Nepotism. Profligate disease or the most productive system yet found for the regulation of society? Ask a member of our ruling elite and you may suprisingly find the latter. A few bitter old sods, like yours truly, may claim the former but we can be dismissed out of hand for being failings of the system, ingrates unwilling or unable to work with other people who recognise their qualities…

I remember when I was but a small child I thought the patron-client system of Rome, whilst an efficient method for social progression and interaction, was totally unsuited to the administration of the Empire. But then I thought of the need for the patrons to have clients they could be proud of, ones who would reflect well on them. Only the best clients would do, surely? The ones best suited for the positions on offer?

And my thoughts circled back on themselves. The best clients for what exactly? Administration of the nation, requistioning of military supplies, the running of the law courts maybe? Well, thought my puppy self, these are interesting tasks, but side servings to the main meal: the progression through the ranks. Friends dragging each other from success to success, the division of labour between the two of them producing more success than could ever be achieved alone. I’m talking about factionalising now, the formation of self-serving cliques with nothing in common but the recognition of a desire to suceed in the face of other factionalisers. The happy honest individual could stand no chance against this will to power.

So, I thought, this happy system could only lead to the sidelining of any persons with talents which did not tend to their self-success, and therefore to a less-efective government, and decline and fall: but, thinks I, this system happily did die with byzantium, in fact was conducive to the fall of that golden empire.

Then I get to my university and see through shlock-grimed eyes people advancing through a democratic system, not by the merit of their excellent minds so throughly suited to solving thorny problems (if that were the case Wilde’s saying about a 2:2 being the only respectable Oxford degree would have long fallen out of use), but by the shmooze. That is, no matter how repugnant your views, and no matter how imbecilic your character, you can ‘get by’ as long as you ‘get on’.

I looked back at my vapid memory of the history I’d read; back at Pericles, Charles I and his Buckingham, to our friends Pashmina and Mohair; and I realised, fool that I was, that that sickening system that kept one man ahead of another on the merit of his place in the gene pool and doubtless slowed progress by generations, had been extant through those long centuries and all our talk of advancement had been with it as a caveat: mankind burdened by a sack of smiling sloth…

Churchill is ruthlessly overquoted as saying something like “Democracy is the best of a whole lot of bad systems.” I wonder if that glutinous aristocrat also thought the same about the roundel of nepotism that is a modern political party: who you know and how readily you can smile, over what you know. (I’ll talk about the reptilian nature of local politics another time, as there’s only so much acid I can spit, vitriol I can swallow in one night. Age is making me an anarchist.) I wonder if he chewed on his fat stogie and said to himself sat in his bath of a lunchtime (whilst gentle war carried on without him):

“Hrmmph, yeerss, a bad system put me where I am, a man suited to the rant stuck in the position of ultimate power over 40 million people… but what better system can I see? Who chooses, who rules, in a meritocracy? Skill… there’s a word. One man may call me a great orator… another may label me an old windbag… are they both right? If they are a choice has to be made, and why not… what was it called..? Amoral Familism? At least I can be sure my son isn’t bloody awful…”

And the back of his hand would splash at his rubber duck pensively, his cigar would droop towards his silver-haired flaccid gut, he would carry on playing with his boats. And we are left with that, from our great war leader. Because there is no certainty about how good anyone is at something in most consumer-insensitive fields (like politics, accountancy or law) but yet a decision has to be made, why not this method of choosing which seems to eliminate the worst by social pressure and select for skills which might be useful, if not essential for the job.

What are those skills selected for by patronage/nepotism? Is there really a cororally between them and good powers of administration. These answers, I’ll leave up to you…

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