Nepotism has a bad name. No modern politician who openly avowed his nepotistic inclinations would stand much of a chance of election. “I intend to give as many important positions in government as possible to my children, my brothers, and my cousins” is certainly not a vote-winning formula. Yet nepotism, as Adam Bellow demonstrates in this long book, is rather like the poor: that is to say, it is with us always. The survival of nepotism in a democracy (or for that matter in a communist dictatorship) is often thought to be as surprising, paradoxical, or anomalous as the survival of poverty in the midst of plenty. It is nothing of the kind.

One way of thinking about the role of nepotism is to try to imagine a world from which it had been expunged entirely. Mr. Bellow does not try this thought experiment, but it confirms his view that nepotism is not merely or even mainly a force for evil, though in actual linguistic practice the word has no connotations other than bad ones. In such a world, supposedly “rational” parents would neither favor nor try to further the careers of their own offspring, for whom they would care no more, though also no less, than for all the other children in the world. They would not try to confer upon their offspring any special advantages, for example by educating or training them better than those of their neighbors. They would pull no strings on their behalf. There would be no inheritance of property and, presumably, much less accumulation of capital, since one powerful incentive for saving and self-enrichment is the hope of easing the path of one’s children through life. Family businesses would cease to exist, and every last position, such as delivery boy in a corner store, would be awarded on merit alone, and not on personal connection. (How would one decide which of several applicants for the post of delivery boy was in fact “objectively” the best one?) There would be a vast extension of impersonal bureaucracy: and life would become a perpetual civil service examination. This doesn’t sound like a recipe for bliss. On the contrary, without nepotism the prospects for liberty would be grim.

The history of the modern world is that of the extension in our lives of the realm of abstract principle. It is in the very nature of abstract principle to claim absolute sovereignty over all it surveys, for anything less seems like mere hypocrisy or opportunism. But—as Hume said—reason is the slave of the passions: there are rational ways to go about achieving one’s goals, but no rational ways of deciding what one’s goals should be, other than that they should be compatible with human nature.

While many politicians build their careers on demagoguery against unearned privilege (of which nepotism is a notable example), they almost always experience difficulty in living up to the universal abstract principles that they themselves have invoked to stir up the passions of others. For example, the British Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, heads a party that has long been ideologically opposed to selective education, whether the selection be by the wealth of the parents or the ability and intelligence of the children. It claims to believe that such education is undemocratic and socially divisive. That the abandonment of selection leads in practice not to the elevation of the lowest but to the debasement of the highest is of little concern to the party: equality, even if it be equality of ignorance, is preferable to any kind of social hierarchy.

Mr. Blair is only one of a succession of Labour politicians who have not been able to conform their personal lives to their alleged political principles. Early in his premiership, Mr. Blair was discovered to have sent his son to a selective school; later, he bought him an apartment for $400,000 so that he might spend his years at university in comfort and with an appreciating asset to his name. I think it true to say that ninety-nine out of a hundred British students are not bought such accommodation by their parents.

Would one have thought better or worse of Mr. Blair had he allowed his son to attend the local school, as the son would have done had he not had so influential a father, condemning him to a poor education when it was within his power to secure him a good one? Would it not have been a terrible thing, far worse than mere hypocrisy, for Mr. Blair to have sacrificed his own child on the altar of abstract principle, in the furtherance of his own career as a demagogue of supposedly iron principle? The nepotistic impulse preserved Mr. Blair from turning into a monster who lacked all natural feeling: instead, he was revealed merely as a fallible human being. (Other Labour politicians have resolved the dilemma of the egalitarian oligarch differently, incidentally: they have sent their children to the local school, and then hired private tutors.)

Mr. Blair’s fault was not in failing to live up to his anti-nepotistic principles, but in having chosen the wrong—because impossible—principles in the first place. Another fault was in not abandoning those principles in the light of his own practical difficulties with them, difficulties that a little self-examination would have shown him to be inevitable. His hypocrisy in this instance was, briefly, a virtue; but his continued intellectual and emotional dishonesty was (and is) a vice.

The conflict between abstract universal principle on the one hand and ineradicable personal feeling on the other is the theme of Mr. Bellow’s book, though he illustrates it not so much philosophically as historically. Slightly more than half the book is taken up with the history of nepotism in America, where the conflict has been particularly acute because—alone of all the nations of the world—America was founded upon anti-nepotistic philosophical principles. One of the reasons, after all, that America is subjected to so much hostile criticism by the intellectuals of the outside world is that the inevitable disjunction between its avowed fundamental principles and its actual practice is a ready-made stick with which to beat it. France might have its Liberté, égalité, fraternité, but no one criticizes France because it patently does not live up to its national mission statement: for everyone knows that the true glory of France lies elsewhere. The glory of America, by contrast, is in its philosophical founding: and if that philosophy is demonstrated to have been but a smokescreen for private interest and ambition, then the whole American enterprise is discredited.

If all men are created equal, why should any have the privileges of birth? This is a question that plagued the American republic from the outset, when it became clear that influence, like aristocratic titles, could be inherited.

Mr. Bellow answers that Americans have been cheerfully hypocritical about this, on the one hand denying that such hereditary influence exists, and asserting that everyone in America not only can but does rise by his own unaided and therefore meritorious efforts, and on the other hand trying to confer inherited advantage on their own offspring. In like fashion, I have met Americans who denied the existence of class in America (even as they were themselves being served in very grand surroundings by utterly obsequious servants), though to an outside observer it is perfectly obvious that America, like every other non-primitive society, has an extensive, pervasive, and subtly nuanced class system, which any amount of social mobility does not and cannot destroy.

I am not sure, however, that hypocrisy is quite the word for the simultaneous American rejection and acceptance of nepotism. Rather, it is symptomatic of an implicit and mature acceptance of the fact that political desiderata are not entirely compatible, and that no desideratum trumps all the others. Equality is desirable in so far as no one should be ascribed an unalterable status in life merely by virtue of his birth, and no legal obstacles should be placed in his way to prevent him from rising in the social scale. But equality should not so limit freedom that parents are unable to provide the best (which by definition is not available to everyone) for their children, for otherwise there would be little point in freedom. And yet again, parents should not be free to secure for their children the best positions and the exercise of power as of hereditary right.

America has handled this problem extremely well, probably better than anywhere else in the world, so that wealth and the privileges it brings are less resented there than in any other country. It has found a way in which the nepotistic impulse (which Mr. Bellow, taking a leaf from sociobiology’s book, believes is a biological constant) can be tied to social utility, rather than acting as a social barrier. In a market economy, after all, a family business has to compete: the mere fact that it is directed by a descendent of the founder will not guarantee its survival, let alone its growth. And in a country such as America with a democratic ethos and a visceral egalitarianism, the boss’s son feels he has to prove that he is not in his position because of his name alone, like a crown prince, but because of ability also. He has therefore to be not merely as good as the next man, but better. In American conditions, therefore, nepotism does not necessarily lead to degeneration, as it does where social status is by ascription alone, but can even lead to increased striving. There is therefore nothing to worry about that so many sons follow so many fathers into prestige professions.

It is hardly surprising that in a book as long as this, there should be a few errors. At one point, for example, George Washington dies in 1798; more importantly, Mr. Bellow ascribes the iron law of oligarchy to Marx or Marxism. Not only was this “law” adumbrated by the German sociologist Robert Michels and not by Marx, but it is very specifically non- or anti-Marxist in implication. Michels was saying that it was inevitable that any political party or bureaucracy would end up pursuing the interests of its leaders or senior employees: the “general interest” could never be served by any organization for any length of time, if at all. Marxists, by contrast, believed—whether naively, disingenuously or self-interestedly—not only that a party composed of themselves could serve the ultimate interest of all mankind (after the refractory elements had been eliminated), but that eventually a time would come when the need for any such organization would have ceased, because there would be no private interests to oppose the general interest. Michels’s views accord with human experience much better than Marx’s, of course; alas, his view of the inevitability of oligarchy was taken up with enthusiasm by the fascists (he himself died in Rome in 1936). The question for Michels and the fascists was not whether there should be an oligarchy, but which oligarchy there should be: and the answer came to them that—by happy coincidence—it should be us, because we are the best, strongest, most ruthless, biologically the most fitted, etc.

There are other problems with Mr. Bellow’s account. He does not really define nepotism very clearly, so that favoritism and cronyism come to be equated with it. But they are surely rather different phenomena, and cannot plausibly be accounted for by a biological mechanism such as that he invokes to explain the inevitability of nepotism.

The title of the book is slightly misleading. It would be in any case rather odd to praise something that you deem inevitable, unless you took it to be an example of the Almighty’s benign providence. No one would write, for example, in praise of solar eclipses. What Mr. Bellow praises is not nepotism as such, but the way in which it has been successfully channelled in America. In that sense, America has been a moral exemplar to the world, and its political arrangements the standard by which all other political arrangements are judged.

Mr. Bellow does not touch on nepotism in non-western societies, for example in Africa. Here too is a rich field for examining the conflict between the rhetoric of abstract principles, such as that which drove the anti-colonial movement, and the underlying personal, nepotistic, and tribal ambitions of the leaders of that movement. They spoke of freedom, and dreamt of power; they praised equality, and planned to loot. They conspired to eject not only the colonial masters, but also their own traditional leaders and chief, whose powers, on the whole, were circumscribed by social obligations. Unbridled nepotism was what the new generation of African leaders wanted, and what they got: unbridled nepotism tempered (but also renewed) by coup d’état. The American way is better.

No doubt the fact of being the son of so eminent a father (the novelist Saul Bellow) turned Mr. Bellow’s thoughts in the direction of nepotism: for how could he succeed at anything without the accusation of having been its beneficiary? The resulting volume is too long, and confirms my view that inside most long books there is a short book trying to get out; unusually, however, this book would have benefited from more rather than from less abstract argument. Nevertheless, and despite its sometimes questionable historical interpretations, it is a worthy attempt to make us think about a phenomenon that we all too easily dismiss as reprehensible, always and everywhere. We are led into error by a combination of laziness and received ideas. The book is an implicit argument in favor of that most important aspect, indeed precondition, of political wisdom: self-knowledge.

I look forward with eager anticipation to an accompanying volume by Mr. Bellow on the greatest of all social virtues, namely hypocrisy. Of course, I mean hypocrisy of the good, not the bad, kind.