that extend much beyond their own short-term self-interest; unlike their fathers, who frequently built their careers/companies/regimes from nothing, dauphins often take their life of power and influence for granted, knowing little else. A lack of attention and maturity, in turn, begets a lack of focus on survival itself, and in time the whole dynasty falls from both grace and power after no one could be bothered to maintain either the family brand or the output associated with it. A study in Denmark a few years back attempted to quantify these generalizations into hard facts, and found that any company that trusted its leadership to the CEO’s son was likely to reduce performance at a rate at least ten times greater than the alternative.
Obviously, I enjoy ranting against monarchy from the narrow perspective of the Canadian constitution (be sure to read my lastest Huffington Post piece, by the way), but when you tolerate monarchy in any context, you’re also implicitly tolerating the whole crooked principle of hereditary leadership, and all of its very obvious side-effects. I often wonder if many of the royalists who eagerly tout the merits of succession over election (“stability!” “non-partisanship!” “bred to serve!”) in a Canadian context would feel nearly as comfortable with their own boss being selected through primogeniture, or another Bush in the White House.
Democratic government yields lots of awful rulers, of this there can be no doubt. But the system itself at least nominally enshrines the principle of meritocracy, as well as allowing for rejection of the unsuitable. Hereditary rule, by contrast, seems to place a very high premium on tolerating the intolerable, and for that reason it’s a system that should continue to be opposed — both at home and abroad.