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Mild Nepotism and the Illusion of Meritocracy

What do I have to do to get a review in The New York Times? More than a few frustrated authors have asked this question, posing it in some cases to their agents and and in others to a tumbler of whisky. There may be no a single answer. But it certainly helps to have famous name and the connections that often go along with it.

Even so, the extent of the coverage recently devoted to Nathaniel Rich has drawn attention. According to The Times‘s Public Editor Margaret Sullivan:

It’s beginning to feel like Nathaniel Rich Month at The Times. The author’s new novel was reviewed in the Arts section on April 10, then again in the Sunday Book Review on April 14. Mr. Rich also wrote an essay for the Sunday Book Review, with many references to that novel, “Odds Against Tomorrow.” In addition, the Editors’ Choice section of the Sunday Book Review listed Mr. Rich’s novel second on its list.

Back in January, Mr. Rich and his brother were also the subjects of a feature story about literary families. (His father is Frank Rich, the former Times columnist; his mother is Gail Winston, an executive editor at HarperCollins; his brother is a comedy writer, a novelist and a regular contributor to The New Yorker.)

This looks like a obvious case of nepotism. Tom Scocca explains, however, that there’s something more subtle and interesting going on. Rich’s book may be good (I haven’t read it). And, as the profile makes clear, he has evidently worked hard at his craft. But that’s not enough to explain Rich’s unusual success:

Relationships and knowledge are what the writing-and-culture business runs on. Some of it is cultural capital—knowing what to do and how to do it. Frank Rich’s children were exposed, at an early age, to the actual specific process of professional writing: deadlines, pitches, writing to length. Jewelers raise jewelers; plumbers raise plumbers. Cal Ripken Sr. and Bobby Bonds brought up their children around professional baseball. Johann Sebastian Bach produced musicians.

But some of it is social capital—who you know, and what they can do for you. People look out for the interests of people they know, even without anyone picking up a phone and telling them to. Disclosure: I was going to write about the profile of the Rich brothers when it first came out, for somewhere other than Gawker, but that place revoked the assignment because it didn’t want to be potentially unkind to Nathaniel Rich.

This isn’t the explicit favoritism of the old-fashioned Establishment, which often reward  pedigree rather than competence. Instead, it’s a very contemporary form of advantage that coexists with the meritocratic principles of the new elite. Under this regime, rewards are available for “achievers” of any background. But it just so happens that the children of people who are already successful know how to achieve the most–and whom to inform of their accomplishments.

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville coined the term “mild despotism” to describe the tutelary state that might replace monarchical tyranny. By the same token, we might describe as “mild nepotism” the informal networks of privilege that have replaced formal aristocracy.

Mild nepotism would not be a big deal if it were confined to publishing. But it’s also a fact of life in finance, academia, and the upper reaches of the legal world. These fields are open, in principle, to all. In practice, however, they are dominated by those who have been outfitted since childhood with the skills and contacts they’ll need to do well in the right schools, find the right jobs, and, when the time comes, to welcome others very much like themselves inside the magic circle.

It must be understood that all this will happen without any intention to play favorites. It’s only that there are so many impressive applications to consider, so many qualified candidates to interview, so many fine books to review. And unfortunately there’s space for just one…

We can acknowledge the reality of mild nepotism without endorsing coercive measures to end it. As Hayek argued, it would require a despotism of truly terrifying proportions to eliminate the cognitive, cultural, and social inequalities that emerge in any free society. But the attention lavished on Nathaniel Rich by The New York Times is an amusing and therefore useful reminder of the way that meritocracy functions as the legitimating myth of the modern ruling class. Do you think The New Yorker would run a piece on that? Can you give me the number of your friend who works there?


about the author

Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, where he has also taught writing. In addition to The American Conservative, Goldman’s work has appeared in The New Criterion, The Wall Street Journal, and Maximumrocknroll. Follow him on Twitter.

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