Dictator Dynasties

Dictator Dynasties
  •  emoticon

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.


  1. Nitpicker

    The Saudi monarchy significantly predates the establishment of the Saudi state in 1932; a lot of their initial legitimacy arose from the fact that their emirate had been fighting the Ottomans for the preceding two hundred years.

  2. David

    Not to mention that I don't believe Saudi Arabia was a "petro-state" in 1932, I think oil was discovered after the state was created.

  3. @Kisai

    So are we on the way to seeing Rogers, Shaw, Thomson (Reuters),Jim Pattison, and Weston children burn their companies to the ground yet? I know the Shaw shareholders seem to think so.

  4. Dryhad

    I'm not sure the difference is as simple as time, or if it is, not so little as three generations. I'd argue the difference is that kings call themselves kings, whereas "Dictators" paint themselves as nothing at all like the kings that, in all likelihood, they built their careers overthrowing (which doesn't stop them from being as bad or worse, naturally). To find examples of non-monarchies evolving into monarchies as you suggest, you have to go _way_ back, to the fall of the Roman Empire (itself an example) and the origins of European monarchy in general. Latter day "legitimate" monarchies like the Sauds gained their legitimacy by being recognised by these monarchies or their offshoots. Then there's the confusing example of the Bonapartes who managed to become established _and_ fail at the same time.

    tl;dr, I don't think the North Korean ruling dynesty will be considered a legitimate royal family any time soon, simply because they don't want to be.

  5. Benjamin

    That wasn't really J.J.'s point. He's saying that hereditary rule is effectively monarchy even if the rulers aren't called kings.

  6. Dryhad

    Well in that case I don't see what three generations has to do with anything. It's a monarchy whether it "succeeds" by Machiavellian standards or not. Napoleon is a prime example.

  7. J.J. McCullough

    But "monarchy" by definition, is rule by a family. If only one family member can rule, then it's a failed monarchy, which is what I'd describe Napoleon's regime as. It'd be sort of like if America elected a Communist president. Would America suddenly be a Communist state? Not if the next president was a non-Communist. But say, if the next six presidents were all Communists too, you could start to make the case that the country had evolved into something different.

  8. Dryhad

    So then are you arguing that North Korea has evolved into something different? Because even if it has, I don't agree that it's evolved into the same thing as Saudi Arabia, and certainly not older monarchies, for the reasons I outlined in my first post. Maybe in a few centuries it will have, but I don't think mere stability is enough to justify such a classification.

  9. @ThePsudo

    It's good to see a new comic!

    It's not enough to make something of our lives. We have to figure out some way for it to continue, perhaps improve, after our deaths. For every Philip II of Macedon (Alexander the Great's father) there are a dozen Walton and Hilton kids. It's long odds.

  10. Miles Corak

    Thank you for making reference to the post on my blog about fathers and sons having the same employers. I should correct one misinterpretation. The study was based on Canadian data, and therefore the first line of your post should read "40% of Canadians" rather than "Americans".

  11. David

    Just one comment on the actual artwork of the cartoon and not the substance (my reply to Nitpicker up top covered it), putting "Haiti 1969" at the top corner infers that the rest of the cartoon is that – I can see why you did it (to identify the Duvaliers, who most readers wouldn't be able to identify by looks), but maybe putting other labels ("North Korea, 1996, 2011", "Iraq 19?? [or is it 20??]", Syria 19??" (no, I didn't look up any years), even though the players are more identifiable might lessen confusion, and even reinforce the point of the comic that this thing goes on and on over history in many places.

  12. bernt marius

    I like it. WELL WRITTEN.

  13. @Cristiona

    "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."

    Only 40%? That sounds like a number in decline as opposed to anything. Children working at their parents' job hardly sounds new.

  14. Yannick

    Solid comic/post this time. Thumbs up.

  15. guest

    JJ I know you have issues with Canada's relationship with the Windsors but there is a huge different between the dictators you are referring to and today's western monarchs.
    The Duvaliers, Kims, Assads et al are each autocrats. I can't think of any functional example of a western style monarch who is both head of state AND head of government. Any monarchical power is largely ceremonial and certainly heavily curtailed and delineated. Not so for the dictators. Western style monarchs rely upon the goodwill of their people and governments. Not so the dictators. Indeed, western style monarchs are frequently dictated to by their governments from everything from budget to rights to succession. Not so the dictators.
    The analogy will only stand up if the dictators genuinely hand over control of government and still keep their role as head of state.

  16. J.J. McCullough

    That was not my point at all. I was merely saying that it's a mistake to believe a kid will be as good as his father in ANY job, simply on the basis of the hereditary principle. So I think Charles will be a worse constitutional monarch than Elizabeth II and Kim Un will be a worst dictator than Kim Il and Howard Buffett will be a worse CEO than Warren. In all cases, the enterprise would almost certainly benefit from a meritocratically-chosen leader.

  17. Repliki zegarków

    The problem may be that Mr. Olmert is a career politician who was more or less had the role of wartime leader thrust upon him. Had General Sharon still been in charge things would likely have gone much different.

  18. iPhone 6 wallet case

    The iPad Air 2 is often described as the best tablet money can buy, but people also love the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 because it works like a laptop and runs full Windows software and it works like a tablet.